I received my samples of the Miller Lite Brewers Collection a few weeks ago, but I’d been waiting until I spent some time with my wife’s family before giving them a try. I wanted to be fair to these three new beers under the Miller Lite brand, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t go to find much I liked about them. It may seem prejudicial to not go into trying them with an open mind, but I would argue it’s because I have a problem with the low-calorie beer category itself. I’ve never liked them, not just their lack of flavor, but the very idea of them. I find them an abomination, an aberration, a triumph of marketing over good sense. Despite my strong feelings, I felt I could actually still be objective, but to be doubly sure I thought I’d enlist some family members to give me their opinions. Three out of four of my familial guinea pigs routinely drink mainstream brands of beer, and at least one does so almost exclusively. I felt they’ve be able to give me another perspective, one closer to the target demographic than me, at the very least.
So you probably already know Miller Brewing is test marketing—in Baltimore, Charlotte, Minneapolis and San Diego—three line extensions to their Lite beer. All three are aiming to be “craft-style,” whatever that means. There’s a Blonde Ale, Amber and Wheat, apparently redone as low-calorie concoctions. According to the press release, “Miller Lite’s Trio of Craft-Style Light Beers Provides the Best of Both Worlds.” They also introduced the tagline for the launch, “Craft Beer. Done Lite.” The press release goes on to claim the new beers “offer real craft beer taste and true light beer refreshment” and “it offers the best of both worlds for today’s beer drinkers who want a more complex and flavorful beer without sacrificing the refreshment and drinkability to which they’ve grown accustomed.”
According to the Miller-sponsored Brew Blog, the brewers collection will be targeted at lite beer drinkers.
Miller Lite Brewers Collection is aimed at mainstream light beer drinkers and capitalizes on three beer industry trends: the growth of light beer; the growing popularity of craft beer; and consumers’ growing willingness to pay more for products that deliver a unique or better experience. Miller selected the three styles because they are popular among mainstream beer drinkers looking to experiment with crafts.
The particulars included with the samples is also curious and illuminating. All three of the new Miller Lites are 4.2% abv, 110 calories and 6.2 carbohydrates per 12 oz., quite an engineering feat in itself. As competitors, they’ve chosen New Belgium Fat Tire for the amber, Coors’ Blue Moon for the wheat, and Bass Ale for the blonde ale. The calories for these three are, respectively, 159, 169 and 155 against 110 for the Miller Lites. That seems odd to me. Since they’re supposedly making low-calorie beers, why compare them to regular beers? I suppose the reason must be to highlight the difference in calories and carbs, but to me that only highlights the inanity of the low-calorie beer.
Even with the beer with the highest number of calories, Coors’ Blue Moon at 169, there is still only a difference of 59 calories. But let’s call it 60, just to talk about it. 60 calories is essentially one slice of bread, half a grapefruit or a medium-sized artichoke. Big freaking deal! And how much physical activity does it take to burn off those 60 extra calories? Ten minutes of playing tennis, half an hour of driving, or even just 36 minutes of standing still will all burn about 60 calories. But the real yet often unspoken reason people choose to drink light beers is because of the perception that they can drink more of them. So if people are drinking more beers per session, they’re really not actually saving any calories anyway, now are they? You may not find that reason championed in any low-calorie beer’s advertising, but all the companies that make these beers are well aware of this phenomenon in how people perceive them. Also, since they are the beer with the lightest flavor, and thus contain the fewest ingredients, they are also the most profitable in any company’s portfolio. So from a profit perspective—and let’s face it for any large corporation that is the only perspective that matters—these are the perfect product: lowest cost, perceived as healthy, consumed in higher quantities and sold for the same price as regular versions. Ka-ching!
Or as Don Russell (a.k.a. Joe Sixpack) put it in a recent column:
We all know, of course, it’s not really diet beer. Most of the guys you see guzzling light beer are about as fit as a bag of potato chips. People drink it not because they’re counting calories, but because its watered-down, ordinary flavor allows them to mindlessly pound one after the other without the inconvenience of actually tasting the stuff.
I presume that only the blonde is actually an ale, since otherwise they’d call the amber an amber ale, if it used top fermentation. So I assume the amber is an amber lager. The wheat is probably also a lager, though some wheat beers are actually hybrid styles. But I would guess Miller would choose the more simple path of making it in a lager style.
My motley menagerie of relatives. From left: my sister-in-law Margaret (drinks mostly craft but has the occasional mainstream beer), her husband Roddi (who drinks roughly half craft and half mainstream), my brother-in-law Tucker (who drinks mostly mainstream fare) and my wife Sarah (who drinks exclusively craft, of course). The five of us tried all three beers Easter afternoon, and here’s what we thought.
Miller describes the Wheat as offering “especially appealing flavor dimensions, with a subtle citrus character for a clean, refreshing beer.” They list its characteristics as follows:
- APPEARANCE: Golden-yellow, Cloudy. Well-defined carbonation and foam.
- AROMA: Invigorating and fresh aroma. Fruity with fresh citrus: – Orange, – Lemon.
- FLAVOR: Sessionable wheat. Stimulating citrus and orange. Delicate bitterness and body.
- FINISH: Crisp. Clean. Quenching bitterness.
Here’s what my relatives had to say. “Not a wheaty nose, unpleasant. This doesn’t taste a thing like wheat, it has no sweetness, just bitter. It’s not something I would finish. It doesn’t meet the chug test. It’s a sweet Miller Lite, but not as much as a wheat.” I had to agree with them. It seemed to straddle a middle ground where it was neither a wheat beer nor a light beer. It just seemed confused. I didn’t think it had any of the refreshing qualities that I look for in a wheat beer. It was just thin and watery, with hardly any flavorful character at all.
Miller describes the Blonde Ale as offering “a crispness and slight maltiness that’s balanced by a recognizable hop aroma.” They list its characteristics as follows:
- APPEARANCE: Amber-copper, Clear, Bright. Well-defined carbonation and foam.
- AROMA: Noble aroma. Fruity and delightfully hoppy. Synergistic compliment of hop citrus and spice, and malt.
- FLAVOR: Fruity, Hoppy, Citrus, Malty. Purposeful bitterness and refreshing body.
- FINISH: Slight bite. Cordial bitterness.
Here’s what my relatives had to say. “It doesn’t look like a blonde. The color’s not quite right. I can barely taste the difference between this and the wheat. The nose reminds me of white wine, and it’s kinda’ sweet. I like it better than the first one.” Is this what Ballantine used to taste like? As the only ale, I think I was expecting more. But it was so similar in taste to the other three, that I was hard-pressed to find any differences. I didn’t get any of the fruity or hoppy character that was listed in the press release. I’ve judged light beers before at GABF and it is a difficult thing to discern between beers, because the flavors are so subtle. Unfortunately, you tend to focus on their flaws, because that’s what stands out.
Miller describes the Amber as follows. “The color in the MLBC Amber comes from specially selected caramel and roasted malts; it offers a mild hop character for a bold yet refreshing flavor.” They list its characteristics as follows:
- APPEARANCE: Amber-bronze, Clear, Bright. Well-defined carbonation and foam.
- AROMA: Rich and distinctive, Fruity, Malty and caramel notes. Distinguished hop character. Suggestion of roasted malt.
- FLAVOR: Slight hop character, Malty and caramel notes, Hint of roasted malt, Slightly sweet. Low to moderate bitterness and body.
- FINISH: Crisp, Clean. Perceptible and pleasant beer character. Delicate and refreshing bitterness.
Here’s what my relatives had to say. “Some water, some drink. I like the blonde better. There’s not much there. I don’t get it. If I had to drink one I’d choose the amber.” I didn’t think the color was remotely what I’d call amber. The “I don’t get get it” comment got a lot of play, as my relatives all mused on what Miller had in mind for these beers and who might buy them. The consensus was that they knew craft beer drinkers wouldn’t buy them, but they also couldn’t fathom why mainstream drinkers would. And apart from my wife, the other three regularly drink light beers. They felt that if you wanted craft beer flavors, you’d just buy one of those if that’s what you were in the mood for. The Miller Lite Brewers Collection seemed to please no one. Unfortunately, I think that may be its fate.
Don Russell, again from the same column, where he says if craft beer is jazz, the new beers are Kenny G:
Essentially, Miller is attempting to sell a product that wants it both ways. It’s a product that purports to offer all the complexity, depth and quality of a small-batch brew along with the bland, inoffensive, one-dimensional flavor of a factory-made light beer.
Russell, who I suspect does not think these beers are terrific, is still far more kind to them than I feel I can be. He continues.
If you ask Miller how its beer can be both light and craft, the company deftly explains: “It’s important to note that these are not intended to be craft beers and are not targeted at craft drinkers. These are craft-style light beers.”
It continues: “Craft drinkers are happy with the choices they have, and they should be. But mainstream light-beer drinkers who want something with a different taste and drinkability are not happy with their options. Traditional craft beers don’t work for these consumers. Miller Lite Brewers Collection will.”
None of the beers are all-malt—each uses corn—according to Miller brewmaster Manny Manuele, in an interview by Stan Hieronymous on his Appellation Beer Blog.
One question about this all-malt issue stood out for me in Stan’s interview:
All-malt is at the core of how “craft” brewers define their products. Would you say you disagree?
First, it’s important to note that these are not intended to be craft beers and are not targeted at craft drinkers. These are craft-style light beers. Additionally, “all malt” is one, but not the only, criteria that defines craft beer. The Brewers Association describes craft as beers brewed with a traditional process using malted and specialty grains, hops, water and yeast to deliver the aroma, taste and appearance characteristics not typically found in mainstream beers. That’s what we’re delivering — a unique consumer taste experience not typically found in light beers and consistent with craft-style beer.
Hmm, maybe I’m mis-reading that but it sounds like Manuele is suggesting that a brewery could skirt one of the requirements for being considered a craft brewer and still be one. But my understanding of the three-prong definition of a craft brewer (see below) is that all three criteria must be met. Anything less, and you’re not a craft brewer (at least by the BA definition). He interprets the definition of what qualifies as a craft beer as something with flavors “not typically found in mainstream beers” and then suggests that the new craft-style light beers could qualify because they provide a “unique consumer taste experience not typically found in light beers and consistent with craft-style beer.” That’s a pretty tortured bit of logic, I must say. He’s defining by using the negative, saying that since it’s not this, it must be that. Not so fast. Just because something tastes different or isn’t as typical (assuming that point can even be conceded) doesn’t make it something else.
I could make an apple pie with no apples, substituting Ritz crackers, and it might taste something like an apple pie. But I don’t think anyone would let me get away with still calling it an authentic apple pie, because it’s missing a key element of apple pie, namely apples. Likewise, craft beer that isn’t all-malt really isn’t. The only exception to not using all-malt ingredients and having the brew still considered a craft beer is if they “use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.” And while Manuele claims they used “wheat and corn for taste, lightness and refreshment” (perhaps trying to combine them), who doesn’t believe that while the wheat may impart taste and refreshment, the corn is only there for lightness.
Craft brewing industry definitions
An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional.
Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.
Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.
But it in the end, the Miller propaganda machine keeps pointing out — whenever anybody asks them about what they are — “that these are not intended to be craft beers and are not targeted at craft drinkers. These are craft-style light beers.” That may be true, but is it a coincidence that this disclaimer does not appear in the press release I received? Is it mere happenstance that the word “craft” is used all over the place in marketing these brands? And that tagline. “Craft Beer. Done Lite.” Is that not meant to convey that they are craft beers? Clearly, Miller wants people not familiar with industry definitions to believe that they are craft beers, or at the very least craft beer-like. They’re counting on mainstream beer drinkers unfamiliar with what it means to be a craft beer to conclude that these are, capitalizing on a resurgence of both interest and sales of craft beer.
If the idea really is to target “mainstream light-beer drinkers who want something with a different taste and drinkability,” I can suggest many true craft beers that fit that bill far better. As for all those extra calories, how about just drink fewer beers of better quality with richer flavor? Let’s just stop pretending that low-calorie diet beers are not a sham.
UPDATE 4.1: The test is over. Miller’s Brew Blog announced today that based on very successful tests in all four markets, the three Miller Lite Brewers Collection beers will be rolled out nationally in September.
Interesting, thanks for the observations on these beers.
I have one thing about which I wanted your opinion. I find the “all-malt” criteria to be silly and dishonest. What is a well-crafted, domestic tripel that uses 15% table sugar for the grist? In the case of the tripel the sugar is not there to enhance the flavor, but to lighten the body to achieve the “digestable” quality that is the hallmark of the style. How about a nice domestic best bitter that uses brown sugar in small quantities? I just think that sometimes in North America we’re a bit too hung up on this all-malt thing. Why can’t the quality of the end product speak for itself? Just musing.