Aiken - There's nothing like a cold beer on a day when the temperature creeps into the 90s and the sun's heat turns asphalt parking lots into short-order grills.
It's almost like dancing under a refreshing waterfall when a cold one rolls over the tongue and removes the dry, parched feeling at the back of the throat.
But finding the right mix of barley, hops and wheat is getting harder.
The days when beer meant nothing more than a traditional brewski, a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy or Bud long neck, are no more. Today's choices include red beer, honey brews, blueberry concoctions, light beer, micro brews, ice beer and a plethora of others.
Beer, in decline about 10 years ago as Americans became obsessive about their waistlines, has hit a resurgence. The biggest growth has been in the micro brew or niche market, which has jumped from approximately 1 million barrels produced in 1992 to nearly 6 million barrels in 1996.
That accounts for 2 percent of the total beer market but is indicative of a tremendous upsurge for an industry whose sales lagged because of a 1991 excise tax and concerns about health effects.
For connoisseurs, specialty brews offer distinctive flavor.
"I enjoy the different taste," said Bill Kerrigan, sipping a Thoroughbred Red micro brew at the Aiken Brewing Co. "It's not like your basic domestic. Plus, it's more powerful."
And even healthy.
Recent studies showing that alcohol in moderation can have a positive effect on a person's health have helped the industry greatly, said Gary Galanis of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
"There are more people drinking now, but they're drinking less," he said. "People want variety and flavor. They're looking at variety to spice up their evenings out."
The big brewers - Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Stroh's and Coors - still control more than 90 percent of the market and have made strides to compete with specialty breweries, Mr. Galanis said.
Miller has marketed its Red Dog and Ice House labels under the Plank Road Brewery name to give a personal touch to its newest brands.
"(The big brewers) want a piece of the action, right now," Mr. Galanis said.
Mark Findlay, co-owner of the Aiken Brewing Co., said micro brews and brew pubs, which make their own beer, continue to grow exponentially. The company he buys his brewing equipment from has a six-month backlog on orders.
"(Brew pubs) are still on the rise, especially in the Southeast," he said. "It was slow starting here, but the trend is toward brew pubs. ... People want something different. They want to experience something new."
The Aiken brew pub offers a red, a stout, a fruit beer, a wheat and a pale ale.
However, some industry experts say the "niche" beer market could be in trouble. Some publicly traded brands reported slow sales in the first quarter of this year, said Benj Steinman of Beer Marketers Insights.
"The bloom is off the rose," he said. "It's gotten really overcrowded. The consumer got overwhelmed and confused. Distribution got clogged, and some store owners underestimated the space it would take for the products. A lot of things happened at the same time."
The Maxwell Consumer Report's annual "shares of stomach" survey showed that beer was the No. 3 beverage behind soft drinks and distilled water. However, the study also showed that consumption of beer overall had dropped in the past 14 years.
Donna Erb, co-owner of the West Side Bowery in Aiken, said most of the niche beers are only passing "fads" and make it hard to stock.
"Zima (a malt liquor) was very popular a few years ago," she said. "Now we can't give it away."
Bowery manager Bob Mell said it's easier and more profitable to stick with established favorites, instead of beverages that come and go.
"We had Scarlet Fever (a red draft) for a while, but it didn't sell," he said. "We put in Bud Light, instead, and we've sold keg after keg. It's easy to get Ä there's no problem with distributors Ä and it sells."
In the end, people want a beer that's a change of pace, at low price and easily available, Mr. Galanis said.
"Variety, value and service Ä those are the three major planks of our business," he said. "The beer market is the most consumer-driven category in the grocery store."
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