Beer’s Hottest Brands

Among its star brands, beer still shows torrid growth across the product spectrum.

Two Mexican imports from A-B InBev and MillerCoors—Estrella Jalisco (6-pack pictured) and Sol, respectively—were recognized as Hot Brands this year.
Two Mexican imports from A-B InBev and MillerCoors—Estrella Jalisco (6-pack pictured) and Sol, respectively—were recognized as Hot Brands this year.

Despite declining volume in the overall beer category, a number of brands—including industry mainstays as well as new entries—are enjoying strong growth. Impact’s latest crop of Beer “Hot Brands” runs the gamut from a decades-old import to a large-volume domestic light beer to emerging craft brews and RTDs. A total of 38 labels earned Hot Brand honors in the beer, cider, and RTD categories, including 22 products that had previously won the distinction. While 16 brands are new to the list, more than a dozen that were recognized in 2017 didn’t return last year, signifying how today’s beer and RTD consumers are continually demanding new, innovative products.

Hot Brand honors are awarded to established brands with double-digit growth in 2016, 2017, and 2018; established brands with at least 15% growth last year; brands among the top ten in their respective categories with at least 5% growth in 2018 and at least 15% growth since 2015; and significant new products. The list counts nine domestic beers, six imports, four ciders, and a notable 19 RTDs. Indeed, RTDs—which include alcoholic teas, lemonades, seltzers, and packaged cocktails—account for half of the Hot Brand winners. The first-time honorees include seven beers, one cider, and eight RTDs.

Top player Anheuser-Busch InBev (A-B InBev) has six Hot Brands, two more than in the previous year, while MillerCoors, with five awards, is one shy of its 2017 mark. Both Constellation Brands’ beer division and Mike’s Hard Beverage Co. receive four Hot Brands, while Diageo Beer Co. and Boston Beer Co. are recognized with three awards each.

Michelob Ultra surged 12% last year to 117.1 million (2.25-gallon) cases, up from 104.5 million cases in 2017, according to Impact Databank. The A-B InBev-owned ultra-light brew continues to resonate with drinkers focused on health and wellness. The franchise was expanded in 2018 with the introduction of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold. However, the brand is proving a bit of a liability for A-B InBev, as company executives concede that Ultra is cannibalizing sales of Bud Light, the top-selling beer in the U.S. The brewer’s Natty Daddy—an amped-up version of Natural Light with an abv of 8%—was named a Hot Brand for the first time as volume jumped 40% to 8.3 million cases. Meanwhile, Keystone Ice—which had previously been named a Hot Brand but had dropped off the list—was MillerCoors’ sole domestic brew to make the 2018 roster, seeing its volume surge 33% to 5.5 million cases.

The remaining six domestic beer Hot Brands are craft brews, including four 2017 returnees. Sales of Founders Brewing Co.’s All Day IPA jumped 21% last year to 4.5 million cases. “All Day is evolving; in the past year, we’ve put more emphasis on brand-building,” company co-founder Mike Stevens says, noting the brand’s “Chase Your What If” ad campaign, which appears on Hulu and in targeted print advertising. Priced at an aggressive $18 a 15-pack of 12-ounce cans, All Day is the Michigan brewery’s top-selling label, and in 2019 its 19.2-ounce cans are receiving a big push.

Sales of Founders Brewing Co.’s All Day IPA (15-pack pictured) jumped 21% last year to 4.5 million cases.
Sales of Founders Brewing Co.’s All Day IPA (15-pack pictured) jumped 21% last year to 4.5 million cases.

Other returnees included Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s 805 Blonde Ale, New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA, and Kona Brewing Co.’s Big Wave golden ale, which has emerged as a strong growth-driver for the company. Looking to further stoke momentum, earlier this year Kona parent company Craft Brew Alliance launched its first-ever national television campaign for the brand. Craft beers that were named Hot Brands for the first time this year include Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Hazy Little Thing—which has emerged as a lead brand in the hazy IPA sub-segment—and Boston Beer Co.’s Sam ’76.

All six of the imported beer Hot Brands on the list hail from Mexico, with four of those entrants garnering the honor for the first time. But the heavyweight among them—and the largest volume brew among all beer Hot Brands—is Modelo Especial, with a 15% increase last year to 112 million cases, up from 98 million cases in 2017. This marked the 25th consecutive year Modelo Especial has been named a Hot Brand, a status that no other beer, wine, or spirits brand can claim. According to Greg Gallagher, vice president of brand marketing for Casa Modelo at Constellation Brands, much of the brew’s growth has been due to increased distribution. “We’ve seen success by bringing Modelo from primarily Hispanic accounts into general market accounts,” he says.

Three additional Mexican brews imported by Constellation joined Modelo Especial. The richly flavored lager-style Corona Familiar and the low-calorie, low-carbohydrate Corona Premier both made their inaugural appearances, as the Corona franchise returned to the beer Hot Brands list (Corona Extra and Corona Light last appeared in 2016). “Corona Familiar has been able to authentically connect Hispanics with their roots by tapping into consumers’ tradition and desire to share this brand with family and friends,” says Ann Legan, vice president of brand marketing for Corona Brands. “And Corona Premier has ample runway for growth, as it’s sourcing much of its volume from domestic light beers.” In addition, Constellation’s Pacifico is a Hot Brand returnee, with growth driven by its first national advertising campaign, “Live Life Anchors Up.” According to Alex Schultz, senior director of brand marketing for Pacifico at Constellation, “This investment has increased distribution and brought new consumers to the brand.”

Two Mexican imports from A-B InBev and MillerCoors—Estrella Jalisco and Sol, respectively—were also recognized. “We’ve activated really well on Estrella with partnerships relevant to a Mexican-American audience,” says Yonathan Bendesky, senior brand director of Mexican imports at A-B InBev. Sol, a recent addition to the MillerCoors portfolio from Heineken USA, has benefited from new packaging and marketing, according to the company.

Cider also features several fast-growing brands. Bold Rock Hard Cider, California Cider Co.’s Ace Cider, and 2 Towns Ciderhouse all returned as Hot Brands in 2018. But the real news was the rocketing of Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard Rosé cider to 2.1 million cases in its first year.

old Rock Hard Cider, California Cider Co.’s Ace Cider (6-pack pictured), and 2 Towns Ciderhouse all returned as Hot Brands in 2018.
old Rock Hard Cider, California Cider Co.’s Ace Cider (6-pack pictured), and 2 Towns Ciderhouse all returned as Hot Brands in 2018.

Seltzers And Cocktails Drive RTDs

RTDs made a huge splash last year, as exemplified by the 19 labels that were named Hot Brands. Combined, the group saw volume surge more than 45% from the year prior. Nearly half of the RTDs on the list received Hot Brand honors for the first time. Boston Beer’s Twisted Tea kept its spot at the top of the heap, while portfoliomate Truly Spiked & Sparkling rose nearly 50% to almost 5 million cases. White Claw, from Mike’s Hard Lemonade Co., became the top-selling seltzer at 5.8 million cases in 2018. The company had three more RTDS on the list: Mike’s Harder, Cayman Jack’s bottled cocktails, and the new 12% abv MXD canned cocktails.

In addition to the top two seltzer brands, A-B InBev’s Bon & Viv spiked seltzer and Henry’s Hard sparkling water from MillerCoors were recognized. Chelsea Phillips, vice president of Beyond Beer Brands at A-B InBev, attributes Bon & Viv’s performance last year to its “Follow Your Siren” ad campaign and new flavors. The other A-B InBev and MillerCoors Hot Brands were all new entries—A-B InBev’s 8% abv Natty Rush and Bud Light Lime Water-Melon-Rita, and MillerCoors’ Arnold Palmer Spiked and Steel Reserve Alloy Series Spiked Blue Razz.

Diageo Beer’s Hot Brands were all Smirnoff products. The 8% abv Smirnoff Ice Smash achieved widespread distribution last year, according to Krista Kiisk, brand director for flavored malt beverages at Diageo. Meanwhile, Smirnoff Spiked sparkling seltzer benefited from rising consumer demand for products with no sugar. “The fact that Smirnoff Spiked has zero sugar is a point of difference from other options in the category,” Kiisk says. The summer seasonal Smirnoff Ice Red, White & Berry was also recognized as a Hot Brand.

Finally, a number of RTD Hot Brands continue to capitalize on the popularity of pre-made cocktails. Returnees include Fifco USA’s Seagram’s Escapes, Geloso Beverage Group’s Clubtails, and Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails. Geloso’s 12% abv Johny Bootlegger, meanwhile, was named to the list for the first time.