The Bizarrely Hot Selling Un-Cool Beer

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In the beer world, the last five or so years have been marked by the rise of craft brews, and the simultaneous sales slump of most mass-market beers. Amid the turn to craft, one middle-of-the-road brew stands out because sales have increased for seven consecutive years. And no, it’s not PBR we’re talking about.

In fact, despite its rising popularity, few think of this beer as being anywhere near as hip as Pabst Blue Ribbon. The beer in question is Coors Banquet, a.k.a., plain old Coors—the frothy traditional brew that comes in cans that are a pale yellow, a pigment slightly darker than the straw-colored liquid inside.

Using data from Beer Insights, the website 24/7 Wall Street put together a list of the “Nine Beers Americans No Longer Drink” that’s recently been circulating on the web. The title isn’t exactly accurate, since one of the requirements to be on the list was that the brand must sell in quantities of least 600,000 barrels per year. In any event, what all of the brews featured have in common is that they have sustained large drop-offs in popularity. Specifically, sales of the brands on the list have all fallen by 30% of more from 2007 to 2012.

The list has several mass-market brands that you probably recall being tipped back regularly by members of your dad’s generation: Budweiser, Old Milwaukee, Miller Genuine Draft. The worst performer of all was Michelob Light. Sales of Michelob Light have fallen from more than 1 million barrels in 2007 to around 350,000 barrels in 2012, a drop of 70%.

(MORE: After PBR: Will the Next Great Hipster Beer Please Stand Up?)

Without knowing any better, you might have assumed that one of the brews featured on the list is original Coors, a.k.a. Coors Banquet. Sales of Coors—the one in the pale yellow can—decreased year in, year out through the 1980s and ’90s, a period when light lagers, especially sibling Coors Light, as well as Miller Light and Bud Light, took off. Likewise, Budweiser sales have declined for more than two decades, a period when craft beer sales have soared and “macro” brews have largely gone flat.

But a funny thing happened in the case of Coors Banquet. As a press release from the MillerCoors company earlier in 2013 explained, Coors Banquet was one of its better performers last year, and in fact it has been one of the few mass-market beers to increase sales for several years running:

Miller Genuine Draft’s double digit decline was partly offset by continued growth of Coors Banquet, the only national Premium Regular brand in the industry to gain market share in the quarter, versus prior year. Coors Banquet grew high-single digits for the quarter and mid-single digits for the year, delivering its sixth straight year of volume growth.

What’s caused Coors Banquet’s sales surge, which is particularly surprising given the broader marketplace trends stifling Big Beer brands? Analysts consulted by the Denver Post point to increased ad spending as one of the reasons, in particular a series of commercials featuring the deep, twangy voice of Sam Elliott. To boost interest in the brand, Coors Banquet has been sold in various retro “Heritage” cans, and this past spring, MillerCoors introduced a throwback Coors Banquet “stubby” bottle, based on packaging first sold in the post-prohibition era.

Pete Coors, the chairman of MillerCoors who has starred in quite a few company commercials himself, says that while the market has helped the revival of Coors Banquet, the brand’s success is mostly the result of drinkers realizing (or re-realizing) that it tastes good. “It’s not a craft, it’s not retro, we’re just trying to help people understand that this is a really terrific beer that’s been around for a long time,” Coors said in a Q&A with the Good Beer Hunting blog this past summer.

(MORE: Big Beer Sales Slump, and Yet Profits Rise)

Coors said that the craft movement, with its focus on hops and intense flavors, seems to have made Coors Banquet more appealing because it isn’t hoppy or intense. “Maybe it’s one of the benefits of some of the more flavorful craft beers that people are saying ‘Yeah, I want something in the middle,'” said Coors. He even went so far as to talk a little smack against today’s craft brewers, saying they couldn’t make a beer like Coors Banquet, supposing they ever wanted to:

Brewing Coors Banquet and Coors Light, or any of the light beers, is a huge challenge. The craft guys can’t compete with it. Brewing a really good, full-flavored lager beer of this style is not easy.

Despite the recent success of Coors Banquet, it’s extremely unlikely any craft brewer would want to produce anything in the same ball park in terms of taste. The beer-crazed reviewers at Beer Advocate collectively give Coors Banquet a rating of 61, place it in the category of “poor” (a score under 60 is “awful”).

(MORE: Trouble Brewing: The Craft Beer vs. ‘Crafty’ Beer Cat Fight)

Another important note is that the revival of Coors Banquet must be viewed from perspective: After all, it’s a beer that saw sales tank for a couple of decades. “It’s not too hard to grow from such a small number,” Colorado State University marketing professor Stan Slater told the Denver Post. What’s more, even after seven years of rising sales, Coors Banquet still hasn’t cracked the list of the Top 20 Best-Selling Beers in America.

“Anheuser-Busch probably spills more Budweiser every day than Coors makes Banquet,” Slater said.