Fruit can give beer crossover appeal, something big beer brands really need right now.
Credit: Nick Purser/Getty Images

Fruit beers will always have their place. Though occasionally maligned as “not real beer,” in places like Belgium, fruit has been added to beer for generations. The reasons make sense: Hops often impart a wide range of fruity flavors, especially citrus and tropical ones. Yeast can produce fruity notes as well, like banana or apple. Playing off these flavors with actual fruit can be creatively liberating for brewers — and as such, the world has a lot of great fruit beers.

At the same time, fruit can make for great “crossover” beers — beers for people who are reluctant to drink beer — by masking its more acquired tastes with something more familiar. Back in the ‘90s, one of my first craft beer loves was Pyramid Apricot Ale for the simple reason that it was extremely palatable — which can’t always be said about today’s throat-burning double dry-hopped IPAs. For this reason, many big brewers turn to fruited beer not so much as a creative decision, but instead with the hope of luring in new drinkers. It’s far from a new phenomenon: MillerCoors-owned Leinenkugel produces its Summer Shandy — a mix of wheat beer and lemonade — that’s one of the top-selling brands in the country. And Blue Moon — the best-selling non-lager beer in the U.S., also owned by MillerCoors — has seen all sorts of fruity iterations.

But recently, America’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, has been making a bigger push into the world of fruit beer. Last year, Bud Light — by far America’s top-selling beer — introduced Bud Light Orange, and rumors have emerged that Bud Light Lemon Tea will be coming later this year. Also in 2019, Michelob Ultra — the country’s sixth best-selling beer brand and one of the fastest growing (according to 24/7 Wall St) — announced a line of Michelob Ultra Infusions, starting with a Lime & Prickly Pear Cactus offering. Meanwhile, Natural Light — which believe it or not is actually America’s eighth biggest beer brand — recently introduced Naturdays, a version of the beer flavored with strawberry lemonade.

These examples certainly aren’t the first time Anheuser-Busch has given its signature brews a fruit-flavored spin. Hopefully you’ve forgotten about Bud Extra — Budweiser’s fruity, caffeine-spiked cousin that was launched in 2005 in the days of the Four Loko trend. And the true beginning of this A-B fruit beer madness can be traced to the release of Bud Light Lime in 2008 — which was massively popular upon its release and, despite a significant decline since, has continued to sell well enough to remain in production.

But what makes the current trend interesting is that, within the course of a year, Anheuser-Busch has been pursuing new, fruit-enhanced versions of three of its five biggest brands all at the same time (with Budweiser and Busch Light being the two that haven’t seen any fruit tinkering).

The reasons are the same as they’ve been in the past: crossover appeal. Daniel Blake, senior director of value brands at Anheuser-Busch, admits they’re not trying to reinvent the marketing wheel. “With Naturdays, we wanted to strike the perfect balance between something that felt ‘Natty’ but also would appeal to a new audience of potential beer drinkers,” he told me via email. “We wanted to create a beer that’s more approachable to people who might not have considered Natty, or beer in general, before. There was an opportunity to bring more variety to 21-plus-year-old consumers, specifically within the economy beer segment. The combination of strawberry lemonade flavor, while still finishing like a light beer, is a drink we think people will be very excited about.”

MillerCoors took a similar approach in February of last year, not by adding fruit to one of its existing brands, but by creating a new brand of light beer specifically focused on fruit flavors. Two Hats, as it was called, launched in lime and pineapple flavors. The concept faired so poorly that it didn’t even make it until the end of the year, but something MillerCoors’ Chief Marketing Officer David Kroll stated on the company’s blog in the lead up to the release was extremely illuminating: “We know that people who choose beer when they become of legal drinking age are two times more likely to continue drinking beer throughout their lifetime, and as an organization, we have an opportunity to regain ground with this group,” he explained. “[Two Hats] is meant to serve as an easy entry point into beer and an introduction to the rest of our portfolio.”

Two Hats failed for a number of reasons. Not helping was the fact that the beers, at least to me, tasted awful, even by mass market beer standards. And perhaps as a MillerCoors’ offshoot, the brand lacked a certain level of authenticity — or at the very least, it was cast afloat to find a niche in a market that’s now over 7,000 breweries strong.

Bud Light Lime’s decade-old success and Two Hats’ more recent failure probably point to why Anheuser-Busch has decided to leverage three of its biggest brands in an attempt to get a foothold in the fruit beer crossover market. And if what David Kroll said is true, it’s worth the gamble. If someone goes from drinking Naturdays to drinking Natural Light, that’s a potential long-term beer drinker. And frankly, Natural Light doesn’t have much to lose. In December, 24/7 Wall St. released its annual list of “Beers Americans No Longer Drink,” and Natural Light finished ninth with a sales decline of 20.5 percent from 2012 to 2017. Making things worse, Bud Light finished tenth, posting an 18 percent decline over this same period. In fact, according to the Brewers Association, beer sales overall dropped 1.2 percent in 2017, with the largest brands bearing the brunt.

These figures help explain why the beer world has been going a bit bonkers lately, not just with fruit beers galore, but also attack ads and literal lawsuits over corn syrup. “We want to see the beer category grow,” Jim McGreevy, president and CEO of the industry-wide trade group The Beer Institute, said in a CNBC interview last week. “What’s happening since the Super Bowl is sort of an example of how fierce the competition is in beer.”

Meanwhile, one of the few bright spots for big beer companies has been Michelob Ultra, which a separate 24/7 Wall St report shows has seen sales double from 2012 to 2017, making it America’s second-fastest growing major beer brand over that period. It’s possible, either consciously or coincidentally, that by giving Michelob Ultra the fruit treatment as well, Anheuser-Busch is attempting create a synchronicity across its brands, thinking fruit lovers might jump from one label to the other.

Regardless, what’s clearly happening is that many brewers — and Anheuser-Busch especially — are taking a bit of a kitchen sink approach to releasing new beers. In some ways, fruit has always been brewing’s kitchen sink ingredient. Another reason brewers will sometimes add fruit to a beer that wasn’t mentioned earlier is that these flavors can also be used to mask a beer’s flaws. Did that funky brew come out tasting a bit too sour? Just toss some raspberry in there: That’ll solve the problem! Consider it a metaphor for what’s happening in the world of big beer right now: If sales aren’t looking too hot, maybe a bit of fruit can smooth things over.