MILWAUKEE — Craft beer by its definition is small, both in batches and distribution. So, what does it mean when the nation's second-biggest brewer takes its most popular beer and does it up, craft-style?
It's confusing, analysts say, but it makes sense for a company like Miller Brewing Co. as it woos today's drinker, who wants more flavorful brews. It also makes sense from a money standpoint because craft beers are growing faster than the overall beer segment, and they command higher prices.
Miller, hoping to latch on to part of that growth, announced this week it's introducing a trio of different styles of Miller Lite, which it hopes will lure new drinkers to the craft segment.
The Miller Lite Brewing Collection, which will be nationwide by September, features variations on the brewer's biggest brand: wheat, amber and blonde ale styles, all popular among craft brewers.
Tests in February in four markets — Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis and San Diego — were so well received the Milwaukee-based unit of SABMiller PLC decided to go national.
The goal, Miller spokesman Julian Green said, is to bank on the popularity of low-calorie Miller Lite to create a new market called "craft-style light." The collection's tag line: "Craft Beer. Done Lite."
But is it? It's not clear how drinkers will perceive this new twist on Miller Lite, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights.
"The point of craft beer is more flavorful, so light craft doesn't make a whole lot of intuitive sense to me," he said.
But he's quick to point out that craft beers continue to outpace domestic ones, growing 12 percent over the past two years compared with domestics' growth of about 2 percent.
"Everybody's trying to get their arms around and their hands on the more money you can make if you sell beer at a higher price," he said.
Miller is pushing the beer's "Lite" aspect as much as its "craft" taste. The beers all have 110 calories per 12-ounce serving, which is more than Miller Lite's 96 calories. But it's less than full-calorie craft beers.
Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest brewer with about half the market, is doing something similar to one of its stronger brands, Michelob, said Juli Niemann, an analyst with Smith Moore & Co. in St. Louis. The new Michelob unit will be where Anheuser-Busch focuses on similar craft-style type beers, like Michelob Porter, and creates new ones.
"They're trying to get the main brands back again into some kind of dominance. They chose Michelob," Niemann said.
But Anheuser-Busch also has its own craft beers under different labels, some of them found only in certain areas, such as Skipjack Amber in the Mid-Atlantic, and ZiegenBock, which is found only in Texas.
Miller has its own craft line as well in Leinenkugel's, which is known for brands like Sunset Wheat and fruit-flavored brews.