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Brewing up new business

Beer makers take a cue from wine marketers and sales rise

CHICAGO -- Beer sales had gone flat. Wine was flying off the shelves. So beer makers decided to steal a page from wine's marketing manual and create new packaging, flavors, and drinks. Now beer is coming back.

After idling for the past couple of years, beer sales have shown steady growth in recent months, said Nick Lake, beer expert at ACNielsen.

For the 12 months ended April 22, US beer sales totaled $4.071 billion, up about 1.4 percent from a year earlier. Most of the increase was due to double-digit sales increases for imported brands and so-called craft brands. The fruity malt drinks, organic pale ale, lager, and other new beer products that are driving the increase in sales are on display this week in Chicago at the Food Marketing Institute Show, the supermarket industry's annual trade show.

Beer is still the drink of choice for at least half the people who drink alcohol in the United States, but wine and spirits have been enticing drinkers in ever-growing numbers.

The wine industry has jockeyed for attention with cute critters on the label, easy-open screw caps, and cans and party-friendly boxes.

For beer, new packaging includes Heineken's keg can for the fridge, which gives people draft beer at home.

The biggest sales potential is in so-called ''craft" beers and imports, ACNielsen says. Anheuser-Busch recently signed a deal to distribute imports including Grolsch and Harbin. Miller's parent, SABMiller PLC, also sells Pilsner Urquell.

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