In 1903, the world was introduced to the magical elixir that is Miller High Life. Close to 125 years after it first hit the market, the Champagne of Beers is not only still going strong but arguably chugging along at the fastest pace since its inception.
As I alluded to when I wrote about the gingerbread dive bar the brand rolled out to celebrate this year’s holiday season, the oldest product in Miller’s portfolio has been Having a Moment since it dethroned PBR as the cheap and utilitarian beer of choice among The Cool Crowd at some point during the past decade.
Prior to that point, High Life had always been a beer-and-a-shot special staple and long beloved by the kind of beer drinkers who want their beer to taste like, well…beer. The combination of its ubiquity and thirst-quenching abilities also helped it become the go-to after-shift brew for many workers in the bar and brewing industries, and those tastemakers played a major role in helping High Life conquer one of the most imposing frontiers the drinking world has to offer: Craft Beer Nerds.
As a card-carrying member of that famously hard-to-please club, I’m more than familiar with the snobbery that permeates the sphere. However, based on years of anecdotal evidence I’ve personally compiled, you’d be hard-pressed to find many serious beer geeks who have any bad things to say about High Life.
This success story that spans more than a century is a testament to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethos, but the High Lifeaissance that’s emerged in recent years has also spawned some unexpected developments in the form of a number of collaborations with big names in the craft beer space.
In 2018, Chicago’s Off Color teamed up with High Life to release a twist on the classic lager with Eeek!, a funky creation produced with the former’s lactobacillus and the latter’s base wort (it also contained a bit of an homage in the form of the champagne yeast it was bottled with). The following year, High Life joined forces with Georgia’s Terrapin for a Brut IPA, and in 2020, it linked up with Philadelphia’s Evil Genius for a mimosa-inspired brew.
Last month, the High Life team released its fourth collab in as many years after finding a local partner in Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. That meeting of the minds led to the creation of The Juicy Life, a hybrid featuring Sabro hops as well as those of the experimental HBC 586 variety that expertly embodies the spirit of High life while elevating it thanks to welcome additions that infuse it with bright fruity notes.
Following its rollout, I not only got the chance to try The Juicy Life (which is certainly worth tracking down) but the opportunity to chat with the mastermind behind it: Carol Walker, who’s been honing her brewing skills since joining Miller’s pilot brewery as an apprentice in 2017.
During our chat, Walker discussed the very unconventional path she took to get to where she is today, the story behind the newest High Life collab, her favorite (and least favorite) beer she’s had a hand in creating, and more (High Life brand manager Lucy Bloxam was also kind enough to join and shine some insight on the beer’s evolution as well).
Without further ado…
BroBible: I’ll admit to stalking you on LinkedIn before we talked and couldn’t help but notice you’ve taken an unconventional journey on your way to working in a brewery. Can you shed some light on how you got to where you are now?
Carol: “It was definitely an unconventional journey, I never thought that I would be making beer. I thought I would be out of med school by now.
I took a year off after college and was a research assistant at a local hospital. I was going through the med school application process and people kept asking me, ‘Where do you want to go?’ My answer was always, ‘I don’t really know. Whoever will take me.’ The reason, I think, was because I didn’t really wanna go to medical school.
I finally did make that decision. I traveled a bit. I’d been a homebrewer since I was probably about 21 or 22. I was on a Milwaukee job site and saw a listing for an Associate R&D Brewer at Miller’s Pilot Brewery, and now I’ve been here for over four years.”
What drew you to beer in the first place?
Carol: “When I was in college in Maine, my school had something called ‘Pub Night’ every Wednesday. We had a little bar on campus for students, and a different local brewery would bring in a couple of half barrels each week. You got a pint glass that you got to keep and just kept filling it.
I was a science major, and when I moved back to Wisconsin, I had all the equipment you need to make beer. So, I was like, ‘I’m gonna go try this out and see if I can make anything halfway decent.'”
I remember the first beer I made. I called it ‘Wild Hair Irish Red Ale.’ I was actually back at my parents’ house recently and I found a bottle of it
So what exactly do you do as in the pilot brewery?
Carol: The Pilot Brewery at Miller is super unique. There are seven of us and we do everything; everybody brews, everybody blends, everybody cleans tanks, everybody scrubs floors, everybody drives a forklift.
One person can design the recipe, brew the beer, take samples of the beer as it’s fermenting, filter the beer, package the beer, and ship the beer. One person can do all of that. As you move up in that brewery, they just kind of tack on more responsibilities,
How did the collaboration with Lakefront come to fruition?
Carol: “Lakefront is actually known as ‘the lager brewery’ in Milwaukee. They mostly make lagers, which is pretty unique for the craft beer space.
When we first met with them, the question we basically asked was, ‘What does everybody here like about High Life?’ They liked that it was just a clean, light, easy-drinking beer. Our mission was to make a beer that the craft beer drinker will love and the High Life loyalist will love.
Ultimately, the goal was to make a nice clean crisp lager, but let’s juice it up a little bit with some hops.”
Lucy: “One of the reasons that we chose Lakefront as our next collaboration is because we wanted to do something in our hometown. It truly is like a cross-town collaboration where we have the opportunity for Carol and the folks at Lakefront to work hand in hand.
Off Color was similar, but it’s still a two-hour drive. With this, we were able to have hands-on interactions and a true collaboration with the other folks just because of proximity.”
How long did it take for everything to come together from that point?
Carol: “We had a fair number of meetings just in the beginning to discuss what we wanted to do.
At one point, I went over to Lakefront with a six-pack of beer that I had made and just said, ‘Hey, what do you guys think? This is a light lager, do you want to go with something similar to this?’ They said, “Yeah. We like that. Let’s juice it up a little bit.’
So, I sat with their head brewer and we tweaked the recipe. Then, he actually came to our pilot brewery, where we brewed on one of our smaller systems. We were able to shift some hops around on each one—pick which one we liked better and dry hop at different levels—and from that, we were able to firm up the final recipe.”
Can I ask how you landed on the specific hops that were ultimately used?
CaroL; “The most exciting thing was that we got an experimental variety hop, which is really, really cool. When I was over at Lakefront, their head brewer and I called the sales rep for the hops supplier that we use and said, “Hey, this is what we’re thinking. What do you have for us? Is there anything cool?’
We tend to work with some experimental hops at Miller just because we’re able to get our hands on them being as big as we are, which Lakefront knew and leveraged. It ended up working out great, because it’s not something I would have thought of. We even got enough of them to make a dry-hopped lager.
The result is super tropical—I got a lot of mango, apricot, and orange flavors—and it’s pretty in your face, too.”
I’m curious about the approach you take when it comes to the beer drinkers you’re trying to target. Is there a balancing act when it comes to appealing to High Life fans and people who gravitate to craft beer?
Carol: “My view is that even though there seems to be a bit of a rivalry between Big Beer and craft beer, we’re really not that much different if you think about it.
When I go to a craft brewery and if they have a SMaSH [Single Malt and Single Hop on tap]. that’s the first thing I get. It’s the first beer I want to try because I want to see what they can do with that. It’s not an easy beer to make taste good.
I’ve also handed samples of The Juicy Life out in our building, and even though the people in the tech center at Miller are very hard to please when it comes to beer, they’re pretty big fans.”
Can you estimate how many unique beers you’ve made since you started?
Carol: Beers? Probably not as many as I would like. We make a lot of seltzers these days, but in terms of total products, I could very easily probably say we’ve done 1,000 different projects since I’ve worked here.
Are there any particular beers that stick out as a favorite, whether it’s because you enjoyed the process or the final product itself?
Carol: Coors Pure was this organic light beer that was a really, really fun project for us to work on. It’s an all-grain, light, organic beer, which most people would think that’s easy to make. It’s actually really, really hard to make that beer.
While we were developing that, I learned a lot about the brewing process, like how to troubleshoot flavors that come from not having enough nutrients for the yeast. I won’t get into all of it, but I learned a lot from that project.
On the other end of the spectrum, is there anything you made and tasted at the end and thought, “I can’t believe we thought this was a good idea?’
Carol: “We were just tinkering, but we were making jokes together about how we wanted to make a Pumpkin Spiced Lager—a PSL. I think we used High Life as a base, and, it wasn’t so good.”
I touched on this a bit earlier, but the last thing I’d love to talk about is High Life’s ascension to something that seems to unite fans of beer across the spectrum. As someone who’s sort of been on the front lines, how have you seen things shift?
Carol: “I will say that in Milwaukee, it’s always been kind of the standard everywhere. It’s very regional. I went to college in Maine, so I’m used to Narragansett, I’m also used to, when you’re not in Wisconsin and you walk up to a bar and ask for a Miller, they’ll often pour you a Miller Light. When you’re in Milwaukee, you get a High Life. “
Lucy: “From a brand perspective folks in the service industry and craft brewers really appreciate the value that High Life is: the quality at the price point, the way that we’ve stayed classically cool and never tried to be something we’re not or move out of our swim lane.
We really stay true to the values that Frederick Miller established in 1903 when we were first founded. We just continue to modernize it over time so it’s relevant with the next generation of drinkers. I think that beer drinkers across the board like those key pillars that we’re so staunch on keeping as our foundation.”
Portions of this conversation were edited for clarity.