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The Proustian Allure of the Miller High Life

The drinks world loves “The Champagne of Beers,” but does anyone know why?

Miller High Life

“King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff likes his Miller High Life served alongside shots of Old Grand-Dad. Brooklyn bar owner St. John Frizell opts for his as a boilermaker either with rye whiskey or chilled Jäger. Tiki pirate Brian Miller likes High Life with some absinthe, while James Beard Award-winning bar maven Martin Cate like his with a bourbon. Chapel Hill cocktail bar owner Gary Crunkleton is happy just drinking it ice cold and straight from the bottle.

“To me, this simple, inexpensive beer captures what [my] bar is all about,” he told PUNCH earlier this year

Actually, we’ve come to learn that Miller High Life seems to capture what a lot of people in the beverage industry are all about. Whether cocktail experts, top bartenders, brewery owners or even typically snooty beer geeks, the century-old industrial lager (first introduced in 1903) is continually referenced whenever we conduct a Lookbook interview. Somehow, this is the one macro beer that improbably has cachet amongst the industry cognoscenti. Why is that?

“Drinking a lager beer in general represents a simple approach to life,” Crunkleton explains. “Making it a Miller High Life gives that simple approach more weight or significance.”

How did “The Champagne of Beers” garner this gravitas while its equals lack it completely? There really doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between High Life and, say, Budweiser or Coors Light or even PBR. It scores a ghastly 9 (out of 100) on RateBeer compared to Budweiser, which getts a 3, Coors Light a 2, and PBR a 22. It’s not even the best of the most abysmal pale lagers available. However, it does taste markedly different from those mostly-indistinguishable lagers.

“It has a serious notch up in sweetness, a much sweeter flavor profile,” explains Joshua Van Horn, owner of Brooklyn’s Gold Star Beer Counter, and a longtime High Life fan. “It’s also not as crisp as some of the other light beers, which makes it way more chuggable.”

Who knows if that is intentional. High Life is brewed at the same Milwaukee-based Miller Brewing plant that makes plenty of other déclassé beers, including everything from Miller Lite, to Milwaukee’s Best to MGD and Colt 45. Like those and many others, High Life is made with extracts and adjuncts like rice or corn, which help lend it an extremely light body.

One unique separator is that it, of course, comes in a clear bottle which are typically verboten due to their inability to block UV light and thus elicit skunking—“Not a good thing, but it does set it apart,” adds Van Horn. It’s neck has a iconic little lady on it. Of course, the easiest explanation for the High Life love is its are-you-being-ironic? motto.

As Robert Simonson posited for PUNCH back in 2015, right as High Life was beginning its moment amongst big city hipsters, “[I] suspect they’re charmed by the corniness of the old ‘Champagne of Beer’ slogan.”

Maybe, but it’s not only beer drinkers who are charmed. Beer makers seem to have a real reverence for Miller High Life as well. Like Chicago’s Marz Community Brewing, who last summer released Chug Life, a “sparkling” lager offered in suspiciously similar champagne-shaped bottles.

“We obviously love weird, extreme, and hopped-up beers. That’s why we got into the business of brewing,” explains Eric Olson, Marz’s co-founder. “However, tasting these big flavor beers throughout brewing, fermentation, and beyond can lead to palate fatigue.” He explains that that’s how Miller’s “carbonated barley-soda” (as he jokingly labels it) became a hit amongst staff—and a beer worth mimicking in their own brewhouse.

Another Chicago brewer revered High Life so much he decided to just collaborate with them. John Laffler’s Off Color Brewing had garnered much acclaim producing oddball beers both historical (Finnish-style sahti, for example) and uniquely modern (s’mores beer). In 2016, the online world was stunned when he revealed he had teamed up with MillerCoors to brew a beer—essentially taking High Life wort and fermenting it with Off Color’s funky mixed yeast strain. The resulting beer, Eeek!, quickly gained notoriety.

“High Life is just one of those real classic beers,” Laffler said at the time. “As a brewer you can really respect the art that goes into it.”

But really, most of this love for High Life is not about its “art,” nor is it necessarily about any sort of tangible flavor quality that sets it apart. Instead, maybe it’s like Proust and his madeleine and about the memories it rouses of special people whose drink it was in the past.

“My dad used to drink it,” reveals Crunkleton. “I drink Miller High Life because it reminds me of the pride I had for my dad when I was a kid, wanting to be like him, and remembering how proud I was that he was mine. The comfort that comes from those memories can be considered the Champagne of life.”

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