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Craft brewers lighten up and take aim at the 'sweaty consumer'

Sierra Nevada Brewing (above) in California is among the breweries responding to consumers more concerned with healthy lifestyles than with hops or high alcohol content.

Caitlyn Landesberg (above), founder of Sufferfest Beer Co, which markets its beers to runners.

New York

FOR Sam Calagione, a founder of the craft brewery Dogfish Head, his company's efforts to get healthier had a selfish origin.

He said: "I started to notice that I was getting an everything bagel on my midriff, so I was thinking, 'Well, I'm not going to slow down drinking, so I better start innovating some lower-calorie, but super-flavourful beers'."

He attributes his weight gain to the multiple beers he drinks daily for work.

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In 2016, the Delaware-based brewery began producing its 140-calorie sour, SeaQuench Ale, which it promoted as "the most thirst-quenching beer Dogfish Head has ever brewed".

Now, Mr Calagione forecasts that of the 300,000-plus barrels of beer the brewery will produce this year, more than a quarter will cater to the demands of consumers more concerned with maintaining active lifestyles than they are with hops or high alcohol content. One beer is a new IPA with fewer calories than a Bud Light.

The craft beer market has expanded rapidly over the past decade, as breweries across the United States have dreamed up whimsical and inventive beers, often with unconventional ingredients - beet sugar! jalapeños! - along with high calorie counts and elevated ABV (alcohol by volume) figures. The same breweries are now looking to make products similar to one they have long ignored, and even scorned: watery, light beer.

Benj Steinman, president of the trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights, said of craft breweries: "I think it's only natural that they're going to look outside the traditional craft beer box. Business is hard right now. You can't sit still."

From 2010 to 2018, craft beers' share of the US market by volume grew from approximately 4.9 per cent to 13.2 per cent, said the Brewers Association, an industry trade group.

But light beers from big brewers still dominate. Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite are three of the four best-selling beers in the US on an annual basis. And growth in the overall amount of craft beer being produced and sold has slowed over the past few years.

One potential challenge is that 52 per cent of beer drinkers said this year that they wanted to reduce their consumption of alcohol, a survey conducted by the Harris Poll in partnership with Nielsen found out. "Opting for healthier lifestyle" was the top reason cited.

So craft brewers are adjusting. Some of the bigger craft brands have even acquired smaller craft labels recently, moves that may make some lighter craft beers more widely available. Dogfish Head and Boston Beer Co announced this month that they had merged in a deal valued at US$300 million. In February, the legacy craft brewery Sierra Nevada acquired the three-year-old Sufferfest Beer Co, which is marketed to runners.

Paul Geffken, 36, a member of the Borderline Running Club in North Andover, Massachusetts, said Miller High Life had been the group's official beer since it was founded. But he and several of his fellow runners who are training for marathons are quietly rebelling with 26.2 Brew, a beer from the aptly named Marathon Brewing, part of Boston Beer Co, that is marketed to athletes.

Mr Geffken said he prefers something "somewhat refreshing" after a run. He added that in addition to sea salt for electrolytes, 26.2 has coriander in it. "It's not your traditional Bud Light or craft beer, really, and after a race, you want to put something in your system, but you don't want something heavy."

Mike Mitaro, the president of the Brewers Advisory Group, said breweries needed to acknowledge these trends and adapt accordingly: "In the early 2000s, the millennial generation drove the growth of craft beer. As people get into their 30s, they think more about calories and health and wellness. It's a different mindset than when you're in your 20s, so people are more apt to gravitate toward lighter beers."

But rather than simply create the light beers they have long derided, many craft brewers want to emphasize their artisanal handiwork. Some beers, like Dogfish Head's 95-calorie Slightly Mighty, are lighter, lower-alcohol versions of IPAs (often containing 200-plus calories and ABVs above 5 per cent) but which still command respectable flavour. Others, like Harpoon Brewery's Rec League and Sufferfest's gluten-removed Repeat, feature chia seeds, bee pollen or other ingredients that purport to have health benefits like reducing inflammation or lowering blood pressure. Some craft breweries are simply producing nonalcoholic beer.

Mr Mitaro said: "I think these perceived healthy beverages will become an increasing part of the portfolio of a lot of craft brewers.

"When you have 7,000 entrepreneurs all working for the benefit of their own company, you get a collective quick response that shakes out what works and what doesn't."

Beyond just lopping off calories and adding superfoods to their recipes, breweries are marketing their beers as components that fit into customers' active lifestyles.

Caitlin Landesberg, the founder of Sufferfest, said her brewery's beers would not be widely available at tap rooms or beer festivals. Rather, Sufferfest beers would continue to be marketed to athletes, including being given out as celebratory beers at the finish line of races.

"From Day 1, we focused on the sweaty consumer. There is that demographic of millennials who vote with dollars, who want to have something new and indulgent but understand their health-conscious lifestyle, and that sweaty consumers are a tribe that I'm a part of and speak to and sweat with," said Ms Landesberg. NYTIMES