Miller High Life has been my (unironic) favorite beer since I started drinking. I love the slight fizz to it, the sleek glass bottle with the Girl in the Moon on the label and the clean (well, clean enough) pilsner taste. The aesthetic, the drinkability and the low price point combine to make it my go-to order, especially at dive-ish bars in Brooklyn where it pairs nicely with a well shot of whiskey for $5.
But starting a couple months ago, I’d walk into my regular bars and find that MHL was out of stock. I’d opt for the next best cheap and easy lager — maybe a ’Gansett, Tecate, or failing one of those, any mid-priced pilsner, because I’m past the point of ordering IPAs — but it never hits the same. I’ve developed an acquired taste for the Champagne of Beers, like others have with their particular brand of cigarettes.
Not only that, but I now associate High Life with these bars; not being able to drink it there alters my experience just enough to throw me off my routine — which is fine, of course, but maybe I’m more of a creature of habit or sucker for branding than I realized. When a bartender at my local spot recently told me that the MHL there had run dry, and I looked around helplessly for an alt — despite there being at least a dozen other beer options on hand — I realized the chokehold the ‘Life has on me.
By now, pandemic supply chain shortages are so constant that they’ve become a punchline. From paper to dumbbells to cream cheese, there’s a new missing item every week. So I suppose it’s not shocking that the supply chain has come for High Life, too.
Strangely, though, Molson Coors, the parent company that owns the Miller and Coors beer brands, claims there isn’t a shortage at all. “We have a healthy supply of High Life 12-ounce cans to meet consumer demand for the Champagne of Beers,” media relations manager Marty Maloney assures me over email. He does clarify, however, that “like other aspects of the CPG supply chain, bottle manufacturers continue working to meet demand for clear glass bottles, which is impacting a lot of beer brands, including Miller High Life in bottles. But there is no High-Life shortage.”
This semi-contradictory statement checks out for a few different reasons. For one, there is both a glass bottle and aluminum can (“candemic”) shortage at the moment. This has to do in part with an over-reliance on packaged wine, beer and spirits that began during “the great pantry rush” of March 2020, when bars closed and people overstocked on home booze to get through quarantine, Lester Jones, chief economist at the National Beer Wholesalers Association, explains to me.
Before COVID, keg delivery to “on-premise accounts” was quite reliable, as was stock of bottles and cans, says Jones. But when cities went into lockdown, “we weren’t quite sure what to do with all this [draft] beer. That left us relying on cans and bottles much more heavily.” So, Miller very well might be producing the same volume of product, as Maloney says; it’s just that now they’re experiencing limitations to how they package and distribute this particular liquid of the monks. Add pandemic labor shortages into the mix and the issue compounds further.
Another thing about High Life: Nobody wants to drink it on draft or in a can. My friend Caroline once described canned High Life as “tasting like cigarette butts” and she isn’t wrong. The stuff already doesn’t taste great, and when you have it not-in-the-bottle, it seems to lose the Champagne-y oomph buoying it and settles into stale swill.
Bar managers concur. “Whenever [Manhattan Beer Distributors] are out of High-Life bottles, the rep will say, ‘We have High-Life cans,’” explains Victoria, a bar manager in Brooklyn. “But I have chosen to be out of High Life rather than have cans. For some reason, High Life specifically is so associated with the bottle, and that’s how people want to drink it.”
For their part, Manhattan Beer Distributors does acknowledge the High-Life bottle shortage. “There’s been an ongoing supply issue with Miller products throughout the pandemic,” a sales rep named Sarah confirms. “It’s been the High Life and the Miller Genuine Draft, although Miller Lite we’ve had the most success with. But it’s in general across our product lines — bottles mostly. We don’t know when it’s going to get better.”
Another possible culprit: Following the Texas snowstorm in February, a cyberattack on a Molson Coors brewery in Fort Worth disrupted distribution and production of Miller and Coors products, according to Milwaukee Magazine. (Maloney didn’t address my inquiry about the cyberattack in our email correspondence.) It’s unclear what role the cyberattack might play in Miller shortages today, but considering the fragile nature of the supply change, it stands to reason that this early 2021 hiccup could have lingering effects 10 months later.
Leanne, bar manager of Lady Jay’s Bar in Brooklyn, explains that it’s touch-and-go week to week whether she’ll be able to get High Life. “You get your order in at that exact precious moment when they happen to have it in, and you get it or you don’t,” she tells me.
Leanne and Victoria both have workarounds to weather High-Life droughts. Victoria says she’ll double or triple her order whenever MHL is available, although she notes that Manhattan Beer Distributors will cap orders due to limited supply. “You always have to worry about overstocking, but High Life is a pretty safe bet because it’s routinely out-of-stock. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh my god, you have High Life? I can’t get it anywhere!’ I feel guilty for hoarding it,” she explains.
“You can get Miller Lite, but I’ve tried it before and it’s not as popular for us,” says Leanne. “I just get a Coors keg in when I can’t get High Life. That way we can still have a $6 beer-and-shot and one $4 beer available.”
Along those lines, Victoria adds, “Having High Life in stock is very important because we need to be able to provide something that’s affordable for people to drink. We have cocktails for $13, and beers on tap that are like $9. Also, it’s a great margin for us. Even when we’re out of High Life, it’s hard for me to find something comparable to swap it out with.” (For example, she says that Manhattan Beer Distributors has a deal where if you buy three cases of High Life, it comes out to $13 per case, with 24 bottles per case, and then at the bar, they charge $4 per beer, which puts them 83 bucks ahead.)
Outside of New York City, a bartender named Charlie at Pal’s Lounge in New Orleans, a great dive and High Life hotspot, confirms that High-Life stock has been touch-and-go for them, too. A bartender at Kingfish Pub in Oakland, however, says they haven’t experienced any High-Life shortage, although, week to week, something or other will be out, such as Red Stripe. The same goes for Jumbo’s Bar in Detroit — i.e., High-Life hasn’t been a problem, but their liquor inventory has been unpredictable.
Lester Jones provides a bit of insight for this variance: “You may find some people have plenty of Miller High Life, and you may find some people who don’t have enough. That’s all part of the supply-chain breakdown. Getting the right kinds of beer to the right kind of people at the right time in this environment is very difficult because we don’t have the ability to forecast and look forward three to six months to make sure that’s the right spot.”
But like Maloney, he’s sure to add, “There’s not a shortage of beer, and people need to stop saying that. There are certain constraints that leave us looking for something we would like to have.”
So while I’ve been feeling more like a low life since I’ve been missing my High Life, perhaps I, and others, just need to be patient and switch up our habits a bit until the supply chain rights itself. There could be another oat soda, right in front of me, that will fill the MHL-shaped hole in my heart, if I’d simply consider it. As Jones put it, “While our first choice might not be available, there’s a lot of beer brands sitting on the bench waiting for you to try them.”
The problem is, only one of them can be the champagne of beers.