I arrived at MillerCoors’s Chicago headquarters on a sultry summer day, the kind that makes you crave an icy beer. I was here to learn what lay behind Coors Light’s frosty themed advertising, and my PR handler ferried me along a well-organized tour of the marketing wing.
I saw the “lab,” a windowed cell with aluminum bookshelves full of packages that employees brought in for inspiration: a sleek Sapporo can; a bright box of Tide; and more. I listened to boilerplate information from a Miller executive in the “Great Taste Room” (“Less Filling” is next door). But what I really hoped to find out was the question on the minds of the countless beer drinkers who’ve stared curiously at the Two-Stage Cold Activation bottles and cans that Coors released last year: How cold is super cold?
“I can’t give you proprietary information,” a company rep stonewalled. MillerCoors did provide ballpark figures: The mountains turn blue at regular refrigerator temperature, or just over 40 degrees; the super cold strip at “a little bit lower.”
Coke has its secret cola recipe, Halliburton its hydraulic fracturing fluid. Coors Light has trade-secret-cold. It’s not hard to understand why. Over the past six years, the men and women behind Coors Light have staked the entire brand on the concept and image of cold. In the process, they’ve boosted sales, leaving Miller Lite and Budweiser in the dust. The underlying idea behind “cold” is also rooted in research. Some 70% of beer-drinking men have at one point or another placed their beer in the freezer, MillerCoors asserts. “The trick is to know when to take the beer out,” they say. More important, marketers saw shade-shifting bottles and cans as a way to build an image and tap into the consumer's psyche. “When a guy climbs up on a bar stool, he’s not going to admit it, but he’s going to choose the beer that matches with him in an emotional way,” says Tim Arnold, who used to manage the Anheuser-Busch account at the advertising firm D’Arcy and now runs a consulting business.
Enter the Two-Stage Cold Activation vessels.
Unlike Arnold's "guy on a bar stool," I wasn't ready to accept this on image alone. I wanted evidence. So I got empirical. Just as intrepid researchers have sought to reverse-engineer Coca-Cola, I decided to try and figure out how cold is super cold.
A cursory Google search indicated I’m not the first to wonder. Some websites suggest that the super cold draft—that frost-covered-rocky-mountain-of-a-tap that bars can install to serve the pale, watery brew super cold—pours the beer at a frosty 29 degrees (yes, that is below freezing). I had the pleasure of drinking a Coors Light served from such a contraption at the company bar. It tasted disappointingly regular-cold. As for the cans, one site suggested cold registers at 40 degrees, super cold at 35. Another put cold at 42. Hard evidence was lacking. Clearly, I had to test this myself.
With my lab partner and digital thermometer at the ready, I bought a Coors Light at the corner deli. For an added twist, to test if it really is the coldest, I got a Bud Light too. Sitting in the deli fridge, the can told me it wasn’t even cold (and yet somehow, it still felt slightly colder than the Bud Light, which, admittedly, was one door down in the fridge, and hence, possibly sitting in a slightly different climate). In order to assure a controlled environment, we let each can sit at room temperature for an hour and a half.
The beers went into the freezer registering a balmy 83 degrees. After 10 minutes I checked. Nothing. Twenty-five minutes? Zip. Forty-five? No label change. Now I was getting nervous. The Rockies, the two cold strips, were stubbornly silver. Could the can be defective?
Strange things started happening.
After 1:09, the mountains and the cold strip registered a pale blue, not the deep shade I had seen in previous casual drinking sessions. The super cold strip was also pale blue. Could super cold be a sham? I removed the can with an oven mitt to test. As we prepared to measure the temperature, the mountains began transforming, taking on a bold hue. So did the cold strip (super cold stayed pale). The can registered 56 degrees on the surface. As we would later learn, the liquid inside was some 10 degrees colder than the can itself, putting cold likely around 45 degrees. The Bud Light registered the same. Both went back in the freezer. And we waited. And waited.
The mountains stayed blue, the super cold strip stubbornly pale. Finally, after half an hour, the super cold strip seemed to have stabilized at a slightly fuller shade, but not as deep as its friend, cold. Out came the beers. The can had cooled only three degrees. We opened the can to measure the actual beer, which registered at 43 degrees. Cold, yes. But super cold? (The Bud Light was inexplicably one degree colder.)
My lab partner cried foul on the super cold concept, gave up, and went home. I kept faith. Maybe we hadn’t waited long enough? Maybe there was some deeper blue waiting to emerge from that narrow strip on the can? I put the opened beer back in the freezer. But after another 20 minutes, it was still just super-meh. The mountains were now mysteriously silver again, the super cold bar still a few shades paler than the cold strip.
Lacking the self-confidence to decide whether my beer was cold enough, I, like so many who have tapped the Rockies before me, had relied on my Coors Light label to tell me. But when I looked to my can for answers, my can equivocated.
Finally, I picked it up and felt a slosh. Ice had formed. Super cold had failed me.
I began to form a new assessment of why Coors Light executives would not tell me the exact temperature when the Rockies turn blue, or when the super cold strip transforms. Maybe they don’t know. Maybe it’s all a sham. Maybe Coors Light pulled a fast one on all of us and it isn’t the coldest beer at all but really just as cold as the fridge or freezer it’s sitting in and the Bud Light next to it.
Then again, maybe we already knew that.
[Image: Flickr user laszlo-photo]