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What a rush. (PHOTO: MillerCoors)

New booze Natty Rush to challenge Four Loko, MillerCoors' Steel Reserve

While breweries across the country are capitalizing on the growing craft beer movement – embracing consumers' taste for higher-quality, locally made, unique and less commoditized products – there remains a stalwart customer base in the market for established value brands. Cheap booze, in other words.

For companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, the domestic sub-premium portfolio – economical stuff like Busch, Natural Light, Keystone Light – still does big business, accounting for nearly one-sixth of all U.S. beers sold, though its market share has declined.

As long as we have colleges, we will have college kids. With that in mind, and especially given the younger-demographic popularity of Four Loko, AB-InBev plans to release this fall a new, high-gravity, flavored malt beverage (FMB) called Natty Rush. The product – part of the Natural brand family and available in 8 or 12 percent alcohol by volume – will be positioned as to compete with MillerCoors' existing Steel Reserve Alloy Series. Frat stars, rejoice!

Now, I was a big fan of Four Loko in college, stockpiling the stuff with friends when a 2010 FDA ruling forced the removal of caffeine and other ostensibly unsafe ingredients from the drink. I also fondly remember playing a nice, long game of Wizard Staffs with a $15 case of Natural Light. So I'm no teetotaler opponent, in principle or practice, of Natty Rush.

But AB-InBev hasn't traditionally been very good in this segment. Its flagship flavored malt beverage brand, the Bud Lightish Lime-a-Rita, reportedly is down 16.6 percent in year-to-date case volume and continues to lose share, according to a Nielson report. That's probably because Lima-a-Rita is gross and sucks, though it still outperformed MillerCoors' Sparks in the category. Also, last November, AB-InBev discontinued Mixxtail, a cocktail-inspired Bud Light line extension, and said it was rethinking its "flavor variants" selection.

Perhaps the severely flavorful-sounding Watermelon Smash, Hurricane Punch and Blue Frostbite (frostbite?) – the names of the initial Natty Rush offerings – will bolster its value FMB program.

Meanwhile, while overall volume performance for flavored malt beverages was down 2 percent YTD, according to Nielson data through July 29, MillerCoors' Steel Reserve Alloy Series family performance was up 2.4 percent during the same period. Per Nielson, the Steel Reserve Alloy Series has a 4.1 FMB share, which was a 0.2 percent increase from the previous year. So MillerCoors' version has figured out a way to stay relevant, even mildly grow, in the space.

And I can tell you from firsthand experience, on a Chicago 'L' train ride to a Cubs-Brewers game at Wrigley Field, nothing strengthens the Milwaukee sports-fan spirit more than 40 ounces of high-gravity Steel Reserve. Go Brew Crew!

Anyway, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, Natty Rush will be sold in 25-ounce cans – the same weird but seemingly well-liked size that Budweiser started offering in 2013, promoted as "1 EXTRA OUNCE" – and it will be available in late October. The stronger, 12 percent ABV version is called Natty Rush + and will debut around the same time in select test markets.

And, in case for some reason you were wondering about this, it says so right on the label: "Certified color." That's cool, but still, I think I'll have a Zima.

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