I've waited long enough to say something about the Ultra
phenomenon. Plenty of words were spilled over the malternatives,
lunatic predictions of how they would open a new market and siphon off
sales from beer, mad rants of how they were aimed at creating
boozehounds out of our children -- SAVE THE CHILDREN!!! -- or
stealth modes of advertising "hard liquor" brands that were
forbidden to advertise on TV (they're not, by the way; spirits companies
voluntarily stopped advertising on TV), and shrill tirades from beer
geeks about disgusting developments and stolen shelf space (as if craft
breweries had some God-given right to shelf space -- grow up).
It was all sound and fury, signifying next to nothing. While
we ranted and raved, the market tried them, weighed them, largely found
them wanting (what a shock...), and moved on. Smirnoff Ice is still
around, and Bacardi O3, and some Skyy, but they're a yawner. They're
over. They're not worth my time, or yours.
I don't think Ultra is going to go away. Michelob Ultra is a
phenomenon that looks to have some serious legs, propelled by the
"stuff your fat guts with bacon and somehow lose weight"
Atkins Diet and the "bet Atkins wishes they had a trendy name
like" South Beach Diet. These diets are having a significant impact
on American food sales: bread sales are down, orange juice sales are
down, and beef sales looked at the mad cow disease "shock me"
TV news and just laughed. Is it any surprise that the sales of what one
local radio ad referred to as "the ultimate carb -- beer" are
affected as well?
Beer sales were down last year, and it's been laid off to
beer's "image," to the wickedly cold winter in the East, to
sunspots...anything but Atkins, because that would give beer wholesalers
nightmares and pains in their tum-tums. Sorry, folks, but sales of
spirits and wine were up last year while beer was significantly down,
and I cannot think of any combination of familiar factors that would
produce that in a demographic era of rising numbers of newly legal age
drinkers. Spirits may be up because of the boomers getting older
and moving into that traditionally older mode of booze intake, but if
you're trying to tell me a "cocktail culture" is settling in;
please, I beat that drum three years ago, and it wasn't right then,
either. I'm starting to think most people are just too stupid to
appreciate a good cocktail.
It's carbs, and low-carb diets. And beer, God help us, is Carb
Central. It's made from grain, and even nutritionists who hate
the Atkins Diet with self-righteous meat-loathing fury are quick to
point out that beer is based on sugars and full of carbohydrates.
"Beer," goes their favorite shibboleth, "is empty
calories," a condemnation they also hang on apple juice.
Enter Ultra, the great low-carb hope. Anheuser-Busch has
finally achieved their dream. They've got a new product, they're first
in the segment, it's hitting right at the crest of a consumer trend, and
it's selling at a huge profit. A-B's played catch-up for years, and it's
an expensive game. They thought light beer was crazy, and when they
finally gave in, it took them billions to catch and pass Miller Lite.
They didn't move fast enough to profit from the pan-flashes of ice and
dry beers, they were just getting cranked up when the bottom fell out.
But someone moved fast and smart with Ultra. Not only did they
field the first proclaimed low-carb beer, they did it with their
Michelob brand, a brand that still retains some high-price cachet. Now
they're way out in front of the pack, and nothing SAB/Miller or
Coors can do will change that. The best they can hope to do is pick up
small chunks of a market segment Ultra dominates.
As my aunt says, well, barf. Speaking as someone who actually likes
beer, they can all take their market segment to the
loneliest corner of Hell and play "Is Your Butt Burning in the
Brimstone Yet?" Have you had Ultra? If not, I don't ever
want to hear you talking about how great you think my job is: I had
to drink Ultra. It's not vile, it's...puzzling. It tasted like
someone had poured seltzer into a glass that had about an inch of light
beer left in it. Ultra is barely recognizable as beer: it is
whisperingly pale, has very little flavor, and has all the body of
Johnny Depp in the moonlight.
But everywhere I go, people are buying it as if it were the Elixir
of Immortality! I was in a good multi-tap recently, plenty of great
local beers and imports on, and half the people in the joint were
drinking bottles of Ultra. Good God, my own Uncle Don was drinking it
when we were in the mountains back
in December. He ordered it, I stared at him, and he shrugged. "I
have to," he said. "I have to keep my carbs down." I
didn't know what to say, so I didn't. You don't lecture a guy who taught
you how to drink.
Why are they drinking it? Carbs? They'll tell you, "It's
only got 2.6 grams of carbs!" As if any of these guys actually know
what a gram is! (Okay, Don's an engineer, he does.) Miller Lite
squeals about how they've got "flavor" and only 3.2 grams of
carbs: the difference, they say, is a pretzel.
Wake-up call, people! If you're buying into the whole
"grams of carbs" argument and actually counting the damned
things, you need to take a look at why you're drinking beer, and
you need to do it now. Because if you're serious about Atkins or
South Beach, you should not be drinking beer at all. If you figure the
diet can go to hell, you're having a beer... why in the name of
all that's tasty are you having an Ultra? So you can have a few more of
these watery beers that you can't taste anyway? Friend, at this point
you're either drinking so you've got something to do at the bar -- and
you might as well have a Diet Coke -- or you're an alcoholic who's just
not trying hard enough.
I don't think Ultra will outlast the Atkins Diet by more than six
months. And maybe the Atkins Diet has already jumped the shark; the
Atkins medical records of Atkins were pretty gruesome, true or not. But
A-B saw the population paying top dollar for something that has a lot
less stuff in it. They won't forget that.
I wish I could. It's bugging me. Because I just don't
understand why anyone would pay a premium to drink a beer that has less
flavor than watered-down Coors Light.
Well, one good thing: Smirnoff Ice has 32 grams of carbs.
Spread the word, and maybe we can at least put a stake in the heart of that