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Dec. '03: Wine good!



March, 2004

Ultra What?

I've waited long enough to say something about the Ultra phenomenon. Plenty of words were spilled over the malternatives, lunatic predictions of how they would open a new market and siphon off sales from beer, mad rants of how they were aimed at creating boozehounds out of our children -- SAVE THE CHILDREN!!! -- or stealth modes of advertising "hard liquor" brands that were forbidden to advertise on TV (they're not, by the way; spirits companies voluntarily stopped advertising on TV), and shrill tirades from beer geeks about disgusting developments and stolen shelf space (as if craft breweries had some God-given right to shelf space -- grow up).

It was all sound and fury, signifying next to nothing. While we ranted and raved, the market tried them, weighed them, largely found them wanting (what a shock...), and moved on. Smirnoff Ice is still around, and Bacardi O3, and some Skyy, but they're a yawner. They're over. They're not worth my time, or yours.

I don't think Ultra is going to go away. Michelob Ultra is a phenomenon that looks to have some serious legs, propelled by the "stuff your fat guts with bacon and somehow lose weight" Atkins Diet and the "bet Atkins wishes they had a trendy name like" South Beach Diet. These diets are having a significant impact on American food sales: bread sales are down, orange juice sales are down, and beef sales looked at the mad cow disease "shock me" TV news and just laughed. Is it any surprise that the sales of what one local radio ad referred to as "the ultimate carb -- beer" are affected as well?

Beer sales were down last year, and it's been laid off to beer's "image," to the wickedly cold winter in the East, to sunspots...anything but Atkins, because that would give beer wholesalers nightmares and pains in their tum-tums. Sorry, folks, but sales of spirits and wine were up last year while beer was significantly down, and I cannot think of any combination of familiar factors that would produce that in a demographic era of rising numbers of newly legal age drinkers. Spirits may be up because of the boomers getting older and moving into that traditionally older mode of booze intake, but if you're trying to tell me a "cocktail culture" is settling in; please, I beat that drum three years ago, and it wasn't right then, either. I'm starting to think most people are just too stupid to appreciate a good cocktail.

It's carbs, and low-carb diets. And beer, God help us, is Carb Central. It's made from grain, and even nutritionists who hate the Atkins Diet with self-righteous meat-loathing fury are quick to point out that beer is based on sugars and full of carbohydrates. "Beer," goes their favorite shibboleth, "is empty calories,"  a condemnation they also hang on apple juice.

Enter Ultra, the great low-carb hope. Anheuser-Busch has finally achieved their dream. They've got a new product, they're first in the segment, it's hitting right at the crest of a consumer trend, and it's selling at a huge profit. A-B's played catch-up for years, and it's an expensive game. They thought light beer was crazy, and when they finally gave in, it took them billions to catch and pass Miller Lite. They didn't move fast enough to profit from the pan-flashes of ice and dry beers, they were just getting cranked up when the bottom fell out.

But someone moved fast and smart with Ultra. Not only did they field the first proclaimed low-carb beer, they did it with their Michelob brand, a brand that still retains some high-price cachet. Now they're way out in front of the pack, and nothing SAB/Miller or Coors can do will change that. The best they can hope to do is pick up small chunks of a market segment Ultra dominates.

As my aunt says, well, barf. Speaking as someone who actually likes beer, they can all take their market segment to the loneliest corner of Hell and play "Is Your Butt Burning in the Brimstone Yet?" Have you had Ultra? If not, I don't ever want to hear you talking about how great you think my job is: I had to drink Ultra. It's not vile, it's...puzzling. It tasted like someone had poured seltzer into a glass that had about an inch of light beer left in it. Ultra is barely recognizable as beer: it is whisperingly pale, has very little flavor, and has all the body of Johnny Depp in the moonlight.

But everywhere I go, people are buying it as if it were the Elixir of Immortality! I was in a good multi-tap recently, plenty of great local beers and imports on, and half the people in the joint were drinking bottles of Ultra. Good God, my own Uncle Don was drinking it when we were in the mountains back in December. He ordered it, I stared at him, and he shrugged. "I have to," he said. "I have to keep my carbs down." I didn't know what to say, so I didn't. You don't lecture a guy who taught you how to drink.

Why are they drinking it? Carbs? They'll tell you, "It's only got 2.6 grams of carbs!" As if any of these guys actually know what a gram is! (Okay, Don's an engineer, he does.) Miller Lite squeals about how they've got "flavor" and only 3.2 grams of carbs: the difference, they say, is a pretzel.

Wake-up call, people! If you're buying into the whole "grams of carbs" argument and actually counting the damned things, you need to take a look at why you're drinking beer, and you need to do it now. Because if you're serious about Atkins or South Beach, you should not be drinking beer at all. If you figure the diet can go to hell, you're having a beer... why in the name of all that's tasty are you having an Ultra? So you can have a few more of these watery beers that you can't taste anyway? Friend, at this point you're either drinking so you've got something to do at the bar -- and you might as well have a Diet Coke -- or you're an alcoholic who's just not trying hard enough.

I don't think Ultra will outlast the Atkins Diet by more than six months. And maybe the Atkins Diet has already jumped the shark; the Atkins medical records of Atkins were pretty gruesome, true or not. But A-B saw the population paying top dollar for something that has a lot less stuff in it. They won't forget that.

I wish I could. It's bugging me. Because I just don't understand why anyone would pay a premium to drink a beer that has less flavor than watered-down Coors Light. 

Well, one good thing: Smirnoff Ice has 32 grams of carbs. Spread the word, and maybe we can at least put a stake in the heart of that one. 


Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: October 12, 2004