Coors Light Beats Bud For No. 2 Beer Brand

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Coors Light and its Silver Bullet just took out Budweiser.

Coors has had its eye on Budweiser's No. 2 ranking among beer brands for just about a decade. In 2011, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, MolsonCoors' ( TAP) Silver Bullet finally took the silver medal by surpassing Bud at the taps and in the packaged goods aisles. Anheuser-Busch Inbev ( BUD) still has the top brand in the beer coolers, Bud Light, but this is the first time since 1993 that A-B doesn't occupy the Top 2.

Give MolsonCoors a lot of credit on this one. At a time when overall U.S. beer sales have been in consistent decline and MolsonCoors sales have been off by as much as 3%, Coors Light sales have just kept climbing. Coors Light improved sales by only 0.8% last year and 1% or less in the past three, but its presence has grown 9% in the past five years.

Contrast that with the 29% sales decline posted by Bud over the same period. Let's put it this way: Bud sales declined 4.6% in 2011 and that was considered an improvement -- it was the smallest loss Bud has recorded in a long time. In the bigger picture, however, bud has lost more than 60% of its sales since its 50-million-barrel peak in 1988. That year, Budweiser accounted for more than 25% of all beer sales in the U.S.

To put that in perspective, Budweiser once had market share close to that now held by all Miller and Coors brands combined (29%).

This has to be skunking the six-packs in A-B's North American offices just a bit. A-B's battle with MolsonCoors is big busines, with A-B accounting for about 48% of the U.S. market and MolsonCoors hanging on to about 29%. Each is facing pressure from growing brands such as Crown Imports' Corona, Diageo's ( DEO) Guinness and Boston Beer's ( SAM) Samuel Adams, but their biggest targets are still each other.

Football fans are well aware of this. A-B spent more than $1 billion to wrest the NFL's official beer sponsorship away from MolsonCoors last year and has spent millions more buying up tickets to keep games on TV in markets such as Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. Super Bowl ads are going for $3.5 million to $4 million for a 30-second spot this year. A-B is expected to buy four minutes or more of those ads to debut Bud Light Platinum and push existing brands. From 2001 through 2010, A-B spent $235 million on Super Bowl ads alone.

A-B can still argue that Bud's No. 2. Market research firm SymphonyIRI Group notes that Budweiser sales decreased 1.9%, to $2.1 billion, for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 25, while Coors Light sales increased 3.7%, to $1.9 billion. That conveniently excludes sales at discount stores such as Wal-Mart ( WMT), club stores such as Costco ( CSCO) and all liquor stores.

Regardless of positioning, neither brewer should be buying rounds any time soon. A-B shipped fewer than 100 million barrels last year for its lowest production in more than a decade. MillerCoors sales weren't such great shakes, either, with production of less than 60 million barrels limboing under a low bar set way back in 1989. Coors will enjoy Coors Light's Rocky Mountain high, but it comes at a low point for Big Beer.

-- 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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