The word itself means ‘winter’ in Slavic languages, and it was christened with this name through the use of Lexicon Branding—a company that does exactly what it sounds like it does.
Created during the ‘clear craze’ of the early 1990s, Zima was (and still is) a clear, citrus flavored malt beverage. It was concocted in 1991 and was originally only available in three very specific test markets (Nashville, Sacramento, and Syracuse) before being released nationally, to an unsuspecting public, in 1993.
A precursor to Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and other post-wine cooler beverages, the nation reached ‘peak Zima’ almost immediately—within its first year, Coors, the company responsible for Zima, spent $38 million in marketing and advertising the product, and by 1994, 1.2 million barrels of the product were sold.
From the beginning, Zima was a polarizing drink; during a time when beer sales, as a whole, were down, the male market—beer-drinking men, specifically—were put off by the ‘refreshing citrus taste’ of Zima. Women, however, gravitated toward it, giving it, what articles on the rise and subsequent fall of the drink refer to as, an unspoken effete quality—something that the individuals saddled with the task of marketing the product would become increasingly concerned about, leading to the ill fated ‘Zima Gold’—marketed directly at men, it promised the taste of bourbon. A promise that it, apparently, couldn’t deliver; Zima Gold disappeared within a year.
The Zima Wikipedia page is sparse, though it is a wealth of information—surprisingly enough, the product, or at least, variants of the product, were manufactured in the United States until 2008, when production ceased; even more surprising, it is, for some reason, incredibly popular in Japan.
Because the 90s, and because nostalgia, nearly a decade after the last bottle of American Zima was produced, and almost twenty years, give or take, after anyone probably gave a shit about Zima at all, last year, Coors—now known as MillerCoors—announced it was bringing the product back for a limited time only.
* * *
I gave up alcohol roughly five years ago.
When you tell people that you ‘don’t drink,’ I get the impression that their imaginations tend to run a little with that information—wondering if I was in recovery, or standing on top of some kind of moral high ground that I wanted to look down on everybody from.
There are really two reasons that I stopped drinking—I think I made the decision toward the end of 2013, which is around the same time that my wife and I had decided to become vegans. I had been a vegetarian since 2006, her since 2009, and we saw veganism as the next logical step. At the time, there were moments when I thought, “Oh, but what about a pan pizza with just cheese from Pizza Hut? I’m sure going to miss that.”
But the truth is that you don’t—or, at least, I didn’t. Maybe I’m more disciplined than I give myself credit for, but I found that once we made the commitment, I didn’t miss things like that at all, mainly because I care about animal welfare more than my own well being, but also because, the more I thought about it, that pan crust cheese pizza didn’t really matter.
The same could be said about alcohol. Some may be aghast at the very thought of giving it up completely—they like to drink beer too much to go without it, or they really need to have that glass of wine at dinner—and that’s fine, but it was very apparent that I was able to do without, and much like dairy products, alcohol became another thing that I could simply remove, and my life would continue on without it.
The main reason, though, was because of my anxiety.
It was around this time, in the latter half of 2013, that I began trying various prescription anti-depressants—giving each one a fair shot before complaining about the embarrassing and frustrating side effects, and then pleading with my psychiatrist to put me on something else.
Each of the bottles I brought home from the pharmacy included the same warning sticker about how the medication housed inside could make me drowsy or dizzy, and that I should not drink alcohol while taking it.
At one point, I had consulted with one of the pharmacists about this warning, and she had said that, like, one drink—a beer at dinner, or whatever—wasn’t enough to do any kind of detrimental damage when mixed with the medication.
But I was still anxious.
It was the idea of being dizzy, and drowsy, but still needing to focus on something possibly urgent and important, that was making me so anxious. At the time, toward the end of 2013, my wife and I were living with our two companion rabbits—Annabell, and her sister Sophie, and for some reason, I was becoming increasingly concerned about their health and well-being—like, if one of them were to fall ill in the evening, and we had exhausted all the possibilities of things we could do at home, we’d have to speed up to St. Paul to the 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic.
I was becoming increasingly concerned that if something were to happen, I’d need to be sharp; I couldn’t be dizzy, or drowsy.
So, as 2013 came to an end, I think that I finished up whatever copious amounts of pumpkin beer1 I had in the house, and drinking, all too easily, became one more thing I could remove from my life and not really miss at all.
* * *
I certainly wasn’t too young to remember Zima being advertised on television—I did grow up on a house with cable, and I watched a lot of MTV; thanks to people who, for some reason, had Zima commercials from the 1990s recorded on VHS cassettes, those old spots have been uploaded to YouTube for your nostalgic viewing enjoyment.
Some of them stirred up some vague familiarity: like the one where it’s just too hot out—so hot that the ceiling fan stops working. However, one of the sweat-drenched individuals in the commercial is able to stay cool by cracking open a Zima. This commercial is apparently from 1997, well into the product’s declining years—as is the one where a nerdy looking man is being chased through a city by a poodle. The man ducks into a bar to hide, and cools off by—you guessed it—ordering a Zima from the bartender. The man is so refreshed that when the dog bursts into the bar to bite the man on his rear end, the dog is, instead, frozen, and drops to the ground.
I, however, do not recall the original run of Zima commercials, featuring a man wearing an all-white suit with a strange black hat; he subtly changes his S’s to Z’s—but not every S becomes a Z, because inconsistency is incredibly cool, and this man, from underneath his ridiculous and unfashionable hat, encourages the viewer to ‘enjoy zomething different.’
Outside of seeing Zima in stores when I was growing up, truthfully, the reason I remember it so well is because of the E! Network program “Talk Soup.”
“Talk Soup” ran on E! from 1991 until 2002, and it gave the world Greg Kinnear, and later, Hal Sparks—but from 1995 until 1999, the program was hosted by comedian John Henson.
During the summer of 1996—the year I turned 13, for some reason, I watched a lot of “Talk Soup.” And it was during this time, among the other pop culture jokes and references Henson made, that Zima, specifically Henson’s regular on-camera consumption of it, made its way onto the show as a reoccurring joke.
And this has, for reasons I cannot even begin to explain, stuck with me, for 22 years.
* * *
Removing alcohol from my life completely took people some time to get used to—there had been a point where it had been a few years, and I would still be on the receiving end of puzzled looks or questions. I would still have a glass of champagne pushed on me on New Year’s Eve, despite having said ‘No, Thank You,’ the year before. I would still be tempted with beer when visiting my in-laws for various get togethers—“I’ve got 15542 in the fridge,” my father-in-law would say, time after time, to which I would continue to politely decline.
I found that when you went out to eat, and your server asked for a drink order and you said you were ‘fine with the water,’ you could almost hear their hearts sink—writing you off as some kind of cheapskate who wasn’t going to pound two or three drinks from the bar during dinner, and that their tip would be a paltry amount.
I live and die by my coffee—a little over two years ago, to try to lower the acidity I was taking in, I switched to dark roast, but I scoff at the very notion of drinking decaffeinated coffee. I don’t see the point.
The same could be said about non-alcoholic beer. Real beer drinkers, more than likely, double over with laughter at the thought of someone voluntarily opening a bottle of O’Doul’s or any of the other myriad N.A. beers out there.
After removing alcohol from my life, however, I found there were still times, or situations, rather, that presented themselves, that I still was interested in having a beer—specifically in the summer, a beer would pair well with a veggie burger and fries.
I began dabbling in various N.A. beers, learning which ones were commonly available at restaurants, and what kinds were more palatable than others, and which ones are clarified with isinglass3. I discovered, very quickly, that you still are carded when you order an O’Doul’s Amber, and that when you ask a server ‘What kind of N.A. Beers’ the restaurant has, they will more than likely not understand what ‘N.A.’ is short for.
My wife was supportive of my occasional N.A. beer—she reminded me that I could stand to have the empty calories; but I didn’t make a habit out of this. If I could do without real alcoholic drinks in my life, I could also certainly do without the consolatory substitution.
* * *
I am not in a place where I can get into it here4, but recently, our lifestyle and living situation has changed, and I had a moment, maybe about two weeks after the change occurred, and I realized that, if I really wanted to, I would be able to have a drink without anxiety inducing consequences.
During my alcohol free years, a lot had changed in the drinking landscape—the liquor laws in the state of Minnesota changed to allow Sunday sales, much to the chagrin of liquor store owners; and in our own community a third liquor store—a MGM Liquor—had opened, right across the street from a locally owned, independent store.
It had been many, many years since I had gone into a liquor store looking for something to purchase for myself that wasn’t a six pack of O’Doul’s or wine to cook with. And outside of changes to state legislature, and a new location for a franchise, there are other noticeable changes in the drinking landscape—like, why are there so many IPAs? I guess this is what young, white men drink, but as I gazed into the well-lit and seemingly endless rows of cooler doors, after you get beyond the beer of commoners, like Budweiser and Miller and Hamm’s Genuine Draft, and into the craft brews, made by small breweries, bottled in packages with quaint and charming artwork—it seemed that, like, every other package as an IPA.
Or some kind of sour beer, and I wasn’t even sure what those were.
I’ve never really felt comfortable in a liquor store, even before I gave up alcohol, mostly because I just wanted to be left alone to browse and possibly make the wrong decision with my purchase—I don’t want to be bothered, or asked if I need help, or have things suggested to me. But liquor store employees—they know. The same way they can surmise who in a group of young people parading around the store isn’t 21 yet, they can tell that I am an imposter; a tourist. I just don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t belong there.
As I lose count of the number of IPAs available in each cooler door, I’m asked if I need help finding anything. “No!” I reflexively bark back at the MGM employee. “I think I’m okay.” They wander away, and I’m left to my own devices, gazing into a temperature-controlled abyss of cans and bottles with cute names and fun graphics. What did I even enjoy drinking five years ago? I can’t even remember. I ask myself where the pumpkin beer is, but then I remember that it’s the beginning of June so I still have to wait awhile. Overhead, I hear the end of “Hotel California,” that segues into “Jump” by Van Halen, and I think of the weird angel/baby on the front of the 1984 album cover. “Jump” ends, and I put it together that the store is playing a ‘classic rock’ radio station. The next song is “Loser,” by Beck—from 1993. I was ten years old when that song came out, and I recall seeing the video over and over again on MTV. I feel old—too old to be in a liquor store having a minor existential crisis, soundtracked by Beck’s awful, off-key rapping, now considered ‘classic rock,’ all while being unable to make a decision about what kind of beer to drink after a five-year, self-imposed hiatus.
In the end, I pick a coffee beer made by Insight—the clerk won’t shut the fuck up about how good it is while I’m trying to pay and I nod my head along as he continues to speak—as well as a nut brown ale that I thought I used to enjoy drinking.
I get them home, and the coffee beer is awful. It doesn’t taste like coffee at all. It’s actually revolting and I feel stupid for having bought it—I’m stuck with three more of them that I still have to choke down in the coming days. The following evening, I crack into the nut brown ale, and I wince at the taste—is this really what I used to enjoy drinking? I wonder if I’ve lost my taste for real beer, and that my palate just isn’t interested in any of this. I wonder if even trying again, now that I am able to do so, was a big waste of time.
* * *
My wife is worried we’ve regressed.
We’re sitting on the couch when she expresses her concern—we are each holding a bottle of Zima.
For something that I never experienced the first time around, tasting Zima now, in the year 2018, when it has returned in a ‘limited edition’ form—it’s not great. I’m not sure what I was expecting, considering it was the butt of so many jokes well over 20 years ago. When I’ve tried talking to my co-workers about Zima—many of them are a few years younger than I am, but they literally have no memory of it at all—I tell them that’s it’s awful. But kind of okay. But also awful.
My wife is worried we’ve regressed to drinking things similar to what we drank during the first summer we lived together in 2006. I had just turned 23, she was 22, and we just didn’t know any better. We drank a lot of Mike’s Hard Lemonade—mostly because it was hot—as well as hard cider. I think my first introduction to ‘craft beer’ was that fall, when I discovered O’Fallon’s Pumpkin Beer—one of the best pumpkin beers I’ve tasted in what is certainly now an overcrowded and polarizing market.
But how long will I continue to bounce from one liquor store to the other, browsing at the charming designs on expensive six packs, hoping to find something that I actually enjoy? I struck out a second time with Brooklyn Beer’s Brown Ale—something that I was almost positive I enjoyed five years ago, but apparently, my palate really has evolved.
It was on this trip to the liquor store that I saw the towering display of limited edition Zima. I let out an audible “HA!,” having no idea that it had been resurrected from the dead. “It tastes like zhit!” the clerk bellows over at me from across the store.
“I saw you laughing,” she continues, now sidled up to me. “Don’t you remember that old ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit?” I tell her that I don’t—that was a mistake on my part, as she begins to regale me with a portrait of a “SNL” skit involving a Thanksgiving dinner and clear gravy. She says the punch line of the skit is that someone olds a Zima bottle up at the end, and states, “Zima—it tastes like zhit!”
I want her to stop talking to me, but I ask her if they sell any loosies5 of the Zima since I am hesitant to commit to buying a whole six-pack. They don’t, and I stare at the display, and then say, “Fuck it. I’ll try it out.”
My wife is worried we’ve regressed. It’s on my third and fourth trips to the liquor store that I remember that I like porters—but it’s telling that it took me that much time staring at cooler doors and shelves full of beer to remember something that I enjoyed over five years ago and would want to try again. It makes me wonder if it’s even worth it. I mean, I have regressed, in a sense—I’ve ‘fallen off the wagon,’ though not in as dire of a sense as usually associated with that expression. I can drink these limited edition Zimas ironically, and I can sip my expensive craft beers because I’m pretentious and bougie, even when it comes to something that I walked away from without so much as batting an eyelash, and now, five years later, have come strolling back—but why? If I could live without something just fine for that long, what is the point of coming back now, simply because I feel like I’m able to do so?
Maybe I’ll figure it out by the time the pumpkin beer is available.
1– I understand that pumpkin beer, as a whole, has become a caricature of itself at this point, but from, like, 2006 until 2013, I lived and died by it, trying as many different kinds as I could. Many of them were not very good, many of them were forgettable, or interchangeable. Some of them, however, were transcendental.
2– When I was in my mid-20s, and, like, really into drinking beer, or at least fancied myself some kind of budding beer aficionado, I was very interested in both New Belgium Fat Tire and 1554—so much so, in fact, that we served those at our wedding in 2009. My father-in-law, bless his heart, really glommed onto the 1554, and I think it saddened him slightly that I gave up drinking completely, because he had no one to share this beer with.
3– For those who are unaware, isinglass is a fish-based byproduct (from their swim bladders), and it is used in the clarifying process for brewing certain beers—e.g. Guinness, and other Guinness brewed beers. There are websites available to let you know if the beer you are drinking, is, in fact, vegan, and during my beer drinking days, I did have to reference that site quite a bit while I was standing in the liquor store.
4– The events of April through May of 2018 will, one day, be told in what will certainly be a sprawling, heartbreaking, and hopefully cathartic Column of Disquiet—but it’s going to take me time to get to that point, where I am in a place to tell that story.
5– For some reason, as of late, I have been trying to work the term ‘loosey’ into my lexicon. It is, of course, contemporary slang for purchasing one loose cigarette, made famous in the mainstream when it was referenced on “Chappelle’s Show.”
Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. He occasionally contributes to Bearded Gentlemen Music, and his writing has appeared in River Valley Woman and The Wagazine. He should probably tweet more about drinking Zima: @KevEFly.