The Full Bar - all my pages

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


People used to ask me, back in the days before The Great Craft Rationalization®*, 'Lew, why don't you ever write about the regular beers? Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors Light; you know, the beers everyone really drinks?!' And although I did write about beers like that sometimes -- more in a business mode, but I did write for trade journals, so you do; hell, I wrote two vodka pieces! -- and I made my mark writing about Yuengling, my response was usually something like, "Well, what can you say about them? 'Damn, this Budweiser tastes just like the last 100 Buds I've ever had!' They don't change, there's never anything new, and even the people who love them have nothing to say about the flavor past "crisp," "clean," and "great taste, less filling." There's just not a lot to work with there."

We are, after all, ultimately in the story business. Hats off to A-B, who did try to engage us by flying groups of beer writers to their hop farm and maltings in Idaho...but then that turned into a circular firing squad of mutual ethics accusations and just got ugly. And mostly, beer writers didn't write about mainstream beer.

Well...MillerCoors is changing all that! I've been seeing the teaser billboards on I-95 in Philly (one of the big Lite markets) for months now, and the new Miller Lite bottle is finally here! That's right, a NEW BOTTLE! Hot damn!

Yeah. A new bottle. And they're telling us amazing things about it (add your own excited exclamation points, I already took out most of the capital letters):

Consumers Overwhelmingly Prefer The New Bottle 2:1

We Win With Occasional Drinkers Who Preferred The New Bottle By Over 3:1 

We Win With All Ages (21-34, 35-40) Both Groups Prefer The New Bottle To Current (Younger By 19 Points, Older By 23 

We Win With Hispanics: Hispanics Prefer The New Bottle To Current By 20 Points 

Advantages Of The New Bottle Also Place Us In A Stronger Competitive Standing Relative To Bud Light

WOW! I guess all the beer geeks who say the different glassware really makes a difference may have a point, and Miller Lite is keying on it.

I'm yanking Miller's chain, but come on, guys... A new bottle? You already did that! Remember the Vortex bottle, back in 2010? Had a set of spiral grooves on the inside of the neck? Jay Brooks summed that up pretty well here, I mean, what's the point of swirling Miller Lite as it comes out of the bottle, to stimulate the lack of aroma? Maybe...except I did an interview that year with the folks from Owens-Illinois, who developed the Vortex bottle, that I never found a market for and never released...and it shines a light on things here. Have a look.

Within the consumer package and beer industry, people are looking for something new and different. It's important to differentiate. It brings added value and news to the marketplace. The Miller Lite brand has seen a lot of change and not all of it positive. It's innovation in terms of value and news to the brand.

Internal embossing is a tech that Owens-Illinois brought to the marketplace. It's the most significant change to the long-neck bottle since the twist-off cap. The  Vortex bottle is an example of how we can merge the science of glass with the art of package design to bring something the market hasn't seen before.
It's designed to differentiate the brand on the shelf. You get the decorative look, and a flat panel for the labeling. We're working with the customers and letting them lead with that effort.

Now...did you notice? Nothing about swirling the beer. That all came from craft guys who assumed it had to be for something. As far as O-I was concerned -- and I was talking to their beer marketing manager and the VP of global innovation -- this was about the look of the swirl. Even Miller never specifically said that the vortex was functional. It's about look. It's all about getting you to look at Miller Lite.

No kidding, right? They're just making up news to get themselves noticed! Because there's nothing new about Miller Lite!

But what about the constant stream of one-offs and one-time seasonals from craft beer? It's all about the beer! Is it? Or is it about getting you to notice them, shouting to be heard over the new darlings -- 16 oz. cans, 'slim' cans, open-top cans, nanobreweries, reality-TV breweries, collaborations -- and then moving on and making something else new?

Look, I like new beers. It's how things happen. But they ought to have some kind of intrinsic value. There are an awful lot of "me too" beers out there among all the innovative ones. It's almost reached the point where making a pale ale is innovative, as people run from them to make exotics.

New beer? New bottle? It's all attention for the brand. Miller Lite spins off way too much money to mess with it; you can't make a craft version (they tried that; major fail). But the craft brewers look at big crafts who leaned hard on a flagship -- Sam Adams, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada -- and they see them running into trouble with their street cred, being passed up as not really craft. (Admit it, if you haven't thought that about Boston Lager, Fat Tire, or SNPA, you've heard someone say it.) And we get new beers that are made just to have new beers. Better than a new bottle, but...where's it go? BeerAdvocate? Tickerville? Celebrator?

I dunno. It's how things work, but for what part of the market? Who reacts to this stuff, and is it enough to have a real effect? Is it just a new bottle?

*I just made that up, and you know, I kind of like it: it's when, about five years ago at the beginning of the Great Recession (I didn't make that up, apparently that's what we're calling the Wall Street debacle and the Stimuless® (yeah, made that one up never caught on, but I haven't given up) now), craft beer stepped out of the background and became the superhero of the beer category by blasting through a collapsing market with hops-fueled double-digit growth. It's when the industry finally realized that this wasn't a fad, wasn't going away, and had to be taken seriously...and Blue Moon and Shock Top stopped being redheaded stepchildren at their parent companies.)  


Jeff Alworth said...

Sally's rule: beware a company selling packaging, not beer.

(Sally is my wise wife, who observed this at least five years ago--that is, fourteen "package innovations" ago--and it continues to pay huge dividends to me as a brilliant axiom.)

Bill said...

Good to see you posting again. I'll say this for bottle and label changes -- it does draw my attention. I'm pretty sure I won't be picking up Miller Lite anytime soon, but such a thing works for me for both macro and craft brews that I've forgotten about. I like Heineken, but never think to buy it -- and now they're promoting a new look, and at the least it reminded me of Heineken, and it might nudge me to buy a beer i like. Two Brothers and Capital have recently been changing their look. I guess I buy Two Brothers brews enough that it didn't prompt anything, but I had forgotten about Capital for the most part -- the changes nudge me to think about buying it.

That being said... in the case of brews like Miller Lite which are always heavily advertised, does something like this work?

Lew Bryson said...

Yeah,'s a slippery rule. Like I said, if you have the same beer for 40 years, and it's essentially so wide-spread, and so well-known that it's practically do you sell the beer? It's become all brand. Not saying it can't be done, but it ain't easy, and it's a marketing conundrum. Companies can reboot their marketing occasionally, but not too often, and then you're stuck saying the same thing. Even whisky companies with great products often fall back on tartan and bluegrass.

Bill, things like this DO work...but only for a short time. You put your finger on it: it will remind drinkers of Lite, and may push them enough to drink it instead of what they've been drinking.

It kind of reminds me of oil patches on the highway. You'll see them after a dip in the road, where the car will dip and then rise again. As it does, it moves just a bit faster than a drop of oil that might be clinging to the bottom of the engine, and those drips fall off. Not every car has a drip, and not every drip falls off, but every car hits the dip, and enough drips fall off to make a mark on the road. That's what they count on.

Jeff Alworth said...

Lew, let me comment here where I don't have to dink around with 140-character comments!

I essentially agree. We have a beer market increasingly defined by novelty. Even craft breweries are wondering how to prop up their aging flagships as the racy new entrants flood the market each day. Mass market breweries have it doubly hard--they need to convince you not only that their old timey yellow beer is still rockin' cool, but that you shouldn't be drinking that other brand of yellow beer.

But I'm not letting them off the hook that easily. Twenty some odd years ago, Miller released Genuine Draft and replaced their own flagship. Twenty years before that, they pioneered light beer (though there was a bit of industrial espionage in that case). The only thing that makes large beer companies choose to release bow-tie cans, vortex bottles, or color-changing cans is because they are stuck in a business model from 1955.

There is a very serious battle for the hearts of beer drinkers in America. I can't give a pass to a company that thinks the way to address this existential challenge is by selling them new bottles. If the mass market is going to stay in light lagers, AB and MillerCoors are going to need to think of a way to reinvigorate it and appeal to a new generation of drinkers. New bottles are just lame.

Lew Bryson said...

Not my intention to give them a pass, Jeff. I'm not a marketer, I'm a critic: I've no good ideas on how to reinvigorate mainstream lager. I haven't seen them come up with any, either. The bottle is an incremental thing, a blip; the Vortex was only 3 years ago, and it's gone. Were I more cynical, I'd say these were as much about keeping marketers' jobs as propping up the brand.
Mainstream's share is slipping, but they still sell a ton of beer. If craft gets 20%, they'll still be selling a shitload of mainstream beer.

They had a huge success -- mainly cannibalistic, but still -- with light beer 40 years ago. They're still looking for the next new thing. They've tried going lighter -- Ultra, Miller 64 -- and aren't seeing the kind of success they need; I don't think the flavors are going to do it either. Yuengling continues to rock-n-roll with "full-calorie" beer...that seems more like something they should ape, if they can. Dunno. I've never been able to get inside the heads of mainstream drinkers that well.

IntoxicatedRich said...

Interesting. At the end of the day, you have to market your brand. Different brands require different strategies and tactics. Miller, Sierra Nevada and small craft brewers all tend to do what is right for them.

It becomes interesting when a brand tries or needs to change position. Sierra Nevada have done this very well so far.

It'll be interesting to see how Sam Adams gets on with UK brewed versions.

Lew Bryson said...

I agree: Sierra Nevada's return to relevance has been nothing short of breath-taking. I think Sam Adams could achieve something similar with a solid IPA in the vein of Torpedo, and maybe a balls-out hellerbock.

Chris said...

Why aren't Sam Adams relevant? Boston Lager is very, very good.

Lew Bryson said...

I like Boston Lager; I like SNPA. Both very well-made beers, and good beers. But they're out of step with the chattering geekerie, which this post is mostly about: attracting the attention of the people who talk about beer...who will then talk about your beer so the people who read and listen will then think about your beer. Not many chattering geeks say much about Boston Lager these days. It's still good, and I love the Noble Pils and the Belgian Session. one talks about them. Boston Beer is making a lot of new beers; maybe too many. I think they should slow down, and re-focus.

Pepcycle said...

"What product Achieve not, marketing attempt will"

Pepcycle said...

What product achieves cannot, marketing attempt will


Stephen Beaumont said...

Almost off topic, I was speaking today with the head of one of those 25+ year old breweries and remarking about how people whine today about lack of beer selection in oddball places like airports, where the *only* beers available might be Sam and Sierra and Anchor Steam and maybe a New Belgium and a local beer or two. I can remember when I was thrilled to find a Boston Lager at an airport bar!

Lew Bryson said...

Loud and clear on that one, Dr. Beaumont, loud and clear. They never had it so good!

Enjoyed a 90 minute lunch at the Mill Street pub at Pearson on Saturday, by the way. Would rather have been with you and Maggie at Volo, say, but I made do.

Steve, no "n" said...

I'd counter that marketing fluff is all that the big guys have to toy with. You said yourself "I've never been able to get inside the heads of mainstream drinkers that well." That's a big part of our collective disbelief about what mass lager brewers try to win more market share. We don't understand that their target market doesn't want things to change.

The one thing they can't mess with is the recipe. They sell plenty of this stuff as it is and I stand in front of the one cooler door of craft at my local liquor store and watch the 30 packs fly past me. Changing anything but the packaging would be a disaster. New Coke anyone?

Lew Bryson said...

No counter, no argument: I agree. My argument is that the bottle for Lite and the sometimes thoughtless new beer release for the craft brewer is, perhaps, equivalent: they're mostly about getting attention, rather than a serious change.

Anonymous said...

Is the "chattering beer geekery" really that important? I don't see Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, or New Belgium suffering much -- ditto Breckenridge, Long Trail, etc. What fraction of Fat Tire drinkers are even aware of ratebeer (or La Folie)?

Lew Bryson said...

You know, three years ago, I'd have agreed. But the chattering geekerie has gained some influence; they spread the word, they steer from ahead, they can have an effect on the people inside the breweries. Need proof? Look at how many different beers Boston Beer's been pumping out over the past three years. New beers get notice, notice gets trial, trial gets feedback/sales. Which is my whole point here; parallels between new bottles for Miller Lite and new seasonals for craft brewers.

Anonymous said...

Hey Pumpkin Head
They are just giving their wholesalers a bone before they consolidate them and let them boost their numbers somewhat.They want to shut up their crying wholesalers who are not together in one house, something to stop their bitching.

Lew Bryson said...

Oh, how lucky, Readers! A comment from "He Who Calls Me Pumpkin Head" that's kind of fit to print. Now you can share in their brilliance, because believe me, HWCMPH knows every single thing about the beer business (though not much about punctuation), and occasionally deigns to share their wisdom with me. Usually, it's in such a profane or venomous form that I can't share, but this time -- lucky you -- I can. Pretty cool, eh? You may take pictures.

Anonymous said...

Miller seems to be the losing side of MillerCoors. Lite plays second fiddle to Coors Lite, Miller High Life has been a cheap beer for nearly 20yrs, Genuine Draft is dying quickly. They have no where to go but down. Basically it is MC and ABIB competing and MillerCoors cant beat Bud. Lite and MillerChill were killed by Bud Light and budLime. ABIB simply copies the new fad and overwhelms the competition with their $$$$.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous
Millercoors brewery is advertising on the greater fool know the greater fool principle...The specific investment might not make any sense and have any real value but as long as you can find a greater fool to sell it to at a profit,what difference does it make.
Its what happening in the craft beer,when they try and sell their company for a huge profit,its all well and good as long as their is a never- ending supply of greater fools.Just like the kids game of musical chairs its not much fun when the music stops and their is no chair for you.Being the last fool sucks,can you say Deschutes Brewery..
Cheers Pumpkin