Best In Beer

Imports remain on top for Impact’s Beer Hot Brands in 2021.

The overriding trends for the U.S. malt beverage business in 2021 are exemplified in this year’s roster of Impact “Hot Brands” for beer, cider, and flavored malt beverages. Including the hard seltzer segment, flavored malt beverages (FMBs) outnumber other categories on the list, but it’s imported beer that dominates when it comes to volume. And with just one exception, all of the list’s domestic beer Hot Brands were made by craft brewers. 

Hot Brand honors are awarded to established brands that posted double-digit growth in 2019, 2020, and 2021; established brands with at least 15% growth last year; brands among the top ten in their respective categories with at least 5% growth in 2021 and at least 15% growth since 2018; and significant new products. 

While the U.S. beer industry struggled to grow volume in 2021, 35 labels significantly outperformed the market, according to Impact Databank. Of those brands, 21 were FMBs, six were imported brews, five were domestic beers, and three were hard ciders. Twenty of the brands are new to the honor roll, while 22 labels dropped off the list from the year prior. Anheuser-Busch InBev (A-B InBev) topped all other marketers with seven labels named Hot Brands, followed by Constellation Brands with five, and Diageo Beer Co. USA, Boston Beer, and New Belgium Brewing with three each.

Modelo Phenomenon Continues

Modelo Especial enjoyed yet another year of impressive growth, as volume jumped 14% to 164.5 million (2.25-gallon) cases in 2021, the highest volume level of any of the three dozen Hot Brands. According to Constellation Brands, the Mexican brew—which Impact Databank ranks as the No.-4 beer in the U.S. overall—has grown at a double-digit rate in an incredible 35 of the last 37 years. Indeed, this marks the 28 th consecutive year that Modelo has been named a Hot Brand. “The success, size, and continued growth of the brand is phenomenal,” says Greg Gallagher, vice president of brand marketing for Modelo at Constellation Brands’ beer division. “Modelo Especial has a strong foundation as the leading brand in penetration rate with Hispanic consumers and is continuing to expand in the non-Hispanic consumer base.” 

He also attributes the brand’s strong performance last year to a significant investment in media support, as he says the company “spent more than two and a half times what we spent just five years ago.” Modelo is supported with the “Fighting Spirit” ad campaign, a partnership with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and was recently named the official beer sponsor of the College Football Playoffs. Modelo Especial has emerged as the top-selling beer in several markets, Gallagher says, including Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles. “In Los Angeles, Modelo Especial is bigger than Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite combined,” he notes. Modelo Especial Chelada, meanwhile, posted the best growth rate among imported Hot Brands, with a 33% increase to 11.5 million cases, outpacing its performance the year prior. “We’re focused on the chelada segment as an ongoing platform expansion,” says Gallagher, noting that the Piña Picante flavor, launched last year, has also received a strong response. “We now have five flavors in 24-ounce single-serve cans that connect with our core Latino consumers,” he adds. 

But like the parent brand, Modelo Chelada is making inroads in the general market. Gallagher says that 40% of Modelo Chelada’s consumers are general market. As a result, media advertising was recently expanded from exclusively Spanish language to also include English language media. Two other Mexican brews from Constellation Brands were also among last year’s top achievers—Pacifico and Corona Premier. Pacifico increased 11% to 13.6 million cases and Corona Premier rose 5% to 12.3 million cases. According to Alex Schultz, vice president of brand marketing for Pacifico, despite inventory challenges, Pacifico retained its ranking as the No. 7 beer in California last year. He attributes the brand’s recent success to its “relentless focus on the Gen Z audience,” including a “digital-first” ad strategy, and tie-ins to action sports and conservation efforts. 

Also from Mexico, A-B InBev’s Estrella Jalisco joined the Hot Brands list with a sales increase of 23% last year. Estrella Jalisco has been available in the U.S. since 2015 and is supplemented with a line of canned michelada offerings. 

Finally, a label from Europe rounded out the imported beer Hot Brands of 2021. Heineken USA’s non-alcoholic Heineken 0.0 returned to the list with a 32% gain in volume. Combined volume of the six imported Hot Brands totaled more than 206 million cases.

Michelob Ultra Repeats

A-B InBev’s Michelob Ultra returned as a Hot Brand, extending its long-term upswing. While growth slowed, volume still reached an impressive 157.9 million cases—second only to Modelo Especial—a 6% increase from 2020. The No. 5 beer brand in the U.S. overall and the official beer sponsor of the NBA, Michelob Ultra announced in 2021 that it would commit $100 million over the next five years to helping increase the visibility of women’s sports, including equal representation of female athletes in its ads. 

The remaining domestic Hot Brand beers come from craft brewers and include two returnees and two new honorees. Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Hazy Little Thing IPA repeated as a Hot Brand with an 11% gain to 4.4 million cases. Joe Whitney, Sierra Nevada’s chief commercial officer, attributes the brand’s success to its  “approachability, consistency in quality, smooth drinkability, flavor, fun packaging, and the fact that it can be found across the country at a wide variety of retailers.” 

New Belgium Brewing’s Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA also returned to the list, as volume jumped 39% to 4.1 million cases, and it was joined by its new line extension Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA. According to Voodoo Ranger brand manager Dave Knospe, the imperial IPA experienced growth across most channels and formats in 2021, including an acceleration in sales of 19.2-ounce cans in convenience stores and 12-packs in groceries and mass merchandisers. Juicy Haze, introduced in 2020, meanwhile, has quickly emerged as the best-selling draft IPA in the Voodoo Ranger portfolio, Knospe says. 

D.G. Yuengling & Son’s Yuengling Flight also joined the Hot Brands list in 2021, driven in part by the introduction of a new can package. Colin Callahan, vice president of sales and marketing at the Pennsylvania-based brewery, notes that Flight, with 2.6 grams of carbohydrates and 95 calories “complements our existing portfolio of brands.” He adds that “consumers are coming back to the brand once they’ve tried it, as our data shows that the rate of repeat purchases has grown.”

FMBs Find Growth

While FMBs account for the majority of beer’s Hot Brands winners in 2021, their combined volume is a distant third to that of imported and domestic beer winners. Indeed, it’s no secret that demand for the once surging segment has dramatically slowed, due at least in part to the growing popularity of spirits-based RTD cocktails. Moreover, with the wave of new FMBs in recent years, consumer loyalty to specific products appears short lived. One telling sign is the absence of White Claw from the list, as volume for the leading hard seltzer brand slipped 1% in 2021. 

Two big volume FMBs—Boston Beer’s Truly hard seltzer and Twisted Tea—returned as Hot Brands last year, and 15 new labels were added. Truly and Twisted Tea combined to account for 70% of the volume of Hot Brand FMBs in 2021. At its year-end earnings call in February, Boston Beer CEO Dave Burwick said of the company’s hard seltzer performance, “We’ve led the category in innovation and brand building and outgrew the category for 16 straight months from September 2020 through December 2021.” Truly volume increased 27% last year to 63.5 million cases, after doubling in size in 2020. 

Twisted Tea volume, meanwhile, surged 30% to 23.9 million cases. Brand director Erica Taylor attributed the performance to growing awareness and response from new consumers. In addition, she pointed to the brand’s Tea Drop ad campaign, launched last year, and partnerships across gaming and college football that have allowed Twisted Tea to be introduced “to more drinkers than ever before.” 

New Hot Brand FMB entries include A-B InBev’s Michelob Ultra organic seltzer, Molson Coors’ Topo Chico, and Constellation Brands’ Corona Refresca. Although Refresca production had been paused in 2020, it returned to shelves in March 2021, with a relaunch that included a 12-can variety pack and a higher-abv line extension. “Corona Refresca has quickly earned favor amongst drinkers, given its ability to bring the refreshing, fruit-forward flavors of the tropics directly to them,” says Ryan Anderson, senior director of brand marketing for the Corona brand family. 

Among other FMB honorees, five brands are marketed by A-B InBev, three by Molson Coors, and three from Diageo Beer Co. Among the Diageo brands is Lone River hard seltzer, which the company acquired last year and expanded nationally. With volume reaching 1 million cases in 2021, “we’re well positioned to continue leading as the No. 1 ranch water in the U.S.,” says Katie Beal Brown, founder and CEO of Lone River Beverage Co. Three hard ciders are also included among the Hot Brands for 2021: California Cider’s Ace (recently acquired by California wine player Vintage Wine Estates), 2 Towns from 2 Towns Ciderhouse, and Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard Peach Mango.