Twenty-five years ago, the then-Miller Brewing Co. was preparing to roll out a beer it called Icehouse, which it clearly considered an answer to twin realities in American beer in the very early 1990s.
One was that beer consumption and sales were basically flat, particularly for the wares that Miller and its biggest rivals Coors and Anheuser-Busch produced (though the trio did account for about three-quarters of the American beer market then).
Part of this flatness was due to an excise tax increase—breweries passed the tax on to consumers in the form of higher prices and consumers pulled back from purchases—and part was due to the second reality that Miller hoped to address with its new brand.
That reality was the steady rise of what was then called microbrewing.
To be sure, these smaller, independently owned operations with their more traditional fare accounted for an infinitesimal slice of the U.S. beer market—well under 5 percent—but, much like today, microbrewing was growing while the bigger players’ sales were just piddling along.
What’s more, Miller had its own subset of challenges in this sluggish sales climate. Demand was slowing for two of its biggest hits—Miller Lite, introduced in 1975, and Miller High Life, introduced in 1903. Miller was still comfortably No. 2 in the nation behind Anheuser-Busch—its five-year-old Miller Genuine Draft was picking up a lot of sales slack—but new was the name of the game.
Miller would introduce other brands during this period, including its Miller Reserve series, complete with what it called a “velvet stout” and Miller Clear, which was exactly what it sounded like—a beer shorn, through filtration, of its color. (“Miller has a history of trying to remove the character from beer,” Michael Jackson dryly noted in the British press around the debut of Miller Clear.)
But Icehouse was different.
For one thing, it was the inaugural offering of something called the Plank Road Brewery. That had been the original name of the Milwaukee brewery that Frederick Miller, Miller’s founder, bought in 1855. While Icehouse was not actually brewed in any physical property called Plank Road, the 19th-century moniker served as the name of a new Miller division.
Plus, it just seemed old-timey, a none-too-subtle nod toward the sort of aura that surrounded fast-growing microbrewing.
Plank Road’s first offering happened to be the first domestically produced ice beer sold in the United States. Miller had been importing Molson Ice from Canada, but the company’s Icehouse was the first brewed stateside.
What was it, exactly? According to Miller, Icehouse—and ice beer in general—was a lager chilled to below freezing to create ice crystals before aging. The move apparently imparted a smoother taste and could goose the alcohol content a bit.
It’s debatable whether ice beer represented a new style or just a new gimmick. Either way, Icehouse proved a going commodity. It would never match the industry-changing sales of Miller Lite or even of the flailing Miller High Life, both of which at different times were the second-best-selling beers in the U.S.
But Miller felt confident enough in late 1993 to ease Icehouse out of select markets such as Michigan, Minnesota and California’s East Bay and into the rest of the nation, too.
As for Miller Reserve Velvet Stout and Miller Clear, the company discontinued those offerings by mid-decade. Sorry.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Miller High Life debuted in 1981 instead of 1903. We regret the error.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, now in its second edition, and the new Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits.