Coors to get even craftier

Coors Brewing Co. hopes to further tap into the rapidly growing craft beer market through its new subsidiary, AC Golden Brewing Co.

The nation’s No. 3 brewer said this week it plans to use the unit to offer “above-premium beers” that will cost more than its Coors Light flagship.

Golden-based Coors wants to use the same low-key marketing it used to build its popular Belgian-style craft beer, Blue Moon.

“The high end is where it’s at. So it seems logical they would put a lot more focus on the high end,” Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Boulder-based industry trade group, said of Coors.

Benj Steinman, publisher of the trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights, said: “When you’re a big company, how do you nurture and cultivate a small brand? This is one possible way to do it.”

Anheuser-Busch Cos. and SAB Miller PLC’s Miller Brewing Co. also have taken steps to capitalize on the craft beer craze, including the rollout of new beers and investments in craft-beer makers.

Coors, a unit of Denver-based Molson Coors Brewing Co., disclosed its plans for AC Golden Brewing in a recent e-mail to its employees and distributors.

AC Golden Brewing’s birth comes as overall beer sales are inching up while craft beer sales are surging.

During the first half of 2007, craft beer sales increased 11 percent while sales of all beer rose just 1 percent, according to the Brewers Association.

“The craft beer segment of the beer industry has delivered strong growth over the past several years,” said David Peacock, vice president of business operations at Anheuser-Busch.

Similarly, sales of Coors’ more pricey Blue Moon have been skyrocketing compared with sales of Coors Light. At Applejack Wine & Spirits in Wheat Ridge, a case of Blue Moon costs $25.99, vs. $21.59 for Coors Light.

The Coors e-mail called the new subsidiary a “brand incubation brewery,” adding it reflected Coors Brewing Chairman Pete Coors’ “passion for great beer.”

Industry veteran Glenn Knippenberg, who previously worked for Coors, will head the new unit.

“Distributors really like him,” said beer-industry consultant Joe Thompson, president of Independent Beverage Group.

He added that the new subsidiary was “worth a shot. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to try it out.”

But Gatza of the Brewers Association cautioned that AC Golden Brewing would prove to be a “tricky balancing act” for Coors as it tries to stay focused on its “core brands while innovating at the high end.”

To introduce its beers, AC Golden Brewing won’t use “national rollouts that are very expensive and have had only limited success,” said the Coors e-mail.

With Blue Moon, Coors has played down its ties to the beer, evidently hoping not to scare away craft beer drinkers who might be turned off by the Coors name.

Blue Moon sold 494,000 cases in U.S. supermarkets during the past 13 weeks through Aug. 12, a 45 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the Chicago market research firm Information Resources Inc.

The Blue Moon sales were slightly ahead of two top craft brands: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, at 481,000 cases; and Samuel Adams Boston Lager, at 468,000 cases.

“The Blue Moon brand continues to be on fire,” Gatza said.

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