Beer companies have a lot riding on this week

You're going to hear a lot about beer this week. The days surrounding the July 4 holiday are the most critical of the year for the beer industry, which is eager to revive slumping sales.

Brewers are stepping up advertising and rolling out new products to tempt drinkers, The Wall Street Journal reports. Budweiser is going patriotic, selling limited-edition cans and bottles in red, white and blue. MillerCoors is promoting a higher-alcohol beer called Miller Fortune that it suggests be served in a smaller rocks glass instead of the usual pint glass. Beer companies are also heavily advertising around the World Cup tournament, even hosting game-viewing parties nationwide.

On the product side, beer makers are jumping into two trends taking hold with American drinkers. First is the combination of beer and juice, lemonade or other non-alcoholic drinks. Those mashups are known as shandys or radlers, and Heineken has recently debuted a lemon-flavored Amstel Radler.

The second trend is the margarita-flavored malt beverage, which has already proven successful for Anhsuer-Busch InBev (BUD) in the form of Bud Light Lime-A-Rita and Straw-Ber-Rita. Both drinks are the top two brands in the flavored malt-beverage category, CNBC reports, leading the company to release mango and raspberry versions in March. Heineken rolled out Dos-A-Rita, a lager margarita, in March as well.

Those flavored beverages are an acknowledgement of sorts that the industry has lost drinkers to cocktails and hard liquor. Sales of American whiskey have surged even as beer sales have been flat, The Motley Fool reports. Sales of premium versions of Jack Daniel's and the higher-end Maker's Mark have seen double-digit growth recently.

Beer sales, on the other hand, have not grown so fast. Beer consumption has fallen in the U.S. in four of the last five years, The Journal reports, and beer shipments are essentially flat so far this year.

What's causing the slump in beer sales? Consumers are simply changing their tastes, moving away from light beer and into craft beers, ciders, wine and other beverages. That's why big brewers are coming out with premium and craft-like beers, including Miller Fortune and Budweiser Black Crown.

Blame the economy for biting into beer sales as well. A spike in unemployment among lower-income earners, including the beer-friendly category of single young men, hurt beer sales in 2013, CNBC reports. And though the economy seems to be on the mend, it isn't clear that those beer drinkers have come back yet.

"As consumer preferences evolve, the beer market landscape is changing," Eric Schmidt, director of research at Technomic, told USA Today.

The pendulum of taste will surely swing back the other direction at some point, but for now, big brewers are working hard for every bottle and can sold.

  • Kim Peterson

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