If you tried to affix the word "seltzer" to "Bud Light" 15 years ago, you would have been laughed out of the hallowed halls of Anheuser-Busch.
Back then, Bud Light was the unrivaled king of American beer. It not only sold far more than any other brand in the U.S. - it continued to grow.
While Bud Light is still the nation's top-selling beer, it's hardly the unrivaled king these days. After sales peaked in 2007, they've shrunk every year since, including a nearly 5% drop in 2019 according to market research firm IRI Worldwide.
Bud Light has therefore fallen into a strange middle ground: It remains a ubiquitous force, but atrophies before our eyes. Its best days as a beer brand are long past. Yet it retains vast power and name recognition.
Hence Bud Light Seltzer.
Though Bud Light Seltzer elicited all sorts of smirks and sideways glances when announced in November, we've been here before.
Back in 2012, Anheuser-Busch farmed out the Bud Light name to another unlikely product: Bud Light Lime and its extension of sugary "Rita" drinks: Bud Light Lime Lime-A-Rita, Bud Light Lime Berry-A-Rita, Bud Light Lime Coco-Nut-Rita, Bud Light Lime Mang-O-Rita and so on. The flavor profiles - fruity, sickly sweet - were miles from what we knew of the once ascendant Bud Light beer.
But behind the Bud Light name, the Ritas became a healthy brand family; not top tier for the nation's largest beer company, but firmly in the middle of the pack.
Upon the release of Bud Light Lime Lime-a-Rita, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of innovation explained the strategy: "It has the Bud Light name on it so it attracts people who are interested in the Bud Light brand, but it also attracts people who may not have been in our franchise before."
That's why in recent years we've also seen Bud Light Apple, Bud Light Orange and the new Bud Light Lemonade Radler.
It's also why we're seeing Bud Light Seltzer, for which an online ad minces no words: "Whether you love Bud Light or hate Bud Light, you're going to love Bud Light Seltzer." (Is that true? We'll get to that.)
The point ultimately isn't what you think of Bud Light; it's that you've heard of Bud Light. And with that name, a connection is immediately forged in a hard seltzer space where Anheuser-Busch is playing desperate catch up.
Hard seltzer has become a rocket ship of a category, led by the ascendant White Claw, introduced in 2016 by Chicago-based Mark Anthony Group. Anheuser-Busch has at least three other hard seltzers in its portfolio - Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer, Natural Light hard seltzer and the forthcoming Social Club - but Bud Light Seltzer is its strongest bid yet to disrupt a landscape where it is in the rare position of trailing. The company is investing a reported $100 million in hard seltzer in 2020.
Harry Schuhmacher, editor and publisher of Beer Business Daily, reported last week that Bud Light Seltzer is off to a strong start. Distributors described the launch as "'incredible,' 'exceptional,' and as one colorfully put it, 'f(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)ing killing it,'" Schuhmacher wrote.
Which was exactly the point of slapping the Bud Light name on it. With that instant familiarity, many people will try it at least once. And while lending the name "Bud Light" to a seltzer may chip away at Bud Light the beer, so what? Bud Light the beer is already being chipped away.
Schuhmacher noted, though, that Anheuser-Busch's long play remains unclear. Is Bud Light Seltzer "just aggressive pipe fill" to chip away at White Claw while Anheuser-Busch hopes the bottom falls out of hard seltzer?
"Or will repeat buys prove this to be a 'game changer?'" Schuhmacher wrote.
We will see.
In the meantime, Bud Light Seltzer underscores a grim truth: Hard seltzers tend to be middling, soulless beverages. And, like most of its competitors, Bud Light Seltzer is devoid of any experience. It's just some bubbles and flavor.
The best hard seltzers are refreshing; none of the four flavors sold in the Bud Light Seltzer mixed 12-pack - mango, lemon-lime, black cherry and strawberry - meet that basic standard. Yet only one is egregiously bad. The other three are fine, and nothing more. The flavors come across as reasonably authentic, though a bit robust. Bud Light Seltzer would do well to trade some of that robustness for more crispness and refreshment.
The mango flavor is passable, adequately approximating mango aroma. It has a decent "juicy" character, though it is too juicy to be worth drinking a full 12 ounces. Lemon-lime has some citrus juice character and some rind character, both of which are admirable, but it also comes off a touch cloying. Same, too, for black cherry, which is wounded by an aroma veering into cough syrup territory. The only irredeemable dud is the strawberry flavor, which smells like a seventh grader's lip balm and doesn't taste much better. It's baffling it even exists.
While there may be some runway for Bud Light Seltzer to threaten a brand such as Boston Beer's Truly Hard Seltzer, it'll face an uphill climb to do any better. In the world of hard seltzer, the words "White Claw" are likely to continue to hold far more sway than the words "Bud Light."
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