Blue Moon Brewing Co. began 2020 optimistic about its 25th anniversary. With momentum from a highly touted new ad, the nation’s leading craft brand was preparing to launch Blue Moon LightSky, a new low-carb tangerine wheat ale, while continuing to grow its flagship, the top-selling craft beer in the country.
Like all brewers, Blue Moon took a hit with the evaporation of on-premise sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. But with about half of its volume sold in the on-premise, which includes bars, taverns and restaurants, the brand experienced an outsized blow.
Yet despite what could be a doom-and-gloom story, the brand has maintained momentum through difficult times, posting 17% growth in off-premise sales volume year-to-date, according to Nielsen all-outlet and convenience data through June 6, the most recent information available. Over the last four weeks, it’s up a whopping 29%.
What’s more, Blue Moon has two of the four top growth brands in the craft segment, and its new entrant, Blue Moon LightSky, is the best-selling new craft brand released in 2020 by a substantial margin, per Nielsen all-outlet and convenience data through May 30. And, when on-premise locations re-open widely across the United States, Blue Moon is poised to retain its spot on the leader pole, says Lester Jones, chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
“When you fold in the on-premise channels, Blue Moon is the leader because it has such a strong national on-premise business model,” Jones says. “Once the on-premise starts coming back, it’s going to reestablish itself as the leader.”
Across the country, one of the common themes in the coronavirus era has been consumers turning to large packs of trusted brands. The craft segment is no different, with Blue Moon’s largest national packaging – 15-packs of Blue Moon Belgian White Belgian-Style Ale – posting 75% year-over-year growth. Its strength in the off-premise puts the franchise second only to New Belgium in the craft segment in annual growth, and a close third to Sierra Nevada for the last four weeks.
“Our 15-pack cans used to represent a very small portion of our business, but that’s what’s driving all of our growth right now,” says Michelle Ahbe, senior marketing manager for Blue Moon. “Our recent sales data in the off-premise has been off the charts.”
Overall, the brand has thrived during the pandemic (measured by Nielsen as the period between Feb. 29 and May 30, the most-recent date for which data are available), up 28.9% in case volume growth, outpacing both the craft segment (+18%) and the beer industry overall (+16.6%), each of which have seen their own substantial gains.
Other regional and national craft brands also have been lifted in the off-premise during the pandemic, including those in Molson Coors’ Tenth & Blake portfolio. Regional craft partners — Terrapin, Hop Valley, Saint Archer, Revolver, AC Golden and Atwater — are up 20% combined year-to-date and 24% in the most-recent 13 weeks, per Nielsen. And Leinenkugel’s, which finished last year down, has clawed back this year to nearly flat, helped by a +3% performance over the past 13 weeks.
While consumers have been quick to pick up packs of Belgian White, the brand has also been lifted by the hot performance of its newest entrant, Blue Moon LightSky, which the brand has positioned as a daytime drinking option, as opposed to the happy hour occasions where Belgian White performs best.
At 95 calories and 3.6 carbs, LightSky is an easy-drinking, lower-alcohol alternative to Belgian White, and is 2020’s No. 1 beer innovation by sales, per Nielsen. Brewed with real tangerine peel, the 4% ABV wheat beer comes in slim white cans and delivers a familiar citrus flavor associated with the Blue Moon brand, in addition to a touch of malt sweetness, finishing clean with a hint of tropical fruit.
“LightSky has absolutely been flying off the shelves,” says Ahbe. Already Blue Moon’s second-best seller behind Belgian White, LightSky is the year’s best-selling new craft brand and top-30 craft brand, overall, according to Nielsen.
Blue Moon LightSky has far outpaced other new brands released this year. Nielsen reports it has booked $12.1 million in sales at retail, compared to $3.7 million for Elysian Contact Haze IPA, the next-highest new craft brand released this year (Bud Light Assorted Peels and Bud Light Lemonade Lager rank 2nd and 3rd with $5.2 million and $3.9 million in sales, respectively). LightSky has benefited from the Blue Moon halo effect, as well as being displayed next to Belgian White in off-premise locations, Ahbe says. But that’s not the only reason for its success: It’s a response to drinkers’ demands.
“We kept hearing from consumers that they wanted a beer that has the flavor expected of (Belgian White), but that is a bit easier to drink for those daytime occasions, and so we developed LightSky,” Ahbe says. “We listened to consumers and our distributors were immediately on board with the sessionable lower-calorie option as well.”
Still, the positive growth Blue Moon has seen since the pandemic disrupted American life is not enough to make up for the decline in on-premise sales, Ahbe says. Blue Moon is not alone is experiencing that reduction in sales, as overall industry volume is down 1% through April, Jones says.
Blue Moon’s task as consumers begin returning to venues will be to hold back the competition, Jones says, pointing to the strength of New Belgium’s Fat Tire Belgian Ale and Sierra Nevada, whose 18% annual growth in off-premise sales bests Blue Moon by a less than a point.
“Off-premise (sales are) going to start slowing down as the on-premise starts gaining again and as drinkers start drifting back,” Jones says. “Blue Moon is going to be right there because they are widely known and widely distributed.”