America’s industrial breweries have seen better days. Sales of domestic beers have plateaued and even started to show signs of declining. Worse for Big Beer, it seems the new generation of drinkers prefers bottom-shelf value beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon over ostensibly “premium” brews like Budweiser. Using brand alone to differentiate nearly identical light lagers isn’t working anymore.
Meanwhile, craft beer—a category famous for its obsession with hops, bearded hobbyists, and esoteric style varieties—is eating into industry giants’ market share. Craft breweries are growing quickly and now produce nearly 8 percent of the beer consumed in the U.S. While the definition of “craft beer” remains nebulous (and continually gets redefined to include ever-larger operations), it effectively refers to breweries that focus on styles other than light lagers and emphasize flavor and ingredients rather than price or brand marketing. It’s not hard to see how this has succeeded: In an industry built on nearly identical products, the merest hint of innovation has gone a long way.
What’s a major beer producer to do in the face of strong market headwinds? In recent years, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have launched, at extremely high cost, a variety of new brands and labels, including Bud Light Platinum, the ostensibly bourbon-flavored Miller Fortune, and Budweiser’s Black Crown line. But these new spins on the same old lager aren’t converting twentysomethings who would rather drink PBR or Lagunitas IPA (or wine or spirits, for that matter). According to AB InBev’s most recent quarterly report, Black Crown struggled so much that a companywide 0.4 percent market share decline was “due primarily to the cycling of Budweiser Black Crown launch volumes.” Bud Light Platinum similarly burned out rapidly after a strong launch. It’s too early to know for sure what will happen with “undistilled” and “spirited” Miller Fortune, but it is worth noting that MillerCoors fired its primary ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, within months of launching an ad campaign in which a mysterious British man encourages young professionals to drink Fortune and stay out late. If you need to persuade young people to drink beer and stay out late, something is going very wrong.
Luckily, there’s a big opening for Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to push back against the inroads of craft beer as well as the more existential threats posed by wine and spirits. That’s because there are a few styles of craft beer that are beloved by connoisseurs but have specific production issues that make it difficult or impossible for craft brewers to produce enough of them to meet the potential demand. Even better, these styles don’t just appeal to beer snobs—they have the flavor potential to appeal to casual beer drinkers as well as wine and cocktail lovers. If any executives at Budweiser and Miller are smart enough to see the opportunity, tart saisons, bourbon-barrel strong ales, and tropical New Zealand pale ales are free for the taking.
Belgian beer has already provided the beer industry with one of its few legitimate breakout hits of the last 20 years: Blue Moon from Coors, inspired by the Belgian witbier style. The tart saison is a more obscure style of Belgian beer, and it could become a go-to lower-alcohol beverage for wine and champagne drinkers looking for a lighter quaff on warm summer days. A classic tart saison (or its sister style, the grisette) can be produced in about the same amount of time as a lager and deliver a crisp mouthfeel with a lightly sour and white wine–like flavor. It’s refreshing and complex, yet can deliver as little as 4 percent alcohol by volume, roughly equal to a Bud Light.
So what’s stopping craft breweries from putting out tart saisons by the truckfull? The style incorporates ingredients that make most small-scale brewers nervous: wine yeast; souring lactic-acid producing bacteria (many of the same kinds used in yogurt); and brettanomyces, a rogue yeast strain that will eat every available sugar it can find, give off funky flavors, and occasionally cause bottles to explode if it’s handled incorrectly. Because of the flavor problems these wild microbes can cause in conventional beers, few American craft brewers make tart saisons, and those that do, like Hill Farmstead in Vermont, tend to release them only at the brewery in limited supply at high price points.
For Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors, however, it would be relatively trivial to convert an entire facility to making nothing but saisons and ensure great supply at low prices. In 2011, Anheuser-Busch acquired Goose Island in Chicago, which makes a fine saison called Sofie, but prices have not fallen since the acquisition, in part because they’re still making it at the tiny Goose Island production facility. Move production of Sofie (and that of its delicious fruit-laden siblings Halia, Lolita, and Madame Rose) to an industrial brewery to drop the price, and Anheuser-Busch is practically guaranteed to earn more respect from saison snobs and begin to win the interest of wine drinkers.*