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The Baltimore Sun Rob Kasper Column: Beer Bubbles to Top of the Poll

August 6, 2008

By Rob Kasper, The Baltimore Sun

Aug. 6–Beer rules. It is the alcoholic beverage we Americans say we drink most often, besting wine, its closest competitor, by double digits.

That was my take after reading the 2008 Gallup Poll of consumption habits, released last week. It found that 42 percent of the U.S. drinkers surveyed said they most often consumed beer, compared with 31 percent who picked wine and 23 percent who preferred spirits. Not so long ago, the same poll had beer playing second fiddle to wine.

Back in 2005, wine had knocked beer out of first place. But as Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll told me, wine’s margin of victory, a mere 3 percentage points, was so slim it fell within the poll’s margin of error. So, technically, that year wine and beer tied.

Since then, however, suds have surged in popularity. The shift to beer from wine is especially strong among drinkers between the ages of 30 and 49, Gallup said. Four years ago, adults in this age group were just as likely to drink wine as beer. But now beer is their beverage of choice by a 20-point margin.

The Gallup pollsters did not delve into the reasons why Americans are increasingly fond of beer. But the people I spoke with in the industry had ready answers for the trend. Most cited a thirst for better beer, as seen by the growth in the number of American craft beers.

Volker Stewart, who is 43 and one of the owners of the Brewer’s Art restaurant in Baltimore, reminded me that his “generation,” the beer-loving 30-to-49 age group, was the first to have grown up with craft beer.

“Ever since I got out of college in the late 1980s, the number of craft breweries has increased,” he said. This age group is comfortable with the notion of sampling a wide variety of craft-beer styles, he said. Recently, sales of the house-brewed Belgian beers at his Mount Vernon brewery and restaurant have jumped, while wine sales, he said, have “flat-lined.”

Out in St. Louis, Jay Cunningham, a spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, said the Gallup Poll reflected what the nation’s largest brewer has been experiencing. “There is a strong demand for beer, especially at the premium end,” he said. Sales of the brewer’s upscale Michelob line are growing, he said.

Part of the appeal of beer, Cunningham said, is its lower alcohol content. Beer is typically 4 percent to 7 percent alcohol by volume, compared with 11 percent to 15 percent for most wines. “It is a less concentrated form of alcohol,” he said, “so for people in the 30-to-49 age group, that means they can take it to a wide number of social occasions.”

The nation’s economic slowdown does not appear to be hurting beer sales. In fact, it might be helping them. America’s craft brewers recently increased their prices by about $1 a six-pack, to compensate for the increased cost of hops and grain. Yet, despite the jump in prices, sales of craft beers rose.

In the last six months, prices of craft beers have gone up, said Casey Hard, general manager of Max’s on Broadway, a Fells Point pub that serves 72 beers on draft, at $3.50 to $7 a glass. “People are price-conscious, but they aren’t going to stop drinking better beer because it cost 50 cents more a draft. They may drink a little less, but they don’t go back to the cheap stuff,” he said.

Beer’s high marks in the Gallup Poll came as no surprise to Barbara Insel, president of Stonebridge Research, a Napa, Calif., firm that studies trends in the consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Beer has become so popular with Americans because its marketers have positioned it as a premium product, a tactic that the wine and spirits industry took several years earlier, she said.

“It is called ‘premiumization,’” Insel told me in a telephone conversation. “Beer companies are stressing small batches and better beers. They are following the consumer to the higher price points.” Beers, wines and spirits at the high end and mid-price points of the scale are selling well, Insel said, while cheap beverages are not.

Beer also has cleaned up its image, Insel said, especially among young women. A few years ago, women in their 20s regarded beer and most beer commercials as “raunchy,” Insel said. Beer was seen as something young men drank, but not women. Since then, beer commercials have toned down their testosterone content and the beverage has become “more socially acceptable” among young women, she said.

I asked her if the American wine industry was worried about the surge of interest in beer. She said not especially. The Gallup Poll measures popularity, not sales, and wine consumption in America has been growing for 14 consecutive years, she said. And while the wine industry always looks “to see who is chasing you,” wine sales in America, she said, are growing faster than either sales of beer or spirits.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV’s News at Noon.

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