While overall U.S. beer volumes continue to falter, some brands are making rapid gains, with just over three-dozen labels from the beer, cider, seltzer, and RTD categories earning Impact “Hot Brand” honors this year. Moreover, nearly all the award winners are priced at a premium-and-above level. Indeed, the 37 Hot Brands for 2019 signal that despite the challenging environment for the beer industry, products that respond to the continuing demand for innovation and authenticity still resonate. Almost two-thirds of this year’s Hot Brand winners are RTDs—primarily malt-based flavored beverages with an abv generally below 10%—including several skyrocketing labels from the hard seltzer category, which continues to redefine itself. Among imported beers, Mexico once again dominates the list, while the domestic winners were limited to craft brews with just one notable exception.
Hot Brand honors are awarded to established brands with double-digit growth in 2017, 2018, and 2019; established brands with at least 15% growth last year; brands among the top ten in their respective categories with at least 5% growth in 2019 and at least 15% growth since 2016; and significant new products. RTDs comprised 23 of the honorees, while six were domestic beers, six were imports, and two were ciders. Ten labels were named Hot Brands for the first time, while 11 brands named to the list in 2018 dropped off.
Molson Coors Beverage Co. landed the highest number of Hot Brands in 2019 at six, while Constellation Brands’ beer division, Mike’s Hard Beverage Co., and Anheuser-Busch InBev (A-B InBev) each fielded five labels. Diageo Beer Co. USA both earned four Hot Brands awards in 2019, and Boston Beer Co. and Geloso Beverage Group had two winners each.
Mexican Brews Dominate
On a combined volume basis, the imported Hot Brands are far larger than the domestics, RTDs, and ciders; the six imports accounted for 158.3 million (2.25-gallon) cases, according to Impact Databank. The lion’s share of that volume, some 126.9 million cases, came from Constellation Brands perennial Hot Brand winner Modelo Especial, now the top-selling imported beer in the country. The Mexican brand—which has been named a Hot Brand for a remarkable 26 years in a row—saw growth accelerate last year to a rate of 15%, with some 16.8 million cases added. Greg Gallagher, vice president of brand marketing for Casa Modelo at Constellation, attributes the gain to continued distribution into general market accounts, which builds on its Latino-focused strongholds, as well as the brand’s “Fighting Spirit” advertising and marketing campaign. “In 2019, we made our biggest-ever investment in marketing support behind Modelo,” he says, adding that in the two years since the campaign was unveiled, “we’ve seen an incredible 50% increase in general market drinkers.” Sibling Modelo Especial Chelada was named to the Hot Brands list for the first time in 2019 as volume surged 32%.
Constellation Brands’ Pacifico also retained Hot Brand status as volume jumped 11% last year to 10.9 million cases, nearly double its rate from 2018. According to Alex Schultz, senior director of brand marketing, Pacifico also benefited from its “Live Life Anchors Up” marketing campaign, as the program “brought new consumers to Pacifico and helped increase distribution.” The Corona franchise, meanwhile, had two Hot Brand winners—Corona Premier and the Corona Refresca RTD. Ann Legan, vice president of brand marketing for the Corona brand family, says the launch of Corona Premier on draft contributed to the brand’s strong performance last year. Corona Refresca rolled out nationally in March 2019 and, according to Legan, gained strong distribution and velocity.
The Sol brand from Molson Coors was another Mexican import named to the list. The brand—including Sol Chelada, launched in February 2019—surged 41% to 2.2 million cases. Sol was buttressed by the rollout of 12-packs of 12-ounce cans, as well as enhancement of its “Shine Your Way” ad campaign. The final import, Molson Coors’ Italian beer Peroni, debuted on the Hot Brands list as volume jumped 66%.
The ranks of RTD labels on the Hot Brands list swelled in 2019, reaching 23, compared to 19 in 2018. The near two-dozen brands combined for an incredible 88% volume gain, with several of the honorees seeing volume at least double last year. Of course, skyrocketing hard seltzers accounted for much of the volume gain, but other RTDs— such as hard lemonades and iced teas, as well as cocktail-inspired drinks—also turned in strong performances.
The White Claw phenomenon continued as 2019 volume—more than 47 million cases—was four times that of the year prior. Indeed, the 36.4 million cases White Claw added last year was more than double the volume picked up by Modelo Especial. White Claw variety packs are a big driver for the hard seltzer brand, and earlier this year, Flavor Collection No. 2 was unveiled, featuring three new expressions. Marketed by Mike’s Hard Beverage Co., White Claw was joined on the honor roll by sister Hot Brands Mike’s Harder, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Cayman Jack, and MXD.
Boston Beer’s Truly, the No.-2 hard seltzer, also surged in 2019, with volume nearly tripling to 22.9 million cases. Remarkably, Truly and White Claw added a combined 51 million cases of volume last year—a number that nearly equates to total sales for the Heineken brand in the U.S. “With innovation at our core, we believe that our continued effort to improve our product, as well as develop the flavors our drinkers want, will result in continued great growth for Truly,” says Boston Beer CEO and president Dave Burwick. The company’s Twisted Tea was also again recognized as a Hot Brand.
Several of Diageo Beer Co.’s Smirnoff-branded RTDs earn Hot Brand status in 2019, including two Smirnoff Ice variants: Smash, and Red, White & Berry. Smirnoff Ice Smash soared 73% to nearly 3 million cases. Smirnoff brand director Krista Kiisk attributes the performance to “its unique duality of flavor and higher abv.” Diageo’s hard seltzer entry, Smirnoff Seltzer, surged 61% to 2.5 million cases, and according to Kiisk, the label benefited from innovations including its Four Ways to Rosé pack and Piña Colada flavor. A limited release of Smirnoff Seltzer Red, White & Berry recently launched.
Other marketers with multiple RTDs recognized included A-B InBev with Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer, Rita’s Spritz, and Natural Light Seltzer; Molson Coors with Arnold Palmer Spiked, Cape Line, Steel Reserve Alloy Series Spiked Tropic Storm, and Henry’s Hard Sparkling Water; and Geloso Beverage with its Clubtails and Johny Bootlegger brands. “Our consistent investment in these brands has translated into a significant value-add for us and our distributor partners,” says Geloso vice president of U.S. sales Paul René. Fifco USA-owned Seagram’s Escapes joined the Hot Brands list again this year, with 5.6% growth to 9.2 million cases.
The largest volume brand among the three-dozen Hot Brands in 2019 continued to be A-B InBev’s Michelob Ultra, the fifth-largest beer in the U.S. overall. According to Impact Databank, the brand’s rate of growth quickened last year as volume jumped 14% to 133 million cases from 117 million cases in 2018, a gain of 15.8 million cases. One of the only two domestic beers by a non-craft brewer to be recognized as a Hot Brand, Michelob Ultra continues to resonate with active, health-conscious beer consumers.
Interestingly, the remaining five domestic beers named to the list—all marketed by craft brewers—represent a range of styles. Firestone Walker’s 805 blonde ale returned as volume increased 11% to 4.9 million cases. Fellow California brewery Sierra Nevada also saw the return of its Hazy Little Thing IPA, which registered a near-doubling in volume to 2.9 million cases. The growth rate for New Belgium Brewing’s Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA, meanwhile, tripled in 2019 as volume rose to 2 million cases, a gain of 60%. Craft Brew Alliance’s Kona Big Wave golden ale also returned as a Hot Brand, with a 17% gain in volume to 2.6 million cases; Craft Brew Alliance was fully acquired by A-B InBev in November 2019. And new to the list last year was D.G. Yuengling & Sons’ Yuengling Golden Pilsner, at 1.2 million cases.