Iced to the Max

As millions of Canadian tv viewers await the beginning of World Series baseball, Labatt Breweries of Canada - part-owners of the playoff-bound Toronto Blue Jays - has opened the latest chapter in the high-stakes ice beer story.The national brewer has launched...

As millions of Canadian tv viewers await the beginning of World Series baseball, Labatt Breweries of Canada – part-owners of the playoff-bound Toronto Blue Jays – has opened the latest chapter in the high-stakes ice beer story.

The national brewer has launched Labatt Maximum Ice, a line extension of its successful Labatt Ice brand, which has captured just under 5% of Canadian beer sales and about half of the ice beer category since its introduction in March.

The media launch kicks off Oct. 4 in tv, radio and print just days before the World Series is set to begin.

As its name suggests, Maximum Ice has a higher-than-average alcohol content, in this case 7.1% by volume.

There is some question, however, of what average alcohol content means today.

With the introduction of dry beers, ice beer products and higher-alcohol cold-filtered drafts over the past few years, what is now being viewed as a ‘regular beer’ can have anywhere from 5% to 5.7% alcohol.

Beers with as much as 6.1% alcohol, carrying such descriptors as ‘Strong’ are stilled considered within the mainstream.

In Ontario, one in five beers sold is now more than 5% alcohol.

According to Bruce Elliot, Labatt’s vice-president of marketing, the 7.1% Maximum Ice has been brought to market in direct response to consumer demand.

Elliot says beer drinkers have responded well to the distinct taste of Labatt Ice, and the brewer’s persistent tracking of these people over the past summer has revealed a clear desire among many of them for an even fuller taste, fuller body and more alcohol content.

While brewers have always been able to increase alcohol content in beer, it has been, until recently, at the expense of taste.

Generally speaking, when a beer’s alcohol content goes up, its taste becomes more syrupy and clearly more distanced from the mainstream.

But Elliot says because of Labatt’s new ice brewing process and all the research and development that went into it, the brewery was able to crack the problem of delivering a higher alcohol beer with a popular taste.

It is precisely this dual accomplishment that has rival brewery Molson Breweries hopping mad.

‘They can’t have it both ways,’ says Charles Fremes, Molson senior vice-president of corporate and public affairs.

‘They can’t claim to have a smooth, drinkable product and be positioned as a responsible brewer,’ Fremes says.

While Molson has marketed high alcohol beers, such as its Brador brand at 6% by volume for some time, Fremes says these are specialty brands with small niche market followings and are not mass merchandised.

His problem with Labatt is that by attaching Maximum Ice to a brand as broadly based and heavily advertised as Labatt Ice, 7.1% alcohol suddenly becomes associated with the mainstream.

And that, says Fremes, threatens the beer industry’s accepted position as having the alcoholic beverage of moderation.

‘We [breweries] enjoy the right to market our products on television,’ he says. ‘Spirits don’t. With those rights come responsibilities, and we think that Labatt has overstepped those boundaries.’

But Elliot counters that Maximum Ice is simply a new product created to meet consumer demand.

While it is an extension of Labatt Ice, it has a specialty positioning by virtue of its premium price. (Maximum Ice will cost $4.60 more for a case of 24 than Labatt’s discount-priced Wildcat brand family.)

Elliot also suggests it is natural for people to be focussing their attention on the content of new products that are coming out of Labatt because true differentiation in product content is a relatively new story.

Innovations of this sort represent a big departure from the beer industry’s marketing past, he says.

‘This [Maximum Ice] is simply one more product in a stable of products,’ Elliot says.

‘People now have a menu of products that they select for different occasions,’ he says. ‘We’ve been guilty of delivering me-too products in the past. One of the reasons our [Labatt's] business is up is because we’ve been doing things differently.’

Elliot also points out that within the Labatt portfolio there are light and ultra-light products, and, corporately, Labatt maintains a strong commitment towards reminding consumers to drink responsibly.

To get the Maximum Ice story across to consumers, Labatt is using the same tough-guy spokesman technique that helped get Labatt Ice a lot of attention.

Only it will not be former Russian ballet dancer Alexander Godunov. Now it is Michael Ironside, a famous villain from such movies as Highlander 2 and Scanners.

Like Godunov, Ironside will concentrate on the process story of Labatt ice brewing, and will try to get the message across to viewers that Maximum Ice is the next logical step in the evolution of ice beer.

While Labatt and Molson have differing views on whether Maximum Ice as a 7.1% mass-marketed brand goes too far, both agree on one point: ultimately, the consumer will decide.

Early indications are that some special interest groups are siding with the Molson point of view.

John Bates, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Canada, is extremely put out by Maximum Ice.

Bates says: ‘It’s absolutely appalling Labatt is doing this.’

He has already been in touch with Ontario’s Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations, which oversees the sale of alcoholic beverages in the province, to see if the sale of the new beer can be stopped.

Bates says beer is by far the drink of choice for drinking drivers, and equally the drink of choice for the under 25s.

Herb Simpson, executive director of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation in Ottawa, says he has several concerns about the introduction of the new beer since it flies in the face of a worldwide trend towards no alcohol or low alcohol beer.

Simpson, who heads one of the world’s authorities on drinking and driving, says he would not like to see ‘fairly aggressive’ marketing targetted at two groups in particular: young people and the ‘hard-core’ drinker.

Also, Simpson says he hopes the introduction of Maximum Ice will not lead to ‘an escalating concentration [alcohol strength] war between the brewers.’

A foundation pharmacologist calculates an average male drinker of about 180 pounds would only have to down three Maximum Ice beers in an hour to have a blood alcohol content of .11%, well over the .08 legal limit for drinking and driving, Simpson notes.

Recently, brewers have acted responsibly about drinking and driving, but this new beer comes ‘right out of left field,’ Simpson says.