Unraveling Minnesota’s Love Affair with Michelob Golden Light

May 07, 2019

By Jerard Fagerberg, May 07, 2019

My Minnesota initiation came in a windfall.

It was the fall of 2014, a buggy Indian summer. Somehow I’d ended up in Fridley drinking at a strip mall pub called Shortstop Bar & Grille. The air conditioning was fierce and the pizza was cut into squares. As we sat, my friend Devan ordered a pitcher of a beer I’d never heard of. She called it Mich Golden.

The beer was translucent yellow and fizzier than seltzer. I poured it into a shaker pint. It smelled like a bar mat. I took a sip and felt it cut through the pepperoni grease coating my mouth. “What is this?” I asked Devan, perplexed. Turns out it was a baptism.

Mich Golden is both rumor and legend in Minnesota. Local lore tells that the beer was introduced by Anheuser Busch to compete with Miller Genuine Draft, but the only people who took a shining to it were Minnesotans.The demand was so great that Michelob made the beer a Minnesota exclusive. Now, you can buy cans of the St. Louis-made macro with Minnesota’s jagged silhouette emblazoned on the side.

This is how it was told to me that night in Fridley and every time I’ve asked a Gopher Stater since. A simple tale for a simple beer. But where does the truth diverge from the legend?

Fact: Mich Golden was launched to compete against draft lagers like Miller Genuine Draft

This first layer of the Mich Golden mythos is substantiated by the brand’s woefully under-annotated Wikipedia entry, but that brief mention misses some salient points of the story.

Mich Golden first appeared in 1991 as Michelob Golden Draft, a corn-y American adjunct lager. At the time, the beer world was abuzz with so-called “draft” beers like Bud Draft, Coors Banquet, and Miller Genuine Draft, but MGD is most commonly cited as Mich Golden’s impetus for existing because the beers share the same initials. In the early days, both sported a black and gold label, linking them inextricably in the annals of Minnesota beer.

Not only did the beer come in a distinctive ridged can, it was promoted with the tagline: 'Smooth over everything.'”

Jessica Potter, Senior Director of Trade and Regional Marketing at Anheuser Busch, confirms that Mich Golden was introduced to corner the draft beer market for Anheuser. “Michelob Golden Draft Lager was initially launched in the early 1990s nationally to provide consumers with a high quality draft-style lager,” she says. MGD was one of those beers, having launched five years prior in 1986, but Potter doesn’t give them sole credit. “Of course we pay attention to what our competitors are doing in the market, but our approach has always been to simply brew the best beer possible.”

Soon after, the Michelob Golden Light variation was introduced, which proved so popular it made its predecessor obsolete. Somewhere along the way, they dropped the “draft” part altogether.

Myth: Mich Golden is only sold in Minnesota

Here, the myth diverges.

Some claim that, Mich Golden was only ever sold in Minnesota. Others proclaim that it was introduced in the entire Midwest, but only the sales in Minnesota were good enough to justify its continued existence. Neither is correct.

Anheuser Busch tested Michelob Golden Draft in the Upper Midwest, a region that contains Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Currently, it is sold in seven states other than Minnesota, and Potter says that Michelob is always exploring opportunities for expansion. The brand tested limited SKUs in Montana as recently as last year.

Myth: Mich Golden owes its success to the bland palates of Minnesotans

The Coen Brothers version of Minnesota is a land of culinary meekness. The state’s strong German, Swedish, and Norwegian heritage means that denizens would sooner opt for a grey soup than a kicking jambalaya. This is the Land of 1,000 Mild Salsas.

This is mostly a caricature. The cuisine of Minnesota has rich cultural diversity, and recent studies have suggested that the denizens of Minnesota are more adventurous than they’ve ever been. While approachability does play a factor in any macro beer’s success, according to Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota, what separated Mich Golden from the competition and gave it generational staying power was its magical marketing. Not only did the beer come in a distinctive ridged can, it was promoted with the tagline: “Smooth over everything.”

Because it was the blandest available thing, that’s probably what someone had a warm case of in the back of their car.”

“It’s the ultimate beer that was brewed for refreshment rather than flavor,” Hoverson says. “There’s never been any argument from Mich Golden about how it’s made with the finest barley and hops. It’s just smooth.”

The appeal of a smooth beer isn’t something specific to any one region. If you came of age in Minnesota during the Clinton years, you’re tied to Mich Golden not by taste but by time. 1991 was 28 years ago, when drinkers in Minnesota were weaned with “smooth over everything” blaring across their televisions. If you were a young drinker, you weren’t looking for a challenge. And Mich Golden was the cheapest, least challenging beer you could buy.

“It’s barley pop, in the truest sense,” Hoverson says. “Because it was the blandest available thing, that’s probably what someone had a warm case of in the back of their car.”

Fact: Nobody loves Mich Golden like a Minnesotan

Marty Walsh had never heard of Mich Golden until he moved to central Minnesota in 2006 and started working at Westside Liquors. Every summer, he’d see far-flung Minnesota natives come home for vacation and load up their cars with cases of Mich Golden. On their way back out of state, they’d load up again.

“We would get people who wanted maybe ten cases of Mich Golden,” Walsh says. “It was the number one thing they were taking back.”

Anecdotes like this are rampant among st Minnesotans. You see awed discussions pop up on Reddit and BeerAdvocate every so often, all trying to deduce the reason behind the popularity. Potter confirms it in simple terms: Minnesota is far and away Michelob Golden Light’s strongest market and the brand’s primary marketing priority. For Michelob’s distributor Capitol Beverage, Mich Golden represents 25% to 40% of total sales in Minnesota.

In 2015, brand agency Mortenson Kim + Raidious took this heritage and spun it into a cross-state campaign that aligned Mich Golden with all that’s virtuous about being Minnesotan. The agency leaned hard pontooning, ice fishing, and tater tot hotdish. The message was simple: If you drink this, you’re one of us.

“Minnesotans like to set themselves apart,” Walsh says. “That’s the appeal. When Mich Golden was coming out, that’s when you would’ve seen legacy brands like Hamm’s and Grain Belt Premium going under. So that was the Minnesota beer to take ownership of.”

Illustration by Adam Waito

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