RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The beer industry loves summer, when hot days lead to cool beers. But that's happening less and less. Sales of some the country's most popular brews have gone flat. So the industry has put on tap new ad campaigns it hopes will encourage calls for another round.
NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
WENDY KAUFMAN: The Spot Off Main in Bellevue, Washington is a neighborhood place for billiards and beer. The number-one selling U.S. brand, Bud Light, is on tap. Assistant manager John Stevens says his bartenders are pouring less of it than they used to.
Mr. JOHN STEVENS (Assistant Manager, Spot Off Main): Everyone's budgets went down. That includes their entertainment dollars when they go out to drink in bars.
KAUFMAN: A lot of young men - beer's biggest fans - have lost their jobs. Some are skipping bars altogether in favor of drinking at home. But those sales - at least of the premium and high-profit brands - are down, too. Indeed, overall beer consumption is off about 4 percent, according to the industry.
Julian Green of MillerCoors, the nation's second-largest brewer, says his company is doing what it can to keep the beer money flowing its way.
Mr. JULIAN GREEN (MillerCoors): It's important for us to continue to innovate and try to create new news in the marketplace.
KAUFMAN: The company is rolling out a new brand called Batch 19, but most of the innovation focuses on packaging, with ads like this one.
(Soundbite of beer ad)
Unidentified Man #1: What is that?
Unidentified Man #2: The new Miller Lite Vortex bottle.
Unidentified Man #1: The craftsmanship, the grooves - where did you get it?
Unidentified Man #3: The new Miller Lite Vortex bottle. It's...
KAUFMAN: New packaging is a relatively low-cost way for a company to show it's doing something new, and it might generate some short-term buzz. But Harry Balzer of the market research firm NPD suggests it may not be enough to boost sales over time.
Mr. HARRY BALZER (NPD): The only benefit you provide me is novelty, and the problem with novelty, in the end, is that once I try it, it's no longer new. It's old.
KAUFMAN: The one bright spot in the domestic beer market is craft beer, produced by small, independent microbreweries, names like Boston Brewing, Sierra Nevada and here in downtown Seattle, The Pike Brewing Company.
(Soundbite of machinery, bottles clanking)
KAUFMAN: The brewery's owner, Charles Finkel, oversees every detail of production, even the bottling. Finkel's been in the craft beer business for decades, and he dismisses the innovations being trumpeted by the major brands.
Mr. CHARLES FINKEL (Owner, The Pike Brewing Company): It has nothing to do with what is the raw material? Where does the malted barley come from? What hops do they use? How much hops do they use?
KAUFMAN: Back at The Spot On(ph) Main, Assistant Manager Stevens says more drinkers are choosing craft beers, even though they cost more per ounce.
Mr. STEVENS: People realize that it's good flavor, and they want the more sophisticated flavor. And everyone's palate has just gotten better. Plus they're higher alcohol content, so people get a buzz on them quicker. And I think that's part of it, too.
KAUFMAN: Craft beers are still just a tiny piece of the overall market. But at a time when we are drinking less beer, craft brew sales are up more than 10 percent.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Speaking of craft beer, a couple of bills have been brewing in Congress. They're aimed at stimulating the economy and creating jobs by reducing excise taxes for small breweries. Those are defined as breweries producing fewer than six million barrels of beer per year. The proposals have bipartisan support. Democrat John Kerry introduced the Senate bill last month, and Republican Olympia Snowe is one of the cosponsors. Another bill is fermenting in the House.
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