For most craft-beer drinkers, there's a shelf in most liquor, convenience and grocery stores that goes completely unnoticed. It’s the one with tall cans of micheladas, beers that have been mixed with tomato juice or lime, salt and spicy sauces and seasonings.
A specialty drink with roots in Mexico, micheladas are usually made in bars, but some of the big industrial breweries, like AB InBev and Heineken, began canning micheladas at least a decade ago under brands like Budweiser, Sol, Tecate and Modelo. Today, packaged micheladas make up just a tiny percentage of beer sales in the U.S. — 0.8 percent, according to the Brewers Association — but their fans are dedicated.
That’s because there’s nothing like a michelada, says Andrew Kaczmarek, co-owner of 14er Brewing. “I personally love them," he notes. "They have so much flavor and a unique texture.”
Designed to be refreshing, drinkable and flavor-packed, micheladas are also known as cheladas, red beers and bloody beers.
About a year ago, Kaczmarek began experimenting with one of 14er’s beers, a saison made with lime, jalapeño peppers and cilantro, mixing it with Bloody Mary mix from the Real Dill, a local company that makes artisan pickles and Bloody Mary mixes. The beer, Rocky Mountain Saison, won a GABF gold medal in 2016. “I always had it in the back of my head that that beer would make a great michelada,” the brewer explains.
Kaczmarek played around in 14er’s taproom, trying out different ratios of beer to Bloody Mary mix. “We kept tweaking it and getting feedback, tweaking it again and getting more feedback. We definitely clogged up a few draft lines.”
Eventually he got the mix right, and “people went nuts for it,” he says. “Instead of buying one Crowler to go, guys would buy five or six or seven. That was the inspiration for us to start canning.”
The result is Denver Michelada, which 14er makes by brewing 24 barrels of Rocky Mountain Saison (about 48 kegs) and then blending it with 150 gallons of Bloody Mary mix before canning. The concoction also gets filtered to remove most of the “thick, chunky garlic and dill and black pepper spices,” Kaczmarek says.
And it’s definitely “not a traditional michelada,” he adds. “You would never start with a chile beer as the base beer, and with the Real Dill, it is intensely packed with flavor. There is nothing remotely similar.”
The 4 percent ABV beer is sold in 19.2-ounce cans for $3.99 apiece — only about fifty cents to a dollar higher than the macro brands. It is the only michelada packaged by a Colorado craft brewery and one of only four nationwide, according to the IRI market research firm, which tracks beer sales nationwide. (The other three are Atwater Brewing in Detroit, and SLO Brewing and Black Market Brewing, both in California.)
“It’s the most polarizing beer we make. People are either buying it by the caseload or calling it ‘the death of craft beer,'” Kaczmarek says. “There is nothing like it in the craft space right now. We think it has a ton of potential.”
It is also perfectly packaged for convenience stores, which gained the right to sell full-strength beer at the beginning of 2019, along with grocery stores. Because customers are in and out of these locations so fast, and because convenience stores are small, they tend to sell a lot of cheap, single-serve, large-format cans.
While the large brewery brands like Coors Light, Corona, Budweiser, Modelo and Keystone Light make up most of those sales, craft breweries have taken notice, and many — like New Belgium, Odell, Oskar Blues and Upslope — now package similar cans of their lighter beers.
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The Circle K chain has been one of the bigger buyers of Denver Michelada, and 14er has been able to place the beer in a number of locations. The brewery is also pitching the Alta convenience store chain, along with King Soopers. For now, though, the beer sells really well out of traditional liquor stores and from the taproom itself.
“That cheaper price point makes a big difference because of how quickly people make transactions in convenience stores,” Kaczmarek says. “It’s such a fantastic niche.”
Micheladas are also heavily marketed toward the Latino demographic, which craft breweries have had a hard time communicating with in the past. So Kaczmarek says he is excited about the possibility of finding new customers, as well.
"In general, the great thing about craft beer is if there is the inspiration to push and the desire to innovate, then craft beer can resonate with all walks of life," he points out.