Anheuser-Busch launched the ice beer brigade when it announced distribution of Ice Draft From Budweiser would begin in West Coast markets on Oct. 4, with national distribution completed Jan. 31.
Now, Miller Brewing Co., Coors Brewing Co., Stroh Brewery Co., S&P Corp.'s Pabst Brewing Co. and Genesee Corp. are among those testing or marketing ice beers.
Miller already has gone national with a trio of beers-Miller Lite Ice, Icehouse and Molson Ice. It's also testing Miller High Life Ice in several markets. Coors is set to move Coors Artic Ice into nine markets by Feb. 14.
A-B, Miller (for Icehouse and Lite Ice) and Coors all promise heavy ad support. Miller alone may spend more than $60 million. A-B is expected to support Ice Draft with as much as $30 million. Coors, in its test markets, will spend as much on Artic Ice as it does for its flagship Coors Light brand.
"We have a deluge of ice beers," said Bob Joanis, Coors VP-new products. "It seems that everybody is slapping `ice' on their label. It's like `dry' and `draft' were for a while, but the difference is that [in ice]there is a product point of difference."
Trying a new segment isn't new to the beer category. Four years ago, dry beer emerged as a product whose strong sales in Japan attracted the interest of U.S. brewers. After heavy initial advertising and trial, dry beer has faded. Brewers say ice beer has an advantage over dry beer because it has a much stronger taste difference from regular brews.
Most of the ice beers have a slightly higher alcohol content than regular beers, though Ice Draft has an alcohol level similar to other beers. The "ice" name comes from a step in the brewing process in which the emerging beer is cooled down to an iced slurry.
"Our biggest concern is that it's the beer of the month or the year," Mr. Joanis said. "We are watching Canada, where this ice category quickly grew into 12% of the brewing industry."
Coors signed an agreement to use ice beer preparation equipment designed by Labatt Breweries of Canada and will identify Artic Ice as the only U.S. ice beer to use the "ice brewing process."
Coors will price its ice beer slightly above its regular beers. Advertising from GSD&M, Austin, Texas, uses the slogan, "Nothing's bolder. Nothing colder."
Richard Lalley, Miller's director of new-product development, said ice beer has already proved enough of a success for Miller to start national advertising. Miller had said it would test beers locally with no ads and see response before committing big marketing dollars.
"This thing is exploding," Mr. Lalley said. "We think it's on the cusp of being a real category. Before there was national distribution, it didn't make sense to advertise. But we've seen that it has significant consumer appeal and has a high likelihood of success. Now that it has gone through those two stages, we are ready to advertise."
Miller's Icehouse TV advertising from Young & Rubicam, Chicago, carries through its early "create our ad" print theme. A character identified as "Paul from the Plank Road Brewery" is waiting to paint a slogan on an outdoor board as soon as viewers call one in to Miller's 800-number. A single airing shortly before the Super Bowl drew 29,000 calls.
The brewer also has hopes for Miller Lite Ice, which will get an "aggressive" separate campaign from Leo Burnett USA when it launches in mid-February, said Scott Barnum, Miller's low-calorie director.
"The ice segment is the fastest growing, hottest segment in the market right now," he said. "All of our signs are that this thing is here to stay."
Mr. Barnum said Miller believes Miller Lite Ice can thrive because there can be segmentation within an emerging area.
"There isn't a low-calorie ice out there," he said, "and we believe being first is key."
He added that having three ice beers in national distribution won't be a problem because they share a common definition.
"They all have stronger taste, higher intensity and more of what you want," Mr. Barnum said. "Everything else is thin ice."
A-B has made no secret that Ice Draft's target is Miller Genuine Draft, with the ice beer and advertising from DDB Needham Worldwide formulated to win over Genuine Draft drinkers. Knowledgeable industry observers say the beer's success has been spotty at best, doing well in a few markets but not so well in others.
A-B, however, claims Ice Draft is doing well. "Judging from the strong sales momentum that Ice Draft continues to produce in our early rollout markets, we're confident Ice Draft is going to be an immensely popular choice," said August A. Busch IV, VP-Budweiser brands.