At beer-tasting sites, Coors Light earns the official rating of “awful.” In a fairly typical review it’s described as “watery, bland, and tasteless”—which is the exact opposite of what the average craft beer is trying to be today.
So why would a craft brewer try to create a beer that’s comparable in any way to Coors Light? It’s not like there’s a big market of people searching for a tastier brew to use in beer pong. To understand the current battle to become what might be called the Coors Light of Craft Beer—a phrase that surely puts a bad taste in the mouths of beer nerds everywhere—a little context is required.
American craft beers have enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years. Craft beer production increased 42% in 2014, giving the segment 11% market share, up from 5% in 2010. Last year, 21% of all money spent on beer in the U.S. went to the craft segment, a 16% increase from 2014.
What’s perhaps most astounding is how quickly the market has grown out of almost nothing. There were only about 100 breweries in the U.S. during the 1980s. That number exploded to about 2,500 in 2013, and has kept rising, crossing the 4,000 mark last year, up to around 4,600 breweries at last check.
And yet the trend, while celebrated by beer enthusiasts, has made a trip to the liquor store a whole lot more complicated. Part of what makes the craft beer world so fun is that there is always some new flavor to try. Inevitably, though, craft drinkers bring home something they don’t like—cough, grapefruit-flavored beer, cough—making them more inclined to go with something reliable and less likely to constantly play the field.
What’s more, while most craft beers stand out for flavor and hoppiness, which is what makes them different and worth paying a premium compared to mass-market brews, they’re generally more filling as a result. They tend to pack in more alcohol as well, making them less “drinkable,” in beer world parlance.
Any worthy contender to be the Coors Light of Craft Beer (sorry if the phrase turns your stomach) must walk a fine line. It would have to taste good to keep craft drinkers happy, but couldn’t be so strong or full of flavor that it wouldn’t be “sessionable,” to use a popular craft beer phrase. It would also have to be made by an independent company rather than be yet another label owned by a Big Beer corporation, because the “little guy” factor is undeniably part of the attraction in craft beer circles.
It’s this concept that inspired House Beer, based in southern California and sold in simple cans that bear a little resemblance to old-school Miller Lite, to enter the market. Frustrated at having to “choose between beers that were great for drinking and beers that tasted great,” the company website says, House Beer’s founders wondered, “Why can’t you have your beer and drink it too?”
The goal for House Beer was to combine the quality of “craft beers with the drinkability of Coors Lite,” for a product that’s “brewed with taste and care you would find in most craft beers but one you can drink time and time again,” a company PR contact explained. Here’s the brand’s first major ad:
We were intrigued, and decided the most prudent step would be to drink some beer in the office on a random Thursday afternoon. (The things we must do for the sake of journalism, right?)
MONEY staffers were filmed doing blind taste-tests of five brews that aspire to be your easy-drinking go-to beer. They all have fairly low ABV (alcohol by volume) and aren’t prone to leave you feeling bloated or too tipsy. For all of these reasons, brews like these are particularly suited to enjoyment in the summer, when you’re kicking back with friends and likely to enjoy more than a couple. Think of this category as the modern-day, far tastier craft version of Schaefer, which billed itself back in the day as “The One Beer to Have When You’re Having More Than One”:
In addition to House Beer, we sampled a couple of session ales, Harpoon Take 5 and Founders All-Day IPA, and a pilsner from Oskar Blues, Mama’s Little Yellow Pils. Just to be mischievous, we had our office guinea pigs unknowingly sample Coors Light itself right in the middle of the tastings.
The results, as you can see in the video, should speak for themselves. Most of our tasters thought House Beer was pretty decent, if a little basic, and certainly drinkable. Our lone taster who really doesn’t like beer amusingly picked Coors Light as her favorite.
The upside of a beer becoming the go-to choice of the masses is huge, of course. But price is key for any brew to cross the line from being an occasional purchase to something people regularly stock in the fridge. House Beer has a suggested retail price of $13.99 per 12-pack. That’s cheaper than regional niche brews, and about on par with sale prices for large craft brands like Samuel Adams, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Harpoon.
To break through and become a mainstream hit, then, House Beer must convince beer drinkers that it’s a better choice than more flavorful brews that cost the same from well-established players. It must also convince people that it’s worth paying a premium compared to the cheaper Pabst Blue Ribbons and Coors Lights of the world. Ultimately, how the market shakes out will be determined as it should be, over quite a few beers.