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Consider the Malternatives

Zima tries to avoid going down the drain.

I figured I was up for some experimentation.

I'm secure in my own identity and all, but I'm also a young guy in his prime. So why not try something a little risqué? Truth be told, I was malt-curious. And the Nob Hill Inn on East Colfax Avenue seemed like the perfect place to conduct my own alcohol study: Is it possible for a man to order a Zima in a tough-guy bar and not get his ass kicked? That's a question that has existed, at least subliminally, within the deeply insecure psyche of the fizzy, mildly-citrusy-alcoholic-beverage industry ever since Coors developed the world's first "Clearmalt," back in 1992.

Don't be misled by its regal title: The Nob Hill Inn is a woefully classic Colfax dive bar that even the hipsters avoid. I've grown out my beard, buzzed my head and done push-ups in anticipation. With a beautiful Latina hootchie mama in tow and a short but well-built strong-arm man as backup, I sidle up to the bar.

"I'll take a Zima," I say loudly.

"Don't got it," answers the bartender, who sports a tattered Bubba Gump Shrimp hat. Two older women at the bar, who look like they spend their nights making out with steel manhole covers on Colfax, start laughing. At me -- or at least, at my expense.

"Y'all don't have Zima?"

"Nope."

The women cackle louder, whispering to each other and pointing in my direction. An extremely drunk lady to my immediate left begins slurring cat calls.

"What's wrong with Zima?" I demand, getting angry.

"We're a small bar," the bartender says.

Here I am, a grown man being made fun of by a bunch of middle-aged (and then some) women -- and all because I've ordered a Zima.

So much for experimentation.

Chemists at Coors, the Golden-based brewery that also produces Killian's, Blue Moon, Keystone and Aspen Edge, truly broke the mold in the early '90s when they introduced the new filtration technology that allowed them to brew a beer with an alcohol content that was 4.7 percent by volume, then remove all the barley coloring and flavor, and replace it with...well, it's tough to say what all that was replaced by. To me, Zima tastes like flat Sprite that somehow fermented overnight in the vegetable crisper. Early focus groups and taste tests were all positive, however, and Zima was a star during what has been called the "clear years" in American beverages.

Crystal Pepsi, Miller Clear Beer, Tab Clear, Amoco's Ultimate Clear gasoline -- suddenly everything was going transparent. (Later, all of the preceding would vanish altogether.) Consumer surveys showed that a majority of the adult drinking population was interested in new options -- not necessarily a wine cooler, which was too sweet, and not really a beer, which was bitter and icky. Coors brand developers hypothesized that Generation X-ers wanted something in between, something unique. Explaining to drinkers what that something was, however, was a difficult task.

Zima, named after the Russian word for "winter," was launched nationally in 1994, with an estimated $50 million spent on advertising that year alone. This paid for magazine, radio and outdoor ads, as well as a splattering of television spots featuring a guy in a weird hat spouting fleetingly funny Z-speak. Much more innovative was how Coors pushed the marketing envelope on the then-budding World Wide Web, introducing www.zima.com in hopes of involving twenty-somethings in the make-believe narrative -- complete with flashy animation and sound -- of a character named Duncan ("On Beyond Zima," September 6, 1995). Initial sales looked respectable, but the drink was soon drained of any street cred as the inevitable brand backlash positioned Zima as the alcohol equivalent of Yanni or John Tesh. The beverage became a running gag on Letterman. In "The Top Ten Signs You Are a Shopaholic," for example, this was Number 3: "You've even bought some of that Zima stuff."

Watching their heavily promoted Clearmalt relegated to dreaded wine-cooler status, Coors introduced Zima Gold to appeal to males who wanted a stronger flavor and more alcohol (5.4 percent by volume). "As a brand extension, Zima Gold failed miserably," says Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder-based Brewers Association of America. By fall 1995, a company report noted that Zima's sales had declined 60 percent from the prior year.

While many predicted the drink's impending death, Zima miraculously hung on to life, but the next decade was a turbulent shuffle of reversing brand strategies -- one year targeting men, the next women. In 2004, as other Malternatives bit off shares of the market, the drink everyone loves to hate was relaunched as Zima XXX, with a more masculine tag put on a beverage with an even higher alcohol content, 5.9 percent by volume. Billing itself as the "original malternative," Zima followed the trend of its liquor-branded counterparts by adding fruity flavors to the mix like "Hard Black Cherry," "Hard Lemon Lime," "Hard Orange" and, of course, "Hard Green Apple."

Strangely, www.zimaxxx.com bears no resemblance to the highly ambitious, cutting-edge website that broke new electronic ground more than ten years ago. This halfhearted showcase involves only a single page that tells viewers to "Get ready to take hard flavor to the nexxxt level!" but includes no more levels or links on the site. Instead, it simply instructs people to "head down to your favorite retailer" to stock up. In contrast, the website for Zima Japan, where the drink has enjoyed consistent popularity, is precisely the Flash-saturated, audio-downloadable, stimulation glut you'd expect from the marketing shill that once asked us to join a club called Tribe Z.

But in any country, in any language, it still tastes like flat Sprite.

 
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