Can a Light Stella Artois Win Over the Snobs?

Last Updated Aug 14, 2008 2:21 PM EDT

Has InBev gone native already? In what seems like an abomination, the Belgian brewer that recently inked a deal to acquire Anheuser Busch is planning a low-cal -- and worse, reduced-alcohol -- version of Stella Artois, its fine, pilsner-ish lager.

stellaThe whole branding campaign behind Stella is upscale and focused on quality - you've seen the short films in movie theaters. The brand is aimed squarely at urban professionals and beer snobs.

(At least, that's so in North America. In England and some other places in Europe, the brand is associated with drunken soccer hooligans. The Brits have nicknamed it "wife beater." Really.)

Nonetheless, will introducing a light version water down Stella's reputation here? Maybe. Much will depend on how the beer, called Stella Artois Legere, tastes. But is there any light beer anywhere that tastes decent? Sure, if you're going for the cheap stuff, some brands are OK. Busch's own hard-to-find Busch Natural Light is actually pretty good - even distinctive.

But for the most part, lights just don't work in terms of taste. And low-alcohol beers never do. Taking away calories takes away a beer's character. Taking away alcohol destroys it. And character is Stella's main draw.

Legere is being rolled out now in Canada, and InBev has plans to go global with it, assuming the Canadians like it.

The Toronto Globe and Mail last week took a look at the trend that InBev is mongering - that of "luxury light" beers. The thinking among brewers is that Joe and Jane Sixpack already have their light options, so why not Brad and Brenda Briefcase? Heineken, Grolsch, some microbrewers and others have found mixed success so far. In the United States, the usual suspects - Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light - overwhelmingly dominate the category.

Of course, the "luxe light" trend, as it is called, is only a few years old. The premium brewers are still working to overcome the fact that many beer snobs are predisposed to not like light beer -- and for good reason. For them (OK, us), Stella is already the light choice.

But brewers, just like all food and beverage producers, are under constant pressure to find new markets. That's especially so given generally stagnant beer sales in recent years.

The only way to do it is to come up with new categories or "improvements" on old ones. Anything that can bring former beer drinkers back from wine and liquor is what the brewers covet most -- and that's precisely what they are hoping for here.

  • Dan Mitchell

    Dan Mitchell has spent the past 20 years writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and Web publications. Currently, he writes the What's Online column for the Saturday business section of the New York Times. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, National Public Radio, Business 2.0, and Wired.