Third Shift lager, a new MillerCoors beer, got its medal-winning start at Denver's Sandlot

Tom Hail loves beer. He loves lagers especially, which is why he stays very late on a lot of nights to work on his passion projects. One of these is a traditional German-style marzen -- a recipe that he's been tinkering with on and off for eighteen years.

It's a tasty beer -- so tasty that Hail, one of only four employees at the tiny Blue Moon Brewing Company @ the Sandlot, inside Coors Field, submitted it for judging a couple of times at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. In 2010, it won gold.

See also: - Coors, Miller, Bud will keep sponsoring GABF, despite craft vs. crafty controversy - Is Colorado the center of the "crafty" beer universe? - Five things you didn't know about the Sandlot brewery at Coors Field

Which wasn't that surprising: Blue Moon has won a whopping forty GABF medals since the company was created by Coors back in 1995 as a baseball-themed brewpub. In 2012, the same beer won gold in the same category at the annual World Beer Cup in San Diego.

"We make all kinds of beers. Sometimes they win. The rest of the time they take fourth place -- at least that's what I like to think," says Hail, a jovial guy who tends to clam up when the subject turns to branding, awards or accolades.

Last week, that beer became the first in a series of craft-style brews that MillerCoors plans to roll out nationwide as part of a new brand called Third Shift. Hail's beer, which he had given the joking name Flor Hosen -- as a German-sounding nod to the many hoses on the floors of breweries -- was redubbed Third Shift Amber Lager.

The new brand, using the tagline "never clock out," is meant to celebrate the hard work of brewers at the numerous MillerCoors-owned or -run operations across the country who keep the lights on later in order to toil away at their passion, says David Coors, the son of Peter Coors, and a Chicago-based associate brand manager for Third Shift.

"Our brewers at the Sandlot make so many awesome beers -- and they have a lot of gold medals in their portfolio. It's a shame that consumers aren't getting to try some of them, so we wanted to create a brand that would allow that," he explains. "Third Shift was designed to be a series of gold medal-winning beers -- a celebration of the great brewers we have from all over. We want to share the the success that they have had."

Coors isn't joking. In the past three decades, the company and its subsidiaries have won at least 150 medals at GABF, including the forty taken home by the Sandlot.

To pick the beers for Third Shift, MillerCoors's "innovations" division started with a list of its gold-medal winners. "They tried a few and said, 'Wow, this is really good. It's sessionable, and we think it could appeal to a broader market,'" Coors explains.

MillerCoors tested Third Shift Amber Lager -- which is now brewed at the company's plant in Fort Worth -- on draft in San Francisco, Reno, Dallas and a few other markets last summer before deciding to roll it out nationwide this month on draft, in twelve-ounce bottles and in sixteen-ounce cans. If it is successful, MillerCoors could introduce another Third Shift beer this fall or in spring 2014, Coors says.

Although the company is championing its employees as a group, it isn't necessarily touting individuals like Hail or the facilities where they work.

"We are proud of all the brewers across the company...we call them our Band of Brewers," Coors says. In fact, the company has trademarked that name and is using it rather than MillerCoors on the beer's label. "The guys at the Sandlot worked with the guys in Fort Worth. The concept around Third Shift is a collaboration."

MillerCoors has also been careful not to mention the Great American Beer Festival or the World Beer Cup on its in its marketing materials since the beer has a new name and could cause some customer confusion, Coors says.

The Boulder-based Brewers Association, which runs those competitions and represents craft brewers nationwide, also has strict rules about how companies, big and small, can use their award status on labels and in advertising, says GABF director Nancy Johnson.

"If a medal-winning brewery uses the trademarked name Great American Beer Festival to promote the beer, they are always required to use the year, the category and the type of medal," she says. In addition, they have to use the beer name that was submitted and the name of the brewery that submitted it -- in this case, the Sandlot.

"So we don't have a trademark issue with Third Shift," she says. "But that is not to say that there may be some sort of transparency issue here."

Johnson is referring to a statement that the Brewers Association issued in December, blasting MillerCoors and AB Inbev for not putting their names on the labels of certain beers, like Blue Moon and Shock Top, that compete in the craft-beer sector.

"When someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it's from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it's made by SABMiller. The same goes for Shock Top, a brand that's 100 percent owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev," the BA wrote. "The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today's small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking."

Third Shift bottles don't appear to carry the MillerCoors name, either (although some of the cans says Crafted By Coors Master Brewers). Instead, some of the labels approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau read only "Band of Brothers CO., Fort Worth, TX" -- meaning most consumers would have no idea that MillerCoors makes the beers. The Third Shift Facebook page and website don't link to MillerCoors or make mention of the company, either.

John Legnard, who is Hail's fellow brewer at the Sandlot, chafes at the notion that what he makes isn't craft beer, however. "We have said that you should judge the beer you are drinking by how it tastes, not who makes it," he says. "If it's good beer, it's good beer...I think that the original intent of people who wanted better beer has been reached. The big brewers are doing good beer. They've accomplished that goal."

In response to the "craft vs. crafty" debate, MillerCoors released the following statement addressing the various issues:

"MillerCoors is proud to offer beer drinkers a wide portfolio of beers across a spectrum of styles, price points and brands. Much like Toyota does with Lexus, Kellogg's does with Kashi or Boston Beer does with Angry Orchard and Twisted Tea, we offer different brands targeting different beer drinkers and different beer drinking occasions.

"Sometimes these beers come from Tenth and Blake Beer Company, the craft and import division of MillerCoors, which features breweries such as Leinenkugels, Sandlot and AC Golden," the statement continues. "We spend our time focused on the quality of the beers we brew and ask to be judged by beer drinkers on what we brew. We like that, because we're confident that the quality of our beers stacks up well versus that of any brewer of any size, anywhere.

"Try the award-winning Third Shift on that basis and let us know."



's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan and on Facebook at Colo BeerMan

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