Can Sam Adams go Lightweight Without losing Its Edge?

There are two kinds of beer drinkers in this country. There are those who drink whatever is cheap, chuggable and easily available, and there are those who go thirsty until they can find a quality-brewed beverage. Light beers exist solely for those in the former group. Light beers are nearly flavorless, low in alcohol and practically colorless. They are as close to being water as beer can get. For this reason, craft breweries as a rule don’t brew light beers; it’s against their philosophy as quality producers. To do so would be like a punk rock band doing commercials for an accounting firm. They’d be labeled sellouts and would lose their clout.

But what would happen if the nation’s strongest craft brewery broke this taboo and announced it was going to start brewing a light beer? As leaders in the market, would they be able to pull it off? Well, the day of reckoning is here, as Sam Adams recently released a new light beer to their lineup. The impact it will have on the beer industry is potentially as big as the impact Sam Adams had when it was introduced and started the craft beer revolution.

Sam Adam’s Light is a serious effort to break into the huge light beer market. A major ad campaign is introducing the beer using an approach often attempted but is rarely successful. The company claims that “light beer will soon be 50% of the United States beer consumption and still no one is making a great light beer.” Sam Adams Light apparently is going to remedy the situation. That’s to be expected from the brand that has done what it has for the industry, but the question is, can a light beer be a quality beer?

Sam Adams is walking a thin line. To dominate the existing light beer market, the beer has to be easily drinkable. Accomplishing this may come at the expense of alienating their current primary market, craft beer drinkers. The most popular light beers are basically watered-down versions of already weak tasting beers. Their popularity seems to therefore indicate that people don’t really like flavorful beers. Thus, the people who drink light beer don’t drink Sam Adams and vice versa.
The move by Sam to try to take over a market share currently dominated by the big three commercial brewers (Bud, Miller and Coors) is gutsy. So why exactly is Sam introducing a light beer? One guess is that they are trying to create a new market, one for people who like good beer but don’t want a lot of calories when they’re having more than one. If they can pull this off, they will have proven that they are as skilled at the business of brewing as they are at brewing itself. Success will also mean a victory for quality beer in a country that is still firmly in the control of the producers of inferior quality beers.

Sam Adams Light is either the next big thing in the brewing industry or just the latest in a long list of failed product lines in the industry. Sam Adams will survive the fallout if it flops, its popularity is too great and its foothold too strong for it to fail. The company has nothing to lose; it can easily discontinue the line and rely on their other beers to keep things going. If it is as good as promised, it will be the first light beer that beer snobs will drink and may be the first decent beer that some swill drinkers will ever enjoy. For the sake of good beer and good beer drinkers, here’s hoping it all works out for the best.

March 4, 2002
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