The youth-obsessed industry is expected to ramp up efforts for good reason. The country's median age and number of people entering their golden years are on the rise; older people drink more than previous generations; many of them have the heavy wallets that make them a marketer's dream. In addition, they have a zest for life, no intention of acting their age and a social calendar full of events with libations.
Though the brewer frequently lags competitors' innovations, it's little surprise Anheuser-Busch is the most aggressive beer marketer in this expanded world: Chairman-President August Busch III, 64, has a special affinity for the graying consumer, and it was at his behest that Anheuser-Busch last year started researching older drinkers, according to several people close to the brewer. They said focus groups, new products and other initiatives are on the agenda. One recent addition is Michelob Ultra, a low-carbohydrate, low-calorie brew being tested in Florida and Arizona-two states with a huge base of retirees-and in Colorado.
Distributors say the new brew is selling exceptionally well. Light beers, while aimed at young heavy drinkers, are attractive to people battling an aging metabolism.
Anheuser-Busch declined to comment and would not make Mr. Busch available.
But beer distributors see a big opportunity to sell beer to active retirees today and to retiring baby boomers down the road.
Alex Dagnillo, a 69-year-old resident of Del Webb's Sun City in Summerfield, Fla., is in the new target market. He didn't even drink beer when he moved to the central Florida retirement community four years ago. Now, his brand is Budweiser. He downs a six-pack per week, generally after rounds of golf with the crowd that brought him to beer after decades of scotch and vodka.
"The lifestyle that a lot of these people have is the envy of many of us who are out there working on a daily basis," said an Anheuser-Busch distributor in Florida. "They have money in their pockets, time on their hands, and they're always looking for good leisure opportunities. ... Leisure opportunities are where our products are served."
With economic woes and corporate profits tight, the aging beer drinker is expected to be increasingly important to marketers following boomers from cradle to grave.
"Baby boomers as they age up are going to be an even better consumer demographic than their parents were for us. They already have been used to a really fun lifestyle their whole lives. They've never sacrificed anything the way their parents have," said the Anheuser-Busch distributor. "They're indulgent, and they're impetuous in their spending patterns."
The key 20-something age group continues to grow. But starting in 2016, the number of 55- to 59-year-olds temporarily will outflank 20- to 24-year-olds, according to Census Bureau projections. And while young drinkers currently outnumber their parents, 55- to 64-year-olds will continue to grow in number more quickly than 20- to 29-year-olds through the year 2045, Census data show.
Brewers' look toward older consumers is relatively recent, and some insiders argue it's folly to divert any attention from 20-somethings. This free-spending group consumes two to five times more alcohol than older consumers, and younger drinkers are still figuring out which products will be their lifelong brands.
Others, however, see rewards in the 70-plus million people who were born from 1946 through 1964 and introduced America to free love, pot and political dissent.
"These are people who won't get old. They think beer is an inalienable right," said one advertising veteran with two decades in the beer business. "Baby boomers, despite their age, will have a state of mind that transcends demographics."
Perhaps as early as summer, new products and focus groups, as well as expanded strategies and inclusive advertising, will come to the fore, said industry participants and observers.
Aging consumers likely will gravitate to lighter alcohol products. That predisposition could be one reason low-calorie beers are predicted to grow 25% by 2010, while the beer market is seen growing just 10%, according to the 2002 annual beer study from Impact, the drinks publication.
Alternative malt beverages also could score big-especially with women, said the Florida distributor. He predicted beverages such as Anheuser-Busch's new Bacardi Silver and Diageo Worldwide's Smirnoff Ice will appeal to older women who like cocktails but not the bother of mixing them.
"As [brewers] get more adept at analyzing social behavior and become more open-minded," said Tom Hansen, partner with Dallas independent Square One, and a longtime beer adman, they'll see "people all the way up to retirement are legitimate targets for new types of products."
But older consumers don't always want new and improved. While courting longtime customers is important, perhaps even more essential is not aggravating them by radically tinkering with flavor, ads or label graphics. "They get used to what they're used to, and you go and start changing things. You think it's for the better-the graphics are more contemporary, for example-and you risk the loyal consumer," said a second Anheuser-Busch distributor in Florida.
Boomers and retirees do not drink the volume of alcohol they used to, largely for health reasons. But it's believed retirees consume more than did previous generations.
"Don't let people think these people are not doing anything. These folks have an active life," said the second Florida distributor.
For now, market leader Anheuser-Busch is alone. Philip Morris Cos.-owned No. 2 brewer Miller Brewing Co. and No. 3 Coors Brewing Co. said they're not making a formal play for older consumers. One Miller and Coors distributor, however, hailed the idea of targeting older drinkers as innovative-and potentially quite profitable considering people born after the Depression will spend money more freely than their parents and have the interests to keep them active. "They're not going to be the same old retiree," he said.