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The Rise and Fall of Zima

December 03, 2020

By Diana Hubbell, December 03, 2020

The year is 1994. Bill Clinton is president of the United States, Disney’s The Lion King is a box office smash, and Jeff Bezos just founded an online book retail startup in his garage in Seattle with an estimated $300,000 seed investment from his parents. Millions of Americans flip on their television sets and see a man in a boat hat and an ill-fitting suit walk into a bar.

“Zay you’re up for a beer. What if there wasn’t any beer?” the man smirks at the camera. Two twentysomething men look baffled, then smile as the bartender pours a bottle of colorless liquid over ice. 

“Zima’s a unique alcohol beverage. I kinda like it,” the man whispers as the scene fades to black and the words “Zomething Different” appear.

That year, Coors Brewing Company launched Zima Clearmalt on a national scale and spent an estimated $38 million—more than on its namesake stalwart, Coors Light—to flood the airwaves with promotional commercials like this one, most of which read like tongue-in-cheek send-ups of megabrewery ads. Subsequent Zima commercials would feature a vicious miniature poodle chasing a terrified man into a bar and an attractive woman asks a man what he’s drinking, only to watch his tongue freeze to a stripper pole à la A Christmas Story when he tries to answer. (Yep, sexist beer marketing tropes were already well-established enough to make it into the parody.) 

For a while, the advertising blitz worked brilliantly. By the time 1995 rolled around, Coors had sold 1.3 million barrels of the 4.7% ABV fermented malt beverages, grabbing a solid 1 percent of the total national alcohol market. One can only imagine that Zima’s marketing team felt something like the one at Boston Beer Co. after White Claw Summer, 2019.

Any child of the ‘90s knows how this story ends. Zima quickly went from being “Zomething Different” to a source of ridicule. Roughly 70 percent of the alcohol-drinking population in the United States tried Zima in 1994 and, unfortunately for Coors, decided they wanted nothing to do with it. Consumers likened it to Sprite or Fresca with an unmistakably metallic aftertaste and a strong whiff of chemicals on the nose. By 1996, sales plummeted to 403,000 barrels and continued falling fast. Before long, Zima was shunned by just about everyone except college students, who found that melting Jolly Ranchers into the stuff was an efficient way to get hammered. 

Zima may be a product of its era, but it offers a few unmistakable parallels to the present. As in 2020, beer sales were on the decline in the ‘90s and megabreweries were clamoring to supplement them with the next big thing. Wine coolers had ruled the 1980s, with sales peaking at over $1 billion in 1987 and a market share that included 20 percent of the total wine consumed in the nation. When the federal government hiked the tax on wine in all forms from $0.17 to $1.07 a gallon, corporations needed a new way to hawk booze. Enter the “malternatives,” also known as alcopops or malt liquors, depending on whom you asked. Much like the hard seltzers that would follow in their footsteps decades later, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, and Zima could be cheaply mass-produced by fermenting simple malt sugars. Since they contained neither wine nor spirits, they fell under the same more modest tax bracket as beers.

Any child of the ‘90s knows how this story ends. Zima quickly went from being 'Zomething Different' to a source of ridicule.”

Although there wasn’t a demand for malternatives, the industry was dead-set on creating one. For whatever reason, marketers in the ‘90s figured they could make clear liquids a trend. The result was a series of spectacular flops fueled more by high-stakes corporate rivalries than actual consumer interest. The first was Crystal Pepsi, which debuted in the States in 1992 and quietly imploded in 1994 after Coca-Cola released Tab Clear, an intentionally lousy-tasting competitor meant to drag Pepsi’s product down with it. 

When Miller Brewing Company announced that it would introduce Clear Beer, its main competitor, Coors, got right to work. For some inexplicable reason, the scientists at Miller thought that using charcoal to strip both the color and the flavor out of beer would make it more marketable to women. As Tom Pirko, then the president of industry consulting firm Bevmark Inc., said in an interview with The Washington Post at the time, “The idea of creating a Virginia Slims of beer is a very good one.”

Since it turns out that women do not love shitty, flavorless beer, Clear Beer never made it to market. The rival product from Coors, however, did. While the name Clear Beer is almost comically self-explanatory, Coors went in another direction with branding. They turned to the third-party marketing firm Lexicon Branding. Jane Espenson, who would later become an award-winning writer for television shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones, came up with the idea of naming it after something literally cool, namely, the Russian word for winter: зима, or “Zima.”

Unlike Crystal Pepsi, Coors refused to let its transparent baby die in peace after sales began tanking. The company was too deeply invested and the profit margins were too high. Instead of cutting its losses, Coors doubled down on a series of failed overhauls. First came Zima Gold, in 1995, a 5.4% ABV amber-hued liquid that was supposed to be reminiscent of bourbon-and-Coke, not unlike the line loosely cocktail-flavored malternatives launched 25 years later by AB InBev. Zima Gold lasted a mere three months before being pulled due to abysmal sales. Next, came a more soda-like Zima incarnation marketed as a “thirst-quencher,” followed in 2004 by the 5.9% ABV Zima XXX. Then, at last, came a lower-calorie, fruitier version geared toward women drinkers. By the time the then-merged MillerCoors retired the product on October 10, 2008, Zima had chewed through a whopping $180 million in advertising costs.

Why the alcopops largely faded after the initial buzz while the hard seltzers of today continue to be so lucrative is something of a mystery.”

Even then, Zima has enjoyed a strangely long pop cultural afterlife. Finding someone who admits to enjoying Zima is tough, but just about everyone has heard of it. DIY versions have inspired people to make their own Zima knock-offs. Its notoriety is such that MillerCoors briefly brought Zima back in 2017, hoping to appeal to nostalgic Millennials. And like the Backstreet Boys and other ‘90s relics, Zima is still big in Japan.

Why the alcopops of the ‘90s largely faded after the initial buzz while the hard seltzers of today continue to be so lucrative is something of a mystery. Part of it may have to do with shifting conceptions of heteronormative masculinity. The bros of the ‘90s rejected Zima the minute it was marketed to women. White Claw’s branding emphasizes its relatively low calorie and carb counts—a tactic perfectly geared to the omnipresent body-consciousness in modern-day bro culture.

Another element may be that White Claw’s early hype wasn’t generated by a corporate thinktank, but rather the profoundly weird melting pot of the internet. When a viral YouTube video proclaimed there “ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws!” Boston Beer Company was so caught off guard by the ensuing demand that there was a shortage of product

Pop culture in 2020 tips toward the strange and the cynical. Even as our micro attention spans have moved on, White Claw has stayed in the collective consciousness thanks to hits like viral TikTok recipes for Claw Slushies. Once Zima became the butt of jokes by the likes of David Letterman, it was all over. White Claw’s break from obscurity happened because it became a punchline—it has always been served with a raised eyebrow, which suits the present mood just fine. 

There is, perhaps, a cautionary tale embedded in Zima’s decade-long death spiral. Throwing millions of advertising dollars at a product doesn’t guarantee a hit, and an amalgamation of marketing buzzwords does not always a viral trend make. It’s something the megabreweries trying to cash in on the current wave of malternatives may want to watch out for—today’s pumpkin-spiced hard seltzer may be tomorrow’s Zima.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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