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Big Beer's Nosedive Continues, but Michelob Ultra Is Ascending into the Stratosphere

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We’re plenty late in reporting this particular news, but it really bears repeating. Although the country’s biggest light beer brands remain more or less in perpetual sales freefall in their home U.S. market, slowly bleeding out year over year, something rather incredible is happening with one in particular: Michelob Ultra. In a landscape that has most of the companies we’d identify as “Big Beer” scrambling to diversify into non-beer holdings such as hard seltzer, and slapping band-aids on light beer brands that continue to decline, Mich Ultra stands out as a true outlier of a success story. Despite the beer itself being barely any different from some of its closest competitors—more on that in a second—it has managed to latch onto a tidal wave of popular sentiment, and ride it to brand new territory of cultural prominence.

None of this is new information—Mich Ultra has been growing for years, and people have been writing about its ascent for years. But it’s one thing to predict a brand like Michelob Ultra ascending to the rank of #2 or #3 in America, and quite another to actually see it happening. In 2019, this brand is overturning a long-established hierarchy in the beer world, and making it look easy.

For years, the top four beers in America have been some combination of the following: Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light and Miller Lite. As sales of “Bud Heavy” have continued to display all the buoyancy of a lead balloon, it has slowly slipped from its perennial #2 position, being passed by the other, competing “lights” from Coors and Miller, even though their sales have also been in decline. As of the end of 2018, it was in the #4 hole, but coming up right behind it? Michelob Ultra, which as of the end of 2018 passed Corona to become the country’s #5 largest beer brand.

That’s already plenty impressive, but the 2019 numbers are even more outlandishly positive for Mich Ultra. In fact, according to AB InBev’s Q1 report, Michelob Ultra has tacked on so much more volume—combined with the continued U.S. decline of every other brand in the top 5—that it sold more beer in the first portion of 2019 than Miller Lite did. Assuming this continues, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t, it would mean that AB InBev has taken the #3 spot away from Miller’s flagship product, signaling a changing of the guard in what we can consider the biggest beer brands in the U.S. Obviously, this is incredibly positive news for AB InBev. Bryan Roth of Good Beer Hunting elucidates a bit here.

The irony, of course, is that Michelob Ultra, aimed as a “lifestyle” brand at physically active people, runners and health-conscious millennials, is swiping some of these dollars from a brand like Miller Lite, which for all intents and purposes is almost the same damn thing in terms of nutritional content. In fact, they’re almost exactly even: Mich Ultra has a much-publicized 95 calories and 2.6 grams of carbs, while Miller Lite has 96 calories and 3.2 grams of carbs—significantly lighter than either Bud Light or Coors Light. And hell, our own blind tasting showed that Miller Lite beat it out in the flavor department as well. But despite the upswell for Michelob Ultra clearly illustrating that there’s a huge market for those craving low-calorie, low-carb offerings, brands like Miller Lite haven’t been able to sell themselves to the same market, or communicate their own similarity. It must be a maddening task.

Regardless, this is a big moment for the beer industry as a whole—a coronation, as Mich Ultra enters a whole new tier among its competition. How high can it rise? At this point, it seems like the sky is truly the limit.

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