The just-drinks Interview - MillerCoors sales president Ed McBrien - part II

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Earlier this week, we published the first part of an interview with MillerCoors' sales president, Ed McBrien, where he explained the thinking behind's the JV's biggest launch to date, Miller Fortune. Here in part two, McBrien talks to deputy editor James Wilmore about the familiar territory of light beer in the US and plans for a major new cider launch.

MillerCoors has seen struggles for its biggest segment of late, the "premium" light category, notably as craft beers steal share. But, as McBrien flags, the segment still represents around a third of the company’s total US beer sales, and he stresses that light beer drinkers are fiercely loyal to the category.

There is still a job to do, however, he admits. And reviving the premium light segment in the US on-trade is his "biggest challenge". For the Coors Light brand, McBrien says it is “all about” the Rocky Mountains innovation, which involves the product being packaged in “cold activated” bottles and cans that feature an image of the famous North American range.

Plans for the year ahead include a new design element to appeal to millennial drinkers. The group is also introducing a citrus version of Coors Light, called Summer Brew, which will be backed by a TV advertising campaign. 

Are millennials still a target market for light beers, then?

“We very much believe there’s a light beer occasion for millennial drinkers,” says McBrien. He has also been encouraged by the boost the Miller Lite brand has had from the re-introduction of its original white can, highlighting the history of the brand. The intiative is also currently being backed by a TV ad push. “Millennials have come back to us and like the idea that it’s something original and genuine,” he says. 

Aside from light beers, MillerCoors is also buoyed by the success it has had with Redd’s Apple Ale, with its strawberry variant also seeing rapid growth. “We’ve very excited about Redd’s and volumes are continuing to accelerate,” says McBrien. 

Although Redd's is a homegrown brand, MillerCoors is keeping half an eye on acquisitions. Anheuser-Busch InBev's acquisition of Blue Point Brewing Co raised a few eyebrows earlier this month. And McBrien says his company will "look opportunistically at purchasing either regional or local players". He adds: "I would stress opportunistically: The brand has to be right, it has to be a good fit with our distribution network and the price has to be right."

Away from beer, MillerCoors is focussing on another significant launch this year, with a further play into the fast-growing cider category in the US. The new brand, Smith & Forge, with a 6% abv, comes hot on the heels of Miller Fortune. It launches in the US on 1 March, supported by TV advertising - the biggest ever media campaign for a cider launch in the US - from 1 April.

McBrien says the new product is unashamedly an “attempt to make cider more masculine”, and the brand name is tied into that effort. “We were looking for cues that would communicate strong, American tradition, with kind of masculine overtones,” he says. “You can imagine a blacksmith with a hammer (with that name).” The flavour is also a deliberate attempt to tempt men into a category they would normally avoid. “We were looking for something with a bit more abv,” he says.

If craft beer is small in the US, however, cider is positively tiny, despite its rapid growth. Does McBrien think the opportunity has been overstated? “I don’t know if it has been," he says. "It’s been growing triple digits in the US.”

McBrien points to the success of the firm's other major cider brand, Crispin. “We still think there’s a lot of upside for Crispin and we think it should have more distribution, particularly in white tablecloth restaurants. It’s a drinking experience that complements meals.”

Clearly, with the launch of Miller Fortune and Smith & Forge, MillerCoors is not afraid to play the higher abv game in the US. The situation is a marked difference from the UK, where the trend is more towards lower-strength beers, as health-conscious consumers watch their unit intake and the Government encourages brewers with tax breaks for brews below 2.8% abv.

McBrien acknowledges this difference, but says his company considers these issues carefully. “We’re always thoughtful about how we pitch the abvs of our beers; responsibility is really important to us.” He flags that MillerCoors actually has an self-imposed 8% abv limit on its mainstream beers. “Beer is the drink of moderation, compared to wine and spirits,” he stresses.

With the company taking a full-on charge at the spirits category with the high abv lager Miller Fortune, we can be assured that McBrien will be repeating that mantra for some time to come.

For the first part of this interview, click here.

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