Article By: LEW BRYSON
The folks at Miller Brewing have evidently been thinking about that cultural trend, the booming success of both Corona and tequila, and a previously little-known Mexican beer 'cocktail' called the chelada: a salt-rimmed glass of light lager with ice and a squeeze of fresh lime. Throw that all in the Beer Innovation machine, turn the crank, and out comes Miller Chill, a light beer flavored with lime and salt that has really taken off.
Okay, actually, there's not
a Beer Innovation machine, either. You probably knew that.
Miller's thinking went more like this, the straight dope on
where the impetus for Chill came from, delivered by Chill
brand manager, Carl Cahill.
ORIGINS of CHILL "There are three significant consumer trends making a lasting impact on the US beer business," Cahill began. "First, the continuing LDAC [legal drinking age consumer] shift towards light beers. (Light beers now account for almost half of all beer sold in the US). Second, the ongoing shift to 'Worthmore' brands. (Worthmore supermarket case share has grown almost 4 points in the last five years, while mainstream has lost almost a point and economy has lost 3 points.) And third, the increasing Latinization of US culture."
"Worthmore" is the Miller Brewing Co. corporate word for beers that sell at a pricepoint above premium beers. It encompasses craft beers, most imports and big brewer specialty beers like Molson Coors's Blue Moon, Anheuser-Busch's various specialty beers and Miller's own Leinenkugel specialties. It's an interesting classification of a large, varied and profitable part of the beer market, and Miller's been wanting a bigger chunk of it.
Chill just might be a way to get that chunk. At least, that's what Cahill and Miller think. "Miller is looking to leverage these real shifts in the US beer market by creating a new brand that sits at the confluence of these three trends," he explained. "Miller Chill capitalizes on the rapid Latinization of our culture by offering a modern American take on a long-standing Mexican recipe: the chelada. It's the only light beer brewed with a hint of lime and pinch of salt, and it sits in the sweet spot that combines the velocity of a mainstream brand with the image appeal and price point of a super premium brand."
Translating that, Cahill's saying that Chill should sell cases like a big mainstream beer - since it has the advertising and distribution support a big mainstream brand has - with the "I'm special" feel and "I'm willing to pay for it" price of a craft or import beer.
Oddly enough, Chill wasn't the first idea they had in this direction. "We first conceived of Miller Chill more than a year before testing began," Cahill recalled, "while looking at ways to capitalize on continuing consumer desire for more flavors and more refreshment. Our initial direction was a lemon-flavored shandy, but the chelada-inspired lime-and-salt combination of Miller Chill showed greater potential to deliver mainstream volume at Worthmore pricing."
The BIG CHILL The unofficial, unattributed buzz in the industry - unofficial because sales numbers on individual brands are hard to get officially confirmed - is that Chill may already be closing in on Blue Moon's sales figures. After a very successful test period, Miller began a national roll-out just after Memorial Day; Chill began to hit shelves across Massachusetts in early July. Cahill says it's doing well: "Miller Chill is performing ahead of expectations in Massachuetts, which is consistent with the rest of the country."
Local reactions back him up. Jay Passerini at Bertelli's Liquor Mart, in West Springfield, is selling about "7 to 1O cases a week," he said. "That's pretty good for me. The advertising on TV is helping. Once the ads kicked in, people have been asking for it. And we are getting repeat sales."
Brian Goddard, is the assistant manager at Four Seasons Wine & Liquor in Hadley, where Chill "is doing very well, we're getting repeat sales," he says. "As soon as it came in, people were asking about it."
On-premise sales are just starting to roll. Neil Sisson is the manager at the Joshua Tree Bar & Grill in Somerville. "I just got [Chill] in," he says. "We've got some promotions coming up. Usually they send the Miller girls, and for an hour they'll hand out about $2OO of the product over an hour. We'll go from there."
The promotion and advertising is solid. "The relative media weight for Miller Chill is on par with Heineken Premium Light's launch levels from last year," promised Cahill, "ensuring that awareness wouldn't be a problem for Miller Chill. In addition to the advertising, we're driving awareness and trial of Miller Chill with on- and off-premise sampling programs, digital marketing, POS and merchandising, and public relations.
"From a retailer perspective, it's pretty simple," Cahill hammered home. "Miller Chill gives them Worthmore margins at Mainstream velocity. That's a strong profit proposition for any retailer."
DEEPER CHILL That's great news for Miller: a hot new product that's growing like crazy, and a solid promotional budget behind it. But what about that "previously little-known Mexican beer 'cocktail' called the chelada"? Ah, well, there's a story there, too, and it's one you might be interested in for a little cross-selling, or just a way to keep interest going in this new segment by having something to talk about when you're upselling this 'Worthmore' beer.
Barmen at Mexican restaurants can tell you some of it. Rogelio Luja, who works at El Sarape, in Braintree, was happy to tell me about what he called a "michelada. You can make it with any beer: we use mostly Mexican, of course. You salt the rim of the mug, then take ice, lime juice, tabasco, and Worcestershire. Put all that in and pour the beer in on top. That's michelada."
"Michelada" and "chelada" are obviously related, and both apparently mean something roughly equivalent to "my cold brewski", at least according to most sources. I offer this with the same certainty that I use with the origins of the beer-term "bock", which is to say, not much. The history and origins of this beer cocktail are muddled and messy, as a quick trip to the self-contradictory Wikipedia article on "Michelada" will show you. The michelada is five-years-old, the chelada is 4O-years-old, the chelada is a tourist drink, the michelada predates Columbus . . . this is the kind of mess that leads amateurs to throw up their hands in despair and just pick one at random.
That's why I was happy to find a pro had looked into the matter. Renowned new york times reporter Tim Weiner, who usually is found on the national security/intelligence beat, has that wonderful habit of the professional journalist of always keeping his ears - or in this case, his mouth - open for a story. He did a piece on the michelada back in August of 2OO1, just before things got a lot more complicated and busy in his main field.
Weiner was in Mexico City, and became intrigued by something he saw the locals drinking. "When I first came here a year ago, I noticed that people were ordering beer accompanied by a highball glass. The glass was rimmed with salt, filled with ice. At its base lay a weird primordial ooze. Combined with a lager like Sol or Pacifico, the mix took on a honeyed hue. With a dark beer, like Negra Modelo, it was the color of burnished mahogany. They called it a michelada (pronounced me-chel-LA-da) . . ."
Weiner got the bit in his teeth and took off. He went to experienced Mexico City barmen to get behind the mystery, to learn when things really started. The chelada, he learned, was a simple iced beer with lime and salt, a common and ancient Mexican flavoring. "'Lime and salt - that's primordial,' said Vicente Cruz, 26 years behind the bar at the Gallo de Oro."
It is, Weiner says, "a wispy version of the michelada, sometimes called a chelada in these parts, and often served in Mexican beach resorts. It's refreshing and piquant, to be sure. But the plain old chelada is in principle not so different from a Shandy in England - basically, lager and lemonade." Maybe Miller's first thought wasn't as far off-base as I'd thought.
But Cruz pegged the evolution of the darker-tinged michelada as a product of a later era. "'The rest of the ingredients have emerged within the past 1O years, and from where, and why, God knows,'" Weiner quotes him as saying.
CHILLING the COMPETITION Why do we care about this "michelada", made with Tabasco, Worcestershire and often tomato juice? Because there are bound to be arguments about Chill's authenticity as it grows more popular. It is clear that "chelada" and "michelada" are two different drinks. There are restaurants in Massachusetts that will make you a 'fresh' michelada or chelada. Miller's done the work.
No surprise, their main competitor has done the work as well. Anheuser-Busch is doing the same thing with a michelada, although they're actually calling it "Chelada". To be more precise, they have two new products, and the names are "Bud Light & Clamato* Chelada" and "Budweiser & Clamato Chelada". Chances are you not have heard of them yet, but you will. They were introduced to test markets in Texas and California in March, went statewide in June, and came out in Arizona, New Mexico and Chicago in August. National roll-out is set for January, 2OO8.
Clamato? The tomato juice and clam broth mix is very popular with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. It was first introduced in Baja California, and has a reputation for enhancing virility.
Mixing Clamato with beer is not a new idea. "Anheuser-Busch and Clamato have been cross-marketing for the last five to seven years," said Kathy Sattler, Innovations Manager at A-B. "So the idea of mixing was not new. The new idea was pre-packaging, having it ready to go. Consumers had voiced their opinion that they liked beer mixed with Clamato. That's what the consumer goes for first: they get the Clamato, then they choose a beer."
Like Chill, Chelada has taken off strongly. "We hit an emotional chord with consumers," Sattler said. "People are becoming brand evangelists behind this thing. 'Hey, I mix my beer with Clamato. Budweiser is copying me!' They feel almost compelled to tell people. The word of mouth is tremendous."
It's not just consumers; the support from them is making believers of retailers. "The retailers are excited," she added. "They haven't seen anything like this since Michelob Ultra, people are calling and asking about it. We've just been so surprised."
Sattler and her innovation group at A-B believe it's the authenticity of the Clamato brand name. "This consumer group really connects with brand names," she said. "It gives it authenticity. We didn't think of this recipe, we merely made it more convenient to drink. They're telling us we did the right thing."
Speaking of recipes, Sattler points out that the Clamato mix makes this a natural with food. Clamato is often used a base for soups and sauces in Latino homes. "Budweiser/Bud Light & Clamato Chelada pairs well with traditional Latino dishes such as ceviche, chicken enchiladas, tamales, and tomatillo," she said. "The beer also pairs well with mild cheeses like manchego and queso blanco, and perfectly compliments the richness and smoothness of guacamole."
You may be wondering: why Bud Light and Budweiser both? Couldn't they make up their mind, are they hedging their bets? Much simpler explanation, according to Sattler: "Both brands are so popular with the Latinos, it wouldn't make sense to only have one of them. People aren't going to cross party lines: if you're a light beer drinker, you gravitate to Bud Light; but if you're a premium beer drinker, you drink Budweiser, and you won't buy the other. Why just put one out? You're losing that piece of the pie!"
FORECAST is for CHILL The big question for all these beers is whether they have legs. Will this be another of the cycles of "innovative beers" that seem destined to make a new market segment, then fizzle out: dry beer, ice beer, low-carb beer, malternatives? These seem to be hot weather beers; will they hold up when the seasons change?
"Beer drinkers don't stop looking for refreshment when the summer ends," Cahill said confidently. "Miller Chill has demonstrated that it has mainstream volume potential, and we expect that to continue throughout the year. If we continue to be clear about the brand's point of differentiation - a more refreshing light beer brewed with lime and salt - consumers will keep coming back. The brand has plenty of room to grow and we have the plans in place to capitalize on that growth opportunity."
Goddard, at Four Seasons in Hadley, was pessimistic. "I'd be surprised, it's a summer drink," he said. But a clerk at Atlas Liquors in Medford was more upbeat. "Probably," he said. "I keep thinking of Corona. That's their competition, really. Corona sells in the winter, so this should sell in the winter, too. Of course, I'm thinking the Pats are going to win the Super Bowl, too: you have to play the game to see."
Corona was the elephant in the room that no one mentioned in all my interviews except for this one clerk who declined to give his name; maybe that's why. Everyone wants a chunk of the Corona market, and Corona, of course, is defending it. You'll see some recipes out there now for cheladas, micheladas and michelada roja made with Corona (see sidebar).
Is Corona feeling the chill? No competition is good, but Corona has a ton of history and authenticity in the bank on this one. Don't expect them to roll over.
This is a fast-moving phenomenon, but it remains to be seen whether it will last. As always, keep an eye on sales, and try not to be caught if the music suddenly stops playing. Like the man said: you have to play the game to see.