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Beer drinkers make switch to low-carb

Monday, January 5, 2004

SIKESTON -- Whether they're counting carbs or they just simply like the taste, many beer drinkers in the area -- and in the nation -- are making the switch to a growing line of low-carb beers.

"It's almost our best-selling beer," noted Sikeston Applebee's Bar and Grill manager Mike Baker about the low-carb beer, Michelob Ultra. "We put it on tap probably about four months ago, and everybody just drinks it. It's even boosted above Miller Lite," he said, adding that Bud Light is No. 1 and Ultra is No. 2.

Michelob Ultra, the first major brand to make a splash in the low-carb beer niche, has gotten more popular. Anheuser-Busch reported on Dec. 16 it took a 2.1 percent share of supermarket beer sales.

Rolling Rock last month toasted the shipment of 1 million cases of Rock Green Light in less than three months since its launch. In March, Coors Brewing Co. plans to enter the specialty market with Aspen Edge in 10 states.

Baker said many of his customers say they've made the switch mainly because of the low carbs and because it still has a flavor to it for being a low-carb beer.

"One of our main customers used to drink Busch Light and switched to Michelob Ultra," Baker noted.

Nancy Galemore, manager of Jeremiah's Restaurant in Sikeston, said they've had several customers change from what they normally drink to Michelob Ultra. Galemore admitted she didn't know if people liked Ultra because of low calories, low carbs or taste.

"It's kind of like diet soda," Galemore compared. "When you get a customer who orders a Diet Coke and then they order a piece of cake -- people who drink Ultra still get fries to munch on," she laughed.

The industry generally recognizes light beers as having low calorie counts; low-carb counts are touted as having few carbohydrates. Beer experts say half the estimated $60 billion to $70 billion domestic beer market is from light beer sales as Americans continue to seek out beers that won't add to their waistline.

Although it's still too early to tell how much the low-carb beer sector claims, analysts say there are already more than a dozen so-called ''low-carb beers'' competing for shelf space, and more breweries are looking to cash in on the trend.

Jamie Ralph, manager of Bob Ralph Distributing Co. Inc. in Sikeston, agreed Michelob Ultra is doing very well for the Anheuser-Busch distributor. From November 2002 through November 2003, Michelob Ultra has increased 115 percent in sales to retailers, Ralph said.

"Michelob Ultra is one of the best things we've had in a while as far as a new product goes," Ralph said. "In the past, whenever we've had new products, some retailers are hesitant to try them, but we've had an overwhelming success with Ultra. We've even had several retailers come to us and ask for it."

When Michelob Ultra first came out, Jeremiah's ordered a case or two a week, Galemore recalled. Now they get about four to five cases each week, she said.

Although the popularity of Ultra has increased, as far as sales, at Jeremiah's, Miller Lite, the "original light beer" with 3.2 grams of carbs, by far outsells Michelob Ultra, Galemore said.

"One thing is some people feel like Miller Lite has a fuller taste than Ultra. And there is a price difference. Ultra is about 25 or 50 cents higher than Miller Lite. So if a person drinks three or four beers, that's one more beer they could be drinking. Price does play a factor in it," Galemore theorized.

Of course other beer drinkers are remaining faithful to their beer of choice. Galemore said some who haven't switched to low-carb beer have said things like "it taste like it's been watered down."

Galemore disagrees. "I prefer Bud Light, but I really do like Ultra. It has really good taste," she said.

The beer battle may also confuse consumers as companies duke it out over which brand of beer has the fewest carbs. Rock Green Light has 2.6 grams of carbohydrates and 91 calories. Michelob Ultra advertises 2.6 grams of carbohydrates and 95 calories.

Coors Brewing Co. hopes to take Aspen Edge nationwide by the end of the year. And Miller Brewing Co. has remarketed Miller Lite as a low-carb, low-calorie beer in television, radio and print ads.

Along with gaining a bigger share of the market, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch will offer 12-once cans of Michelob Ultra beginning Jan. 12.

"Most people say it tastes pretty good," Ralph commented about Ultra. "If they're watching a couple more carbs here and there, they say it may as well be with a beer."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.