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Thursday, May 28, 2015

On the Fringe

This past Monday, I celebrated Memorial Day the way most Americans do--at a backyard barbecue. (Yes, I am aware that this misses the point.) I took along some of the new Hefe Shandy the Widmer Brothers recently sent me, expecting not to like it much. By chance, someone else brought along a Bud Light Apple-Ahh-Rita, the latest in the line of abominations AB is passing off as refreshment.

Although many beer geeks are blissfully unaware of it, there is a product segment in the beer world that is aimed at people who don't like beer. It's been a robust source of revenue for decades, but a dicey one. Each new product has a limited life span, and after a few years, they vanish without a trace, making way for the newest latest. (My theory is that these products are aimed at new, mostly young drinkers who are transitioning from soda. The products therefore become fixtures of drinking juvenilia, and after a few years, when the drinker has developed a palate for something more mature, the old alco-pop is regarded with embarrassment, like a favorite boy band from childhood.)

In any case, the Apple-Ahh-Rita and Hefe Shandy offer an interesting dichotomy. The former, part of the "-rita" line of abominations, is undrinkable. Imagine an off-brand Jolly Rancher melted down and cut with Everclear and you're near the mark. It's a boozy 8%, presumably to reduce the amount you have to choke down before the harsh, grain-alcohol buzz kicks in. It's a scam product that will die its inevitable death as soon as people realize, en mass, just how bad and absurd it is.

The Widmer Brothers' product, by contrast, is aimed at people who like beer. It wasn't made for me, but neither was it made for 19-year-old undergrads. Although the nose is hugely (and not entirely naturally) lemony, the palate is dominated by a light wheatiness. The lemon is an accent, more zest than juice, and is surprisingly dry. It's about half the alcohol (4.2%) of the Rita, and designed for backyard barbecues. Widmer Brothers could have as easily called it Lemon Hefe.

The beer market is developing very quickly. Where once there were just three categories--mass market lagers, craft, and alco-pop--now there is a large and growing segment between craft and mass market lager. There are a lot of people who like the flavor of beer, don't hate Budweiser, but don't love imperial sours and barrel-aged stouts. Blue Moon and Shock Top have been exploiting (and enlarging) that segment for years, and now craft brewers are poking their toe in these waters. Hefe Shandy will be an interesting test case; if they can make inroads into that segment, it will further accelerate the change in beer categories.


  1. I got my first ever request for "Mike's Hard" at the Stein the other day (note: not Mike's Hard Lemonade; I felt this was appropriate, as calling Mike's Hard a lemonade is just as much an insult to lemonade as the -Rita brand is to people named Rita). I chokingly... er, gracefully... redirected to the closest possible beverage: cider. I think cider is the bridge. Even that Orchard stuff is better than Ritas or Hard Mikes.

  2. FYI "Sales of Bud’s ‘Ritas hit $462 million in 2013, up from $150 million the year before, according to data from IRI, a Chicago market research company. Bud says Straw-Ber-Rita (which outsold the original lime flavor last year) was the most successful product launch in the beer industry in 2013."

  3. Widmer is not craft. It's owned 32% by AB-InBev.