All of the big beer companies and many of the bigger imported ones have at one time or another emphasized “ice cold” as the ideal temperature to enjoy their products. It’s no secret that the closer to freezing you serve your beer, the less of it you can actually taste. So they’re quite right to market their products this way, as for me the less I can taste of them the more I enjoy them. All three of the big U.S. players have used this tactic at one time or another, and then there was the fad for “Ice Beer” a number of years ago. Some imports, like Guinness and Foster’s, have even gone so far as to re-brand line extensions like Guinness Extra Cold and Foster’s Extra Cold, as if changing the temperature makes it a different style. In London, I have seen both Guinness and the Extra Cold version side-by-side in the same pub. It may be a great way to monopolize two taps, but in every other was it’s a travesty.
Many servers still cock their head to one side in the manner of a dog just shown a card trick when I ask them to re-pour my beer into a beer glass that hasn’t been frosted in the freezer. I find this especially troubling when I didn’t ask for a frosted glass or wasn’t informed — or more properly warned — it came in one. A waitress once told me they didn’t have any non-frosted glasses in which to serve me my Chimay. I can only imagine she’d never heard of hot water to warm up the glass. But it’s very, very bad for the beer to be frozen in that manner so I’ve never really understood why so many clueless bars even do it. I’ve written about this before here, to wit:
Now generally when beer dips below freezing ingredients begin to break down, primarily the proteins which come out of solution. This causes them to separate and form small flakes that swim around in the beer and make it cloudy. Of course, because of the alcohol beer freezes at a point that’s already slightly below freezing, the exact point depending on the percentage of alcohol. Alcohol itself freezes at -173° F.
This is also the reason frosted, frozen glasses stored in the freezer are such a terrible idea. They also chemically alter the beer and change its taste. The reason you generally don’t notice it is simply because drinking any liquid at that temperature also numbs many of your taste buds. Several volatile components in the beer aren’t released in your mouth and disappear undetected down your throat. The beer’s flavor profile is considerably narrowed and some tastes disappear completely. Cold beer also effects the beer’s balance because hop character survives better than malt or fruity esters. This is the reason bland lagers, which are generally less well-hopped, do better at cold temperatures and explains why ales are generally served at warmer temperatures. A good rule of thumb is the colder the beer, the less of it you can actually taste.
So it’s a bit confusing why so many of the larger beer companies that make their products on such massive scales also tend to be the ones that promote the idea that colder is better, until you remember that they’re pretty savvy marketeers. And if you want the largest possible market share, it’s a lot easier to change peoples’ tastes than actually go to the trouble of educating them about why beer tastes the way it does and that the bitterness is actually a good thing. But if you take steps to insure your product is indistinguishable for your competitor, then you can simply market the brand instead of the beer. The science of advertising and marketing knows far more about branding and how to make people loyal to a particular brand than how to teach a wide range of people something as arcane as beer styles and why beers taste differently. Make them a commodity through marketing and you reduce a lot of your costs because you only have one or two products in many different packages.
But Coors approach to coldness is positively obsessive and for several years it seems all of their big marketing pushes have been geared toward ice cold beer. I believe they’re the only big brewer who ships their beer in refrigerated trucks to wholesalers and distributors, but that may only be anecdotal. Some of their current slogans even include “Taste the Cold” and “Rocky Mountain Cold Refreshment.” The fact that cold doesn’t actually have a particular taste is, apparently, irrelevant. I once had a journalism class in college where we had to read a essay on McDonald’s marketing practices, and there was a part of it that’s always stuck with me. The author visited the plant in New England where all of Mickey D’s Fillet-O-Fish patties are made. After seeing the whole operation from start to finish, he’s handed a cooked one to sample. As he bites into, his tour guide remarks. “Tastes crispy, doesn’t it?” The essayist then thinks to himself that he doesn’t know how to tell his host that “crispy” is not a flavor.
And the same is true for cold, especially in beer where if cold has any taste, it’s the absence of any flavor. But the images and messages we’re inundated with by marketeers are replete with such non-sequitors of logic, and most of us don’t even bat an eye or think about them very much. But it is as effective as it is insidious. The reason we take a shower, wash our hair and make the effort to insure our underarms are odor-free is entirely the work of marketing early in the last century in an effort to sell more soap, shampoo and deodorant. Prior to that time, Americans bathed far less often. Believe me, I’m not arguing we should return to a less hygienic time, my point is only that we take for granted now what once had to be suggested to us was a problem none of us knew we had through marketing and advertising. A particularly pervasive modern example is how big pharma creates a drug you didn’t need and then invents a disease you didn’t know you had that their new drug can magically treat. So instead of creating a drug to cure a disease that already exists, they create a disease and then sell you on the drug that treats it, rather than cures it. There’s far less money in cures than in lifelong treatments. Whoever heard of ADHD before there was Ritalin, or Erectile Dysfunction before Viagra.
Now recently Coors appears to turning all of its R&D money into finding high-tech solutions to keep their beer as cold as possible. The first of these was last year’s “Stay Cold Glassware,” which used a double-paned design to keep the beer away from your warm hands thus keeping beer colder longer. Here’s how Coors sold it to the public. “Beer pulled at 35 degrees and served in a room temperature glass will warm to 45 degrees when held for 20 minutes. The Stay Cold Glassware only allows a mere three degree increase in temperature in 20 minutes, thus keeping the beer colder and more refreshing longer.” Then there was this frightening sounding “ice-ready” package innovation, from a Coors press release:
Back by popular demand in retail stores nationwide is the Coors Light Plastic Bottle Cooler Box, the industry’s first ice-ready bottle package that can go just about anywhere. Introduced last summer, the innovative design was recognized by Convenience Store News Magazine as the Best New Packaging Innovation in 2005. Essentially a single use portable cooler, consumers need only add ice to the box to enjoy cold beer anytime. The Plastic Bottle Cooler Box includes 18 break-proof 16-ounce plastic bottles, allowing consumers to take beer where glass isn’t allowed.
In England, where Molson-Coors also owns Bass, to combat the Extra Cold versions of Guinness and others, they spent over $18 million dollars developing the technology for Coors Sub-Zero, a device that chills beer down below freezing, to -2.5° C (27.5° F). It seems little more than a gimmick on display at bars throughout England. When it first came out, my friend and fellow beer writer Stephen Beaumont tried it in Canada and came to the same conclusion in a feature he called “Hey Molson-Coors, What Do You Have Against Taste?”
Then there was more money spent developing “Cold Wrap” labels that are designed to absorb the heat from your hand rather than warm the beer to a temperature where you might be able to actually taste it. These debuted on bottles last year. On cans, they spray painted the epoxy linings blue — over the gentle protests of the can manufacturers — and called it “frost brew lining.” Both schemes seem to me a perfect illustration that technology is not always a good thing.
Now AdAge is reporting the next step in Coors cold marketing is “Coors Light Super Cold Draft,” a new “glacier tap” mechanism (pictured above) that delivers beer at 6-10° colder than ordinary taps. In the article, a Coors PR flack is actually quoted as saying they own cold, whatever that means.
“We can own [cold] because of our heritage and our brewing process,” said Sara Mirelez, brand director for the Coors Light and Coors brands.
Hilarious. I think I’ll claim to own sarcasm because of my heritage of using it and my writing process. Okay, people, nobody else better use sarcasm without checking with me first, because I f$@&ing own sarcasm.
But really, there’s a low-tech solution I think Coors is overlooking. I could save them literally millions of dollars per annum if they’d just take my simple suggestion. Ready? Here goes nothing. Hey Coors, how about taking all that R&D money and use it to spend incrementally more on your ingredients to make an all-malt beer and maybe create a pilsner that still tastes good when it’s a little warmer? Then you wouldn’t need all the cold temperature gadgets, saving untold buckets full of money every year that would more than offset the margin loss from using more expensive ingredients. Now that will get me a chilly reception.
UPDATE 4.10: Coors has even set up a separate website for Super Cold Draft.