Thanks, Canada, for the ice beers

Graphic: Libby McGuire

In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, The Takeout is celebrating the nation’s culinary contributions all week long. We hope you enjoy Canada Week.

Recent Video

This browser does not support the video element.


In 1994, the golden age of schlocky beer marketing, a series of commercials featuring a sinister penguin began beaming into American households. The penguin was hiding in your home. He was lurking in your backseat. He was tailing you no matter where you tried to run. He had a catch phrase—“doobie doobie doo”—and was somehow supposed to convince you to buy a beer called Bud Ice. Two years later, that menacing penguin appeared in a minute-long Super Bowl commercial that Ad Age called “downright suspenseful and creepy.”

This is only the twelfth-weirdest fact about so-called “ice beers.” Ice beers are a Canadian invention dating back to the early 1990s; they’re essentially stronger versions of the domestic lagers North Americans had been drinking for decades. American beer companies swiftly copied this “innovative” idea and mass-produced their own versions including Milwaukee’s Best Ice, Keystone Ice, Bud Ice, Busch Ice, and Natural Ice. The very name and nature of this beer style is questionable—how, exactly, does the “ice” produce a tastier beer?—but nothing is more perplexing than these beers’ stubborn, enduring existence.

They hit shelves at a time when mass-produced alcohol seemed forever in search of its next boom-and-bust gimmick—dry beer and clear beer being two very ’90s inventions. But ice beers never busted. Not in Canada, and not in the United States. Molson Coors brews millions of barrels of ice beer annually under five brands: Icehouse, Icehouse Edge, Keystone Ice, Mickey’s Ice, and Milwaukee’s Best Ice. Labatt Ice and Labatt Max Ice still grace American shelves, too, though they’re now Canadian in name only: A parent company called FIFCO owns Labatt USA and brews those beers in New York. Molson Coors says ice beers make up about 20% of the company’s “economy beer” portfolio, a segment that also includes beers like Keystone Light, Hamm’s, and Steel Reserve.

Advertisement

History dictates that ice beers should have gone the way of Zima, but they’ve persisted. What explains their longevity? It might be a little something called Canadian mystique.

The Origins Of Ice

Here’s how beer companies explain the process of making ice beer: After fermentation, these lagers are partially frozen, creating ice crystals that “concentrate” their flavor, “smooth” their taste, and bump their alcohol content a bit. This has distant historic roots in eisbock, a now-obscure German style of beer created around the turn of the 20th century by partially freezing a strong German lager, then removing the frozen portion to produce an even stronger beer.

Today’s ice beers, of course, have more in common with Natural Light or Rolling Rock than they do with rich, malty German lagers of yore, and no brewery will argue that ice beer has been around any earlier than the 1990s.

Their invention was more a marketing ploy than a revolution in brewing technology. According to Don Tse, a beer writer and consultant based in Calgary, back in the early 90s, brewers at Labatt—when it was still a thoroughly Canadian company—were experimenting with the idea of chilling beer to help improve its clarity. They accidentally froze some, decided it still tasted fine, and more importantly, realized they could spin a story around it.

Et voila, Labatt Ice was born. Molson, then Labatt’s major rival, quickly followed with its own ice beer, birthing “the ice beer wars” of the 1990s.

Advertisement

Ice On Fire

Molson and Labatt advertised these beers as having “bigger, bolder flavor,” Tse says. While breweries couldn’t legally market them as having higher alcohol content, that was also implicitly part of their allure in Canada, and later in the U.S.

“In news reports about it, they’d talk about how ice beer was a Canadian invention. We Canadians, we’re proud of our inventions, so I think that helped sales here,” Tse says. “Also playing into that nationalism is, there was in the ’80s and ’90s a belief that Canadian beer was stronger than American beer, so that was a small point of pride too.”

Molson Ice became the first ice beer marketed in the U.S. after its successful launch in Canada. A New York Times article from 1993 reported that ice beers had captured 10% of the Canadian beer market in just the five months since they launched. Other American breweries chased the trend; in 1994, Coors unveiled Artic Ice. (Yes, that’s “Artic,” not “Arctic.” A Coors representative told reporters at the time, “We don’t think of it as a misspelling. We think of it as ‘alternative spelling.’”)

In another squirmy example of truthiness, a Molson USA executive tried to downplay ice beers’ higher alcohol content, telling The New York Times: “It’s being marketed for its smoothness and distinctive, full-flavored taste. The fact it has higher alcohol is a fact, not a market element.” Despite these denials, the belief that ice beers were strong enough for Canadians, and therefore intriguing to Americans, persisted.

Today, Molson Ice and Labatt Ice boast a 5.6% ABV, not all that high compared to craft beer styles like IPAs that regularly reach into the 6-8% range. But the domestic lagers ice beer was and still is mostly competing with—Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite—are only brewed to about 4.2% ABV. Tse says the slightly higher alcohol content is likely part of ice beers’ appeal.

“I don’t believe [this stereotype] is true, but there was already this belief that Canadian beer was stronger, and when ice beers came out, they were a little stronger still.”

Advertisement

A Long Ice Age

Today, myriad options exist that are more Canadian and more alcoholic than ice beers. (Looking at you, Canadian blended whisky.) So how to explain their continued existence?

Drinkers who regularly buy these beers presumably like their flavor. These beers may not be my favorite beer or yours, but far be it from us to stick our noses up at other people’s choice in mild intoxicants.

Tse has another hypothesis that has to do with the changing nature of stores’ beer selections. American and Canadian beer markets have, since the ’90s, grown splintered. Decades ago, most people drank mass-market lagers that were similar in price and style. Today, drinkers might choose local IPAs, or hard seltzer, or imported beers, or mass-market lagers, all of which vary widely in price and flavor.

“The beer market generally has become bifurcated: there’s premiumization as well as a move to discount beer,” he says. (“Premiumization” refers to pricier beers like IPAs, hard seltzers, Michelob Ultra, Corona, and the like.) “I would say that ‘ice’ is maybe a bit of a compromise for people going to the discount side. They feel they’re getting a better quality for the same price.”

Justine Stauffer, director of economy brands for Molson Coors, confirms this.

“Ice beer drinkers skew a bit older, and generally live in more rural areas of the country,” she says. “These drinkers are price-conscious, so they appreciate that beers provide a great value for a higher-ABV product that still tastes like a beer.”

Advertisement

The idea of getting more bang for your stretched-thin buck—either in terms of flavor or alcohol content—is an understandable one. And if drinking that same ice beer mentally transports you to a northern land of moose, hockey, maple syrup, and snow-capped mountains, who could argue its appeal?

Kate Bernot is a freelance writer and a certified beer judge. She was previously managing editor at The Takeout.

Read more!