In February 1975, the Miller Brewing Co. (now MillerCoors) introduced its Miller Lite brand nationwide. The debut of the first widely available light beer by a U.S. brewer profoundly altered not only American beer, but the wider food industry.
The low-calorie, literally lighter-colored beer itself was not all that novel, though Miller understandably touted it as such in an advertising blitz that swelled to nearly $250 million by the early 1980s. There had been light beer, in one form or another, for years in the U.S. and Europe—just nothing like Miller Lite in its ubiquity.
Joseph Owades, a biochemist who would become perhaps most famous for helping Jim Koch develop the recipe for Samuel Adams Boston Lager, developed Gablinger’s Diet Beer for the old Rheingold Brewery in Brooklyn in the mid-1960s. It notoriously flopped upon its 1967 debut; the clunky name didn’t stick and the advertising was corny. One early commercial showed an obese man shoveling spaghetti into his mouth with one hand while the other held a Gablinger’s, as if the beer would do little to add to his weight.
“Not only did no one want to try the beer,” Owades, who died in 2005, would remember, “they couldn’t even stand to look at this guy!”
Ironically enough, Miller was the next brewery to try a light beer. It had acquired Meister Brau, a Chicago brewery, in the early 1970s. Meister Brau had been brewing its own light beer, using Owades’ recipe after acquiring it from Rheingold. Miller made the same mistake as that brewery, though, in marketing its acquisition: It touted Meister Brau as a diet beer for those trying to lose weight and for women (it was patronizingly assumed that women did not like beer to begin with because of the calories).
Meister Brau flopped. Light beer seemed a no-go in the U.S. marketplace.
Yet, Miller couldn’t leave it alone. Philip Morris had finished acquiring the brewery in 1972 from the descendants of its eponymous founder, Frederick Miller, beating out rival suitor PepsiCo. The new corporate parent wanted results; more to the point, it wanted Miller to knock its archival, Anheuser-Busch, from its pedestal atop the beer world. By the early 1970s, Anheuser-Busch accounted for roughly one-fourth of all the beer sold in the United States.
More than that, the U.S. had been shedding breweries at a fantastic clip since World War II, to the point where there were fewer than 100 in the early 1970s. Once mighty operations such as Schlitz, still the nation’s No. 2 brewery, ran so distantly behind Anheuser-Busch in terms of production and sales that some analyst speculated there would be but a few U.S. breweries total by the end of the 20th century.
Miller needed to do something, and fast. Under the direction of its new president, John Murphy, a lawyer with Philip Morris since 1962, Miller carefully and forcefully rolled out another version of the Meister Brau recipe, beginning in select cities and then nationally in February 1975.
Two crucial tweaks made it phenomenally successful. First, Murphy and his team avoided the diet angle and instead targeted men with the taste of the beer itself, introducing such immortal marketing phrases as, “Great Taste, Less Filling,” and “Everything You Always Wanted in a Beer. And Less.” (Miller also retired its “the Champagne of Beers” tag around this time.)
The second tweak was the name itself: “Miller Lite.” Usage of the word “lite” probably stretched back to the 19th century, but it had never been harnessed the way Miller harnessed it. It instantly became a verbal shorthand for healthier living, however preposterous the idea.
Here was a way for food producers—brewers, bakers, barbecue-sauce makers—to easily tell potential customers that their products were that much lower in calories. “The word skittered across hundreds of new-product labels (more than 350 in the first half of the 1980s),” wrote The New York Times in an obituary for Murphy, who died in 2002. “Light became ‘lite’ and took on a life of its own.”
Schlitz would introduce the second widely available, American-made light beer in 1976. By then, though, it was too late: Thanks to Miller Lite—70 million cases of the stuff would ship in 1976—Miller was well on its way to the No. 2 spot among the dwindling ranks of U.S breweries. And it had Anheuser-Busch looking enviously over its shoulder: That brewery introduced Natural Light in 1977, and Bud Light in 1982. Light beer was, at last, for better or worse, here to stay.
· Turning on the Lite: The Origins of Miller Lite and Light Beer [All About Beer]
· Let There Be Lite [NY Times]