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It was a small brand in a big portfolio, George Killian's Irish Red, and Coors Brewing Co. had a problem marketing it.

Coors had tried full-scale advertising, but while the brand licensed from Heineken was generating interest, it was at the level of a specialty brew, not a major national beer.

Coors had another problem, too. When it sought overseas help from international brewers, those brewers wanted similar help in the U.S. and weren't convinced big Coors would give it to them.

Michael Marranzino, VP-international, came up with the idea for a company within a company to handle smaller products. And he assigned it to Killian's brand manager, Vinny Prattico.

The unit would act like the distributor of a specialty brew, have its own sales force and devote its time to that segment and imports.

"When you've got a brand portfolio, there comes a point where you have to ask how effective can you be for smaller brands," says Mr. Prattico, 35.

So he started the new company, named UniBev, and took the title of marketing manager. It was assigned Killian's and Coors' Winterfest, and in the months since has acquired the rights to brew Australia's Castlemaine XXXX and to import the New Zealand beer, Steinlager.

"Now we are competing against imports and can walk in [to retailers] as an expert on imports and specialty brands," he says.

There's no doubt the brand that started it all has become successful, though there's some debate over just how far Killian's has come.

Mr. Prattico claims Killian's last year passed Boston Beer Co.'s Samuel Adams as the largest specialty beer product, growing 58% in volume. However, Impact, a liquor industry trade publication, reported Killian's grew 39.2%, to 270,000 barrels, ranking behind Sam Adams' 350,000 barrels.

Either way, Killian's may soon find itself too big for UniBev. "It's something we are wrestling with," says Mr. Prattico.

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