Natural Ice, produced by American brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, is the best-selling ice beer in the United States. It is particularly popular among younger drinkers, who appreciate its easy drinkability and high alcohol by volume. Many drinkers might be wondering when Natural Ice came out and why. Here’s our abridged version:

Natural Ice first came out in 1995 in the wake of the“ice beer wars”. It followed the popularity of ice beer in Canada and remains the flagship beer of the ice beer style to this day. Natural Ice tastes similar to the popular Anheuser-Busch economy brand Natural Light, which performs well in a similar market.

That’s the brief answer to when Natural Ice came out and why, but there is plenty more to consider. In this article, we’ll take a close look at how and why Natural Ice came out, what makes it different from Natural Light, and why it is so popular. 

Why Did Natural Ice Come Out?

The story of why this strong American lager came out begins not in the United States, but across the country’s northern border, in Canada.

Beer innovation has typically been a rather slow process. The dominance of light beer, beginning with the launch of Miller Lite in 1975, saw major brewers racing to be the first to seize upon the next major innovation. Japan had the dry beer craze, while “draft style” beer went as quickly as it came in the United States. None of these had any major effect on the market, and by the early nineties, a Canadian brewery, Labatt, had its million-dollar idea.

Labatt engaged in serious market testing to work out what had fuelled the craft beer boom of the 1980s. They found that craft beer drinkers appreciated the increased flavor and strength of craft beer but disliked that they could only drink one or two at a time.

Labatt wanted to make a beer with more flavor and impact but retained the “sessionability” of the classic domestic macrobrew. One of the options proposed was an extremely low-temperature brewing process that precipitated all the unwanted proteins and tannins out of the beer, leading to a strong, clean-drinking beer.

Labatt returned to their focus groups, who found the idea of an ice beer very appealing. The science of the brewing process created a well-balanced, smooth-drinking beer, and Labatt moved quickly.

Labatt launched their beer, Labatt Ice, with an artsy, sci-fi-inspired ad campaign with Alexander Godunov, best known as one of the Russian terrorists from Die Hard. Godunov was recruited after their first choice, Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner fame, declined the ad when Labatt refused his script alterations. Godunov’s ad ran and launched Labatt Ice to major fanfare. 

The massive success of ice beer, and Labatt’s patented ice brewing process, drew significant interest from the United States. While Labatt’s main Canadian rival, Molson, teamed up with Coors, Labatt spoke with their own American allies, Anheuser-Busch.

Anheuser-Busch licensed Labatt’s brewing technology but did not release Labatt Ice. Instead, the American brewing giant pushed out their own ice beer, Bud Ice, in 1994. Two more Anheuser-Busch ice beers followed the year after, Busch Ice and Natural Ice. Natural Ice’s 5.9% ABV and low price point made it very popular among beer drinkers, and it remains the bestselling ice beer on the market today. The ice beer craze dissipated relatively quickly, and a protracted court case between Labatt and Anheuser-Busch over the technology ended in victory for the Americans. Natural Ice, however, remains the bestselling ice beer on the market to this day.

Eventually, Labatt was incorporated into InBev, which in turn merged with Anheuser-Busch.

Why Is Natural Ice So Strong?

Natural Ice’s major selling point is its high alcohol content. It is particularly popular among younger drinkers, who are also the main market for its sibling brand, Natural Light. Ice beer is actually brewed specifically to be stronger than regular beer, and the ice brewing tradition dates back hundreds of years.

Originally, ice beer was developed by brewing a strong, dark lager, freezing the beer, and removing the ice. Beer produced in this way, called Eisbock, has been produced in Bavaria for centuries. Because water freezes before alcohol, the freezing process removes water in the form of ice crystals, leaving alcohol in the beer, creating a stronger beer. Eisbock first came to Canada in the late 1980s, and the Niagara Falls Brewing Company released a seasonal Eisbock every winter. Major Canadian brewer Molson was the first to release an ice beer, although Labatt claims that Molson stole the idea from them. One story claims that Molson found out about Labatt’s ice beer idea from going through Labatt’s trash!

The ice brewing process can be decidedly low-tech (with some brewers simply placing beer in an ice cream freezer) or high-tech. A high-tech variation of this process was used by Labatt, and later Anheuser-Busch, to produce their ice beer, including Natural Ice. The refined process of producing ice beer is responsible both for Natural Ice’s alcohol strength and its clean, crisp flavor.

Is Natural Ice A Malt Liquor?

The term “malt liquor” refers to any alcoholic beverage with an ABV above 5% made using malted barley. Under that definition, Natural Ice is technically a malt liquor, although its marketing targets a very different demographic. Malt liquor is typically sold in 40oz bottles and is largely consumed in inner cities. Marketing for malt liquor also, historically, targets black and Hispanic markets. Natural Ice’s marketing was aimed largely at college drinkers, and Natural Ice further positioned itself as a beer. Furthermore, malt liquor typically does not taste like beer, whereas Natural Ice, like other ice beers, has the crisp, light taste of a light beer.

What Is The Difference Between Natural Light and Natural Ice?

Although Natural Ice is a major facet of the Natural Light brand, it has a few notable differences from the flagship product. Chief among these, of course, is Natural Ice’s alcohol content. At 5.9%, Natural Ice is far stronger than Natural Light at 4.2%. Because of its higher alcohol level, Natural Ice also has more calories than Natural Light, at 135 calories per 12oz can be compared to Natural Light’s 95 calories per can. Other than those key differences, however, Natural Light and Natural Ice are very similar beers. Natural Ice was designed to taste similar to Natural Light and has historically performed well with Natural Light drinkers. Although the ice beer fad has long since faded, Natural Ice remains the best-selling ice beer in the United States because of its easy drinkability and association with Natural Light.