Last week, MillerCoors unveiled the biggest brand launch in its five-and-a-half year history: Miller Fortune, a beer designed to take on the spirits market. But, how will this strategy play out, and what else does the brewing JV have in store to rescue its flagging volumes? Here, in the first part of an exclusive two-part interview just-drinks deputy editor James Wilmore tackles the US firm's sales president, Ed McBrien.

Big beer versus craft beer is now a familiar theme in the US brewing industry. How the major players are tackling the rising threat from smaller, niche producers has generated plenty of column inches. But, for Ed McBrien, president of sales & distributor operations at MillerCoors, his focus is elsewhere. He's targetting a whole different category, in fact: Spirits.

Last week, MillerCoors unveiled its most significant new product since the company, a joint-venture between Molson Coors and SABMiller, was formed in 2008. Miller Fortune is a 6.9% abv golden lager, which comes in distinctive jet-black cans and bottles.

"I characterise it as a big bang launch," McBrien, 55, tells me over the telephone from the company's Chicago headquarters. But, while launching a lager of this strength may appear like a play against its rival Anheuser-Busch InBev's stronger abv brands - such as Budweiser Black Crown and Bud Light Platinum - the MillerCoors exec insists this is not the case. Instead, the company is looking to capture millennial spirits drinkers with the launch. "Spirits have taken some share of stomach from the beer sector over the last few years. That's a space where we think we have a right to play," says McBrien.   

In a sense, MillerCoors is creating its own sub-category. "We are looking to play in that space in the way no-one else is doing in the US beer business today," says McBrien. What's intriguing is that the brewer appears to be focussing its efforts on the marketing of Miller Fortune, helped by its distinctive packaging, to convince spirits drinkers that this is a viable alternative to, say, a Bourbon. However, McBrien stresses the beer, made with Cascade hops, is in no way linked to Bourbon, despite media reports suggesting to the contrary.

So what's the strategy for Miller Fortune?

Initially, the company will look to build up noise around the brand through the way it is served in bars. Venues are being encouraged to pour Miller Fortune from its 12oz bottle into branded rocks glasses. McBrien, who spent 13 years with Proctor & Gamble before joining Coors Brewing Co pre-merger in 1994, claims the strategy is aimed at "developing a ritual" around the brand for the first six months.

"We think there'll be a lot of talk value," he says. After this initial launch, which includes bottles and cans in the off-trade, and a major advertising campaign going live on 3 March, a draught version will be considered.

Is Miller Fortune a play for significant volumes? "We think there's a lot of volume available for us in that (spirits) space," says McBrien. "This is not a niche play."

Variants of Miller Fortune are also unlikely, he explains. "This will be a large, standalone brand."

The launch could be viewed as a bid to counter the threat that MillerCoors faces on two fronts, from craft beer and from spirits. McBrien is keen not to get bogged down in the big versus craft debate. But, he cannot resist a dig at the, still, relatively small US independent sector. "There's been an awful lot of ink for a segment that is 6% or 7% of the (US) industry," he ventures.

He also suggests that it is a "a bit tiresome and difficult for retailers" because of the amount of new craft brands that are appearing. McBrien acknowledges there is still plenty of room for the craft category to grow. But, understandably, he says: "I think the sweet spot is where there are craft brands that can bring scale."

MillerCoors has a number of such beers of its own, what is describes as "craft" brands, that McBrien is alluding to. Blue Moon, Leinenkugel's and Henry Weinhard's are all part of the brewer's Tenth & Blake division, which has performed strongly since its formation in 2010. And, the MillerCoors man remains confident in the unit's future. "We're excited about our craft beer business - Blue Moon, Jacob Leinenkugel's - these are breweries with real heritage - and almost 30% of total growth in the (US) craft segment last year," he says.  

Blue Moon in particular has been a beacon for MillerCoors. However, the brand has also elicited criticism from the craft beer community, upset at the fact that MillerCoors' name does not appear on the beer's label. Some have labelled this move as "crafty" because, so the argument goes, a company owned by two multi-national brewers, is somehow deceiving consumers. Its rival Anheuser-Busch InBev has also been singled out for its lack of disclosure over brands such as Shock Top.

How does McBrien respond to this criticism? "I actually don't respond to those critics," he says. "It's a discussion I prefer not to get into and I don't think it's healthy for the entire beer category." As I push a little harder, he offers this: "I think the internal back and forth is not helpful ... when it comes to this whole notion around the definition of craft beers, ultimately it's up to the consumer to decide if they like the beer and how they characterise it." 

Part two of this interview, in which McBrien discusses MillerCoors' light beer brands and the cider category, can be found here.