The long, slow, torturous death of Zima.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Nov. 26 2008 6:53 AM

The Long, Slow, Torturous Death of Zima

Fourteen years after its heyday, Zima is finally at peace.

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Coors was widely expected to kill the brand, as Miller had done with Clear Beer. (Several me-too malternatives, such as Pabst's Izen Klar and Stroh's Clash, had suffered similar fates.) But the company instead chose to reinvent its once-proud brew. It altered Zima's formula to make it taste even more like Sprite and launched a new ad campaign touting Zima as the ideal thirst quencher for oppressively hot days. Sales never came close to reaching their 1994 levels, but they did rebound to a respectable 610,000 barrels by 2000. That's peanuts compared with a flagship beer brand like Coors Light, which sold 16.6 million barrels that year. But Zima was a high-margin product—charcoal-filtered dreck that sold for superpremium prices. It could still earn its keep on low-volume sales, most of which took place in warm-weather states during summer.

Zima went through two more complete retoolings, the first in 2004 when it was transformed into Zima XXX. Coors pumped up the alcohol content to 5.9 percent and introduced flavors such as Hard Punch and Hard Orange. The move was made after Zima had lost significant market share to Smirnoff Ice, which benefits from confusion over whether it contains vodka. (It doesn't, at least in this country.) Coors sensed that the only way to compete was by hyping Zima as a drink worthy of daredevils.

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The gambit failed. Three years later, Coors (on the verge of its merger with Miller) reversed course and decided to embrace a group of consumers it had once reviled—women in their 20s. Zima was relaunched with less alcohol, fewer calories, and an array of fruity flavors such as pineapple citrus. Going after women wasn't a great way to grow the product's market, but Coors believed that today's young females could sustain Zima as a niche product.

This last, dainty incarnation of Zima might still be with us were it not for killjoy lawmakers in Utah and California. In the former state, notorious for its tough liquor laws, Zima was one of the few potent tipples available in grocery stores. (Most alcoholic beverages are available only in state-controlled shops.) But MillerCoors withdrew the brand from Utah in September, after the state's legislature passed an onerous law requiring new labels that indicate a malternative's alcohol content in bold, all-caps letters. It didn't make economic sense for the brewer to print Utah-only labels.

In California, meanwhile, the state's Board of Equalization decided to tax malternatives as distilled spirits rather than beer (the dubious rationale being that such an increase would discourage alcohol abuse among cash-strapped minors). MillerCoors could have challenged the $3.10-per-gallon tax hike by submitting scientific evidence attesting to Zima's lack of liquor. But for a brand that already had one foot in the grave, that apparently seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Shortly after the regulation kicked in on Oct. 1, MillerCoors finally threw in the towel on Zima. California had been one of its largest markets.

For a brand that was selling tens of thousands of barrels per year up to the bitter end, Zima's demise has inspired surprisingly little anguish among its fans.

This online petition aims to send 1 million signatures to MillerCoors headquarters; as of this writing, it's just 999,947 names short of that ambitious goal.

There are surely more than 53 Zima lovers in America, and many of them are doubtless male. But that's a love that dare not speak its name.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.