The same familiar faces stand atop the podium of America’s largest beer brands: Bud Light, Coors Light, and until recently, Budweiser. In late 2017, Miller Lite supplanted The King Of Beers, making light beers the three best-selling beers in America for the first time. But there’s yet another newcomer shaking up the leaderboard, and it’s Michelob Ultra.
Michelob Ultra launched nationally in 2004, and according to sales data, it’s now the third-largest beer brand in America, with Miller Lite slipping to number four. That’s by dollar sales, though, not volume. Because Michelob Ultra costs more than Miller Lite, it still sells less by volume than Miller Lite, but rakes in more money.
Why is this a big deal?
“The first two years [of Michelob Ultra sales] were ridiculous and it’s been a double-digit growth brand for a decade. There’s nobody else except for upstart brands that can lay claim to that,” Bryan Roth, a beer writer who’s covered Michelob Ultra extensively, tells The Takeout. A piece he wrote for Good Beer Hunting last year calls Michelob Ultra “the most important American beer since Bud Light.”
While America’s large breweries struggle, Michelob Ultra’s star only continues to rise. But it’s not because the beer inside those slim blue cans is much different from a Miller Lite: Mich Ultra has 2.6 grams of carbs and 95 calories, while Miller Lite has 3.2 grams of carbs and 96 calories.
No, it’s about the marketing.
“The way the brand has integrated itself into the lifestyle activity and the minds of people consuming it is a true differentiator,” Roth says. “It’s built this ‘better for you’ category for modern beer audiences.”
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Mich Ultra sponsors marathons and golf tournaments, and a new commercial for its Infusions line features Olympic gold medal volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings. Whether you’re actually participating in any of these pursuits, the brand wants you to feel that drinking it signals you’re the kind of person who could. And that’s enough to set it on a rocket launch toward the top of American beer.