Grain, hops, yeast, and water: the four primary ingredients for one of the most common alcoholic drinks in the world – beer. The general brewing process requires a complicated series of steps utilizing these four ingredients to extract sugars, ferment alcohol and CO2, develop taste and body, and ultimately deliver the adult beverage many love. 

Beer has had a long and fascinating life in the United States. The most recognizable major beer breweries (Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, etc.) have been around for a long time, growing steadily in the regional beer markets that consolidated during the mid-20th century. However, they were challenged by the eruption of craft breweries in the ’90s and into the early 2000s. With a new decade, and some of the oldest Gen Zers growing into drinking age, we at CivicScience decided it was time to take a look at trends among some of the most popular beers and the overall industry as a whole. 

As the data show, from among some of the most popular beers, Blue Moon and Corona are by far the brands that beer drinkers as a whole have had positive experiences with. What is even more interesting is that, with the exception of Corona Light, the light versions of these beers are much more popular than their non-light versions. Though, that trend comes with a caveat: the light versions of popular beer brands also have a generally equal or higher negative experience rate than their non-light counterparts. The implication here might be that people either love them or hate them.

Aside from that, trends also demonstrate that of the most popular beer brands listed above, each is of the lager, light lager, or American lager style, with the exception of Guinness (a stout), and Blue Moon (a wheat-style witbier). And as will be shown, the preference for lagers has a huge impact on the large beer market as a whole. 

Beer Style Preferences

As it turns out, despite the India pale ale (IPA) boom of about a decade ago, and all the complex-flavored variations of beer that came along with it, the classic lager remains by far the most popular style out there. 

Twenty-nine percent of beer drinkers prefer the lager style, while the darker and heavier pale ale / India pale ale styles come in second at 21% preferability. And if you think that style preference might be driven by age, you would be right, but probably not in the way you think. 

While older demographics do gradually skew toward preferring lagers to other styles, it’s really the youngest beer drinkers driving their popularity. Forty-three percent of respondents 21- to 24-years-old report lagers being their favorite style of beer, while only 29% of 55-and-older respondents report the same (only one to three percentage points more than other age groups).

There may be an interesting explanation to this statistic. While it’s generally known that drinkers of classic American lagers (Bud, Coors, Miller, etc.) generally skew older, younger drinkers may prefer newer, international lagers commonly found in college bars (Heineken, Corona, Negra Modelo, etc). So instead of overall taste preference, lagers might benefit from a combination of brand loyalty from long-time drinkers combined with increased availability to those new to the drinking fold.

Speaking of Brand Loyalty

Over two-thirds (68%) of respondents report being brand-loyal when it comes to the beer they drink or buy.

And once again, that brand loyalty is clearly driven by age. Drinking-age members of Gen Z report being the most brand-loyal when buying beer, while the age group just above them (25 – 34 year olds) are the least. 

Interestingly, according to the preference data demonstrated above, age groups ranging from 25 to 54 together show the lowest level of brand loyalty, but also the highest level of preference for non-lager style beers, especially with regard to pale ales, IPAs and stouts, and porters. Likely coming of age during the craft brewery and microbrewery explosion in the ’90s and 2000s, this age range (especially Millennials, who were once feared to kill the big beer industry) also trends away from major labels in favor of the smaller guys. 

The data here poses a significant challenge for large macrobreweries attempting to make inroads with the purchasing power of key 25- to 54-year-old beer drinking demographics. InBev, the parent company of Budweiser, among others, has attempted over the last decade or so to remedy this by quietly purchasing small microbreweries without changing labeling or distribution, though that hasn’t been met without resistance.

On Trying New Beer

Instead of trying to capitalize on “tricking” consumers into favoring a brand they don’t know they’re being loyal to (for instance, lovers of Chicago’s very popular Goose Island Beer Company may not know they have been buying an Anheuser-Busch craft brand since 2011), beer companies could try to capitalize on demographics excited to try new beers. 

The data show that just over half of the beer drinking general population (51%) is interested in trying new brands, styles, or flavors of beer when available. And if we break that interest down by age, we see something even more conclusive. 

By wide margins, the age groups between 25 and 54 (the least brand-loyal age range) are interested in trying new beers, while both their older and younger counterparts remain generally happier with the beers they already know. 

And if we take a quick look along gender lines, we see that respondents who identify as male tend to skew toward being more open to trying new beer styles (55%) compared to female-identifying respondents (46%), though that may be related to the availability of preferred beer flavor profiles, as will be discussed below.

Flavor Profile

If a beer company is looking to tap into the elusive yet open-to-new-experiences demographic of 25- to 54-year-old beer drinkers, then it would be helpful to know that light and crisp is how most people (49%) in the general population like their beer. 

But that doesn’t mean that preference is static across age or gender. As you look at younger and younger beer drinkers, an increase for fruit, wheat, or citrus profiles becomes apparent, mirroring a decrease in preference for light and crisp tastes. Dark and complex preferences, meanwhile, remain relatively static across all age groups. 

Across gender, while men and women are nearly split among preferring light and crisp flavors, respondents who identify as female prefer fruit, citrus, or wheat by five percentage points compared to male respondents. At the same time, those who identify as male prefer something more dark and complex by seven percentage points. 

This implication here might be that there simply is not as much variety in beers with fruit, citrus, or wheat flavor profiles as female beer drinkers would like. In terms of large craft or macrobrewery options, outside of widely distributed Blue Moon (the popular Belgian-style wheat beer), there are few highly available fruit / citrus / wheat style brands that fit demand. 

Market Gaps

Looking at Blue Moon (parent company MillerCoors), we see women are at least seven percentage points more likely to have a positive experience with the brand, indicating an opening for other large breweries to try to make inroads. 

On the other hand, looking at specific brands for men is more difficult. As demonstrated by the reported experiences with beers at the beginning of this study, with few exceptions, the most popular brands  are lagers, light lagers, or some variation of American lagers. In other words, there is no leading national beer brand with a dark and complex flavor profile that men generally prefer as compared to women. 

This may indicate one or both of two things: There is an overabundance of availability of dark and complex beers on local, regional, and national levels, making it more difficult for a leading brand to emerge (unlike Blue Moon, which easily stands above all other nationally distributed wheat-styled beers). On the other hand, leading beer companies have yet to succeed in creating a nationally distributed and enjoyed dark and complex beer brand, despite absorbing smaller and regional-sized microbreweries over the years. 

Regardless of the reason, the prevalence of lagers is likely to continue dominating the market, pushing beer drinkers who are open to trying new flavors or styles to the fringes (or to their local microbreweries). If the Anheuser-Busch’s and MillerCoors’ of the world want to keep up with demand among segments between 25 and 54, they may need to find a way to broaden their product lines. Light and crisp flavors will generally remain popular, but there is clearly an unmet demand for wheat and fruit-styled beer, as well as darker and more complex offerings.