Bud Light Platinum Not So Crafty: Today's Outrage

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Bud Light Platinum may have 6% alcohol, a sweetened flavor and that all-important "light" marketing term in the name, but it's a craft beer in the same way a V6 Hyundai Genesis is a performance car.

If the American beer drinker wasn't getting it before, he or she should well understand by now that Anheuser-Busch Inbev ( BUD) and MillerCoors ( TAP) are going to do anything they can to slap that Samuel Adams ( SAM), Redhook ( HOOK), Sierra Nevada, Three Floyds or any other big or small craft beer out of his or her hand and replace it with their own mass-produced product. Who can blame them? The two companies accounted for 66.8% of beer shipments in the U.S. last year, but each saw their volume drop by 3% during that same span, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.
Bud Light Platinum is just another flat Anheuser-Busch attempt to cash in on the craft beer market.

Meanwhile, Corona importer crown saw its shipments rise 3.3% and Guinness importer Diageo ( DEO) put out 3.9% more product than it did in 2009. Of greater concern to the big brewers, however, is the 11% growth of craft beer last year that's spilled into 2011. A-B saw sales drop 3% last quarter, but the Brewers Association craft beer group says craft brewers watched their sales foam up by 15% in the first half of the year.

This makes A-B's push for Bud Light Platinum understandable, but no less offensive to a drinking public that's seen this before. Back in 1997, A-B decided to use its Michelob brand to parry the larger lines offered by craft brewers such as Boston Beer and released a pale ale, honey lager, marzen, pumpkin ale, bourbon cask ale and amber bock. Just four years ago, it tried the Michelob gambit again by not only launching and relaunching pale ale, marzen, porter and Bavarian wheat varieties, but creating a multimedia campaign that mimicked Samuel Adams' videos and commercials as much as Michelob's lineup aped its beer selection.

When that didn't work, A-B tweaked its flagship Budweiser brand in 2008 to include Budweiser American Ale, an American amber ale brewed with cascade hops and featuring modestly more alcohol per volume (5.3%) than the average can of Bud (5%). Critical reception wasn't overly enthusiastic, but surprisingly BeerAdvocate gave it a "worthy" B- rating while RateBeer gave it a tough 25 out of 100.

When that didn't keep Bud on the taps in craft beer bars, A-B followed in up in 2009 with Bud Light Golden Wheat. A lighter, watered-down take on witbier, Golden Wheat was a step in the right direction, but not punchy enough to hang with Allagash White, Dogfish Head Namaste, St. Bernardus Wit or even Coors' Blue Moon.

The most glaringly obvious play for the craft consumer's attention came earlier this year, when A-B bought Goose Island Brewery parent company Fulton Street Brewing from A-B's distribution partner Craft Brewers Alliance for $38.8 million. Much like MillerCoors uses the Leinenkugel's line as its craft costume, Goose Island drinkers are now basically having a Bud every time they hoist a 312 Urban Wheat or Honkers Ale.

Everyone at the bar realizes the big brewers are fighting a pitched battle for beer drinkers' expanding palates, but A-B doesn't have to be nearly this patronizing to get the job done. They've already created a beer with crossover craft appeal and they did so not by trying to play craft brewers' game, but by sticking to their own playbook and beating back a big beer rival. That beer is called Shock Top and though fairly mild for a Belgian White, it holds its own with Blue Moon and draws a big-brew crowd to an unquestionably craft flavor.

A-B has even expanded the Shock Top line to include pumpkin wheat and raspberry wheat varieties and in doing so may have uncovered an important niche -- casual beer drinkers who don't often stray from low octane lagers, but are swayed by the occasional seasonal fruit beer. Coors has taken a similar approach with its Blue Moon brand, which makes MillerCoors' and A-B's craft buyouts seem not only silly, but slightly redundant.

Bud Light Platinum, which isn't even a light beer at nearly 140 calories, looks similarly ill-conceived by comparison. Instead of springing annual gimmicks on a skeptical public each year in an attempt to crush the craft competition, A-B might want to consider sticking to its strengths, duplicating its successes and maximizing the advantage of its sprawling distribution network by filling in with better product.

Craft beer drinkers aren't into their beer for the novelty, but for the quality -- which hasn't exactly been platinum-level among the big brewers' quantity-driven beers.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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