Image: Frederick Miller Classic Chocolate Lager
Miller Brewing Company via AP
This holiday-themed beer, Frederick Miller Classic Chocolate Lager, made with real cacao, will sell in six Midwestern markets through the end of the year.
updated 10/22/2006 4:57:23 PM ET 2006-10-22T20:57:23

From chocolate to pumpkin, the nation’s top brewers are venturing where craft brewers have experimented for years — flavored brews — even if it’s only for a few months at a time.

Miller Brewing Co., the country’s second-largest brewer, recently announced it would sell a holiday-themed beer made with real cacao named after its founder. Frederick Miller Classic Chocolate Lager will sell in six Midwestern markets through the end of the year.

“Over the holidays are a good time to bring out a chocolate beer because it’s the time when people are indulging and going to parties,” said Pete Marino, a spokesman for the Milwaukee-based brewer.

This season, Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., the country’s largest brewer, is rolling out a chocolate beer for its Michelob Celebrate line, which was introduced last year with a vanilla oak flavor. It also has a line of pumpkin ale for the fall and vanilla-flavored bourbon ale for the winter, which will be released for the first time this season in bottles.

Experimenting with flavors and seasonal beers makes sense for big brewers because manufacturers are looking to rejuvenate the alcohol category, recently dominated by wine and spirits, said Felicia McClain, an analyst with Mintel Research.

“They’re trying to do something to bring some spice back into beer,” she said.

Brewers like Miller and Anheuser-Busch are showing that they can take part in the ever-popular craft beer market, too, said Eric Shephard, executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, a trade publication based in Nanuet, N.Y. Sales of domestic brews have been flat, while sales of craft beers and imports have carried the market, he said, both up about 11 percent in the first half of this year.

“From every point of view, experimenting with new flavors and styles is pretty much what you have to do right now,” he said. “It would be much more surprising if they didn’t.”

Anheuser-Busch, based in St. Louis, is now making its 2-year-old seasonal line available in bottles at stores this year, no longer only in draft, said Pat McGauley, vice president of innovation. The products, which also include Spring Heat Spiced Wheat and Beach Bum Blonde Ale, carry the Anheuser-Busch marking on the label, but they are marketed through word of mouth and in store promotions as craft beers, he said.

“Consumers have a broader drinker’s set today and are looking for different options and different products,” McGauley said. “We know they’re going to be looking around and we’re going to provide beers and products that really satisfy those needs.”

Miller’s chocolate brew comes in 4-packs sold in a deep brown case. It will be sold through the end of the year in six core Miller markets: Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Valparaiso, Ind., and throughout Wisconsin. It was offered last summer on tap at brewery tours and proved successful, Marino said.

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Last year’s seasonal brew — 1885 Celebration Lager, which marked the company’s 150th anniversary — was not flavored but was distributed on a larger scale.

According to Mintel Research, the top selling flavor last year was regular, but second was pumpkin, which brewers such as Coors Brewing Co.’s popular Blue Moon label roll out in the fall harvest season. Rounding out the top five? Honey, vanilla and nut, respectively.

The past five years have brought an increase of flavors like ginger, apple and blueberry, primarily on the craft level, McClain said.

Craft brewer Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. introduced the summer seasonal Berry Weiss 10 years ago and just this summer announced the fruity brew would be available year-round. Fans of the beer often stockpiled it as fall neared, or switched to flavored spirits or wine, so the company decided to make it year-round, said Dick Leinenkugel, vice president of sales and marketing for the Chippewa Falls, Wis.-based brewer, which is owned by Miller.

Craft brewers welcome the presence of bigger brewers into the flavored beer market, a move that could help the entire segment, he said.

“We’re in a battle for share of stomach and it’s not just brewer against brewer,” Leinenkugel said. “Consumers have a lot of other choices: flavored martinis, flavored cocktails, flavored malt beverages. We have to be innovative.”

Brewing smaller batches of niche products also might help big brewers gain credibility with craft brew fans, Shephard said.

Microbrew aficionado Daniel Schulze was surprised to learn the chocolate beer he tasted at a local store in Milwaukee was a Miller product.

The 24-year-old said he was impressed that the chocolate wasn’t overpowering and the drink was crisp and creamy, which he said was good for the cold winter season.

“I could see how this would be nice by a fire,” Schulze said.

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