Food

For A Brief Moment In The '90s, Zima Was Popular - Until People Tasted It 

Erin McCann
Updated January 6, 2020 20.3k views 14 items

People who grew up in the 1990s may feel some nostalgia when thinking about Surge, Shark Bites, or other discontinued foods from the '90s - and those of a certain age will remember Zima. The clear malt beverage was a huge hit when it debuted in 1993, but it wasn't long before Zima became a pop-culture punchline. Using an extreme marketing campaign directed toward young American men, the Coors Brewing Company took advantage of the craze for clear products to target consumers who wanted alternatives to beer, wine coolers, and hard liquor. The company believed these people would enjoy the citrusy beverage.

Zima was among the first mainstream "malternatives," paving the way for other notable bottled drinks, including Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade. Coors spent millions on advertising in its attempt to attract young men toward the product. However, not many liked the taste, and many men didn't consider it manly enough to give their approval. Coors tried to rebrand Zima several times, but American consumers were largely uninterested, and it was discontinued in the US in 2008. Nostalgia kept it in many consumers' minds, however, and re-releases proved people would buy it, even if they joked about drinking it at the same time. So why do people still remember Zima? The drink may not have won over consumers with its taste, but its influence on both alcohol and internet marketing are still seen today.

It Was An Alcohol-Based ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list For A Brief Moment In The '90s, Zima Was Popular - Until People Tasted It
Photo: MillerCoors
It Was An Alcohol-Based Descendant Of Crystal Clear Pepsi

Natural health trends of the 1980s led companies to begin making clear products the following decade, marketing them as pure and more natural alternatives to existing products. Crystal Pepsi became one of the first clear products, debuting in 1992 with a commercial featuring Van Halen. Although it only stayed on shelves for about a year, it inspired dozens of other companies to jump on the trend to create clear versions of everything from Ivory dishwashing liquid to Mennen deodorant. Coca-Cola also decided to create a clear product, but didn't want to sacrifice the reputation of its flagship soda in the name of what executives correctly assumed would be a short-lived trend, so the company created Tab Clear instead.

Before the eventual decline of clear products, Coors decided to take advantage of the fad with the creation of Zima. The company went one step further, selling its products in clear glass bottles with a unique shape to help brand the drink as more classy than beer. Miller, then a rival rather than a sibling, tried to compete by jumping on the trend, but its ClearBeer was a failure. Coors, believing Miller's failure came as a result of having "beer" in the title of its product, marketed its product as a beer alternative instead.

It Was Made By Filtering Cheap Lager Through Charcoal, Stripping Away The Color And Taste

Instead of rebranding or recreating an old product in a new flavor, Coors created Zima from scratch. Through a method of its own invention, the company used a low-grade lager as a base and filtered it through charcoal. The process removed the lager's color to create a clear end product. But that same filtering process stripped away the taste along with the color.

Coors tried to get around this by adding citrus flavorings, ultimately creating a beverage with a 4.7% alcohol content. The lack of taste, however, turned out to be an obvious problem for consumers. The responses of several Reddit users when asked about the Zima experience proved why the product didn't last very long. They compared the taste of Zima to "lemonade filtered through aluminum foil," "citrus flavored horse p*ss," and "Sprite, grain alcohol, and b*lls," among other less-than-appetizing flavors.

Rumors That It Couldn’t ... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list For A Brief Moment In The '90s, Zima Was Popular - Until People Tasted It
Photo: MillerCoors
Rumors That It Couldn’t Be Detected By A Breathalyzer Encouraged Teenage Drinking

While Coors initially believed that making a clear product would make Zima trendy and cool, the lack of color also had some unintended supporters: underage drinkers. Zima quickly attracted the attention of teens since it resembled water more than beer and could be easily hidden. Teens also liked that the drink didn't smell like alcohol. Many drinkers enhanced the taste of the product by adding flavored schnapps or Jolly Ranchers, further interesting underage drinkers, since they could easily make Zima sweeter and more fruity.

By the time rumors began circulating that Zima wouldn't register on a Breathalyzer, the number of teens drinking Zima concerned parents as well as the brand's parent company. Officials in 10 states sent a letter to Coors accusing it of purposely marketing Zima toward young people. In response, the company created a video showing a police officer consuming several bottles of Zima before taking a Breathalyzer, proving the alcohol would register. Coors also sent letters to school superintendents and police chiefs in which they claimed, "Zima, like any alcohol beverage, contains ethanol - the ingredient that registers in any Breathalyzer test. Zima... is still detectable despite its clear profile."

Due To Extreme Marketing... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list For A Brief Moment In The '90s, Zima Was Popular - Until People Tasted It
Photo:  Tim Evanson/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Due To Extreme Marketing, Zima Was A Huge Hit, But Only Temporarily

Coors debuted Zima in 1994, spending $38 million to promote the new product. In addition to a video series and video game, Coors created one of the first websites to advertise a food product. The company also created a series of memorable television commercials that featured hip, unique personalities instead of the overly attractive people commonly used to advertise beer and liquor.

All these efforts paid off, and Zima became an instant success. According to Coors, about 70% of drinkers tried Zima in 1994. The company sold 1.3 million barrels that year alone.

But consumers only continue to buy a product if they enjoy it, and despite the massive marketing efforts behind it, Zima wasn't as tasty as its advertising led many drinkers to believe.