Materials World

In the spring of 2010, Miller Lite introduced the Vortex Bottle, a new consumption vessel designed with grooves to, “create a vortex as you’re pouring the beer”.

On a brisk, November Tuesday in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, nine middle-aged men met in a nondescript conference room for a focus group meeting. Karl, the research and development manager running the day’s session, addressed the group excitedly. He had just stepped off an Amtrak from Chicago, where he’d received positive, if a little uninspired, responses at a stop-in with a logistics company’s corporate team-building workshop.

“I want to welcome you all here today and to thank you again for volunteering your thoughts on the Miller Lite family of products! Please, if you wouldn’t  mind, fill out the placard in front of you and make yourselves comfortable. There’s pumpkin kringle and coffee up front—don’t be shy”.

A team of researchers and executives in three-piece suits sat behind a one-way mirror, observing the respondents’ small talk ahead of the day’s free-form conversation hour.  Two of the attendees, Jeff and Kyle, compared notes on cul-de-sac snowplow techniques while another pair, each bald and comfortably stocky, chuckled over a common sentiment (“anything to get a few hours away from the ball and chain”).

“Alright everyone, if you’ll kindly find your seats”, Karl instructed.

“Now that you’ve all completed your surveys, I’d like to open up the floor for discussion. We at Miller Lite thrive on the feedback of our loyal base of customers, so let’s air it out: if you could make any changes to our product, what would it be?”.

Karl knew that, definitively, these men liked beer. They were, after all, life-long Wisconsinites: many of their fathers were brewers, their grandfathers brewers just the same. In short, they weren’t going to pull any punches. Accordingly, he had prepared some notes, hoping to respond knowledgeably to nuanced meditations on Miller Lite’s acidity, its breadiness, perhaps a critique of regional differences in oxidation levels. He braced himself, removed the pen from his breast pocket, and deferred to the gallery.

A man in his late thirties, Kurt, with a high and tight haircut and dawning a burnt orange button-up shirt, spoke first.

“I’m going to give it to you straight, Karl”, he began. “I can’t get this stuff down my throat quickly enough”.

“Well that’s awfully kind of you, Kurt!”, Karl replied.

“No, seriously, I can’t drink it fast enough”.

“I’m afraid I’m not quite following you, friend”, Karl offered.

“Look”, Kurt said, easing into his seat. “I’ve got a long work week. I’m managing 3 teams spread out at 4 different construction sites, my boss is on my ass about deadlines all the time. I won’t bore you with the details. Anyway, when the weekend comes, I like to unwind with a few. But these bottles you guys are using, they’re just not doing it for me”.

The crowd nodded in agreement.

A  second man, sporting a well-kept grey beard and carrying an air of distinction, chimed in with his own two cents.

“Thanksgiving’s right around the corner. I’m manning the bird, trying to keep an eye on the Packers, and avoiding my daughter’s boyfriend all at the same time. The last thing I need to worry about is being able to get my beverage quickly down the hatch, God-forbid it foam over on me!”.

“Yeah”, a third agreed. “I can’t go around shotgunning like a 19-year-old. My in-laws already think I’m immature as it is. But I need that volume, so let’s do somethin’ about it”.

The room was beginning to grow unruly. There was solidarity in the complaint and, soon, enough, the higher-ups from MillerCoors had all the information they needed.

“I want to thank you all once more for coming”, Karl shouted over the group, who were excitedly planning a barbecue together for the following Sunday. “Don’t forget to collect your complimentary gift baskets on the way out!”.

Back in Milwaukee, the team hatched an idea.

Lee Rinehart, the company’s interim chief of development, laid bare his plans in an impassioned speech at a company-wide meeting.

“Scrap all your projects. Tannins? I don’t want to hear about ‘em. Thompson, if I hear you talk about International Bitterness Units one more time, so help me I will transfer you to the Akron branch”.

All subsequent marketing and development efforts, Rinehart commanded, would be focused on speed-drinking.

“But with some tact”.

And Miller’s technological division had an ace up their sleeve, or so they thought. Indeed, an aging German materials scientist , whom they had contracted for the wildly successful “Cold as the Rockies” program—a line of cans which, upon reaching a temperature presumably near to that of the Rocky Mountains, turns blue—,might just have the spark they sought.

“Rinehart, I’ve gotta warn you about this guy.”, an advertising executive vice president interrupted. “He does things his own way, and if we can’t immediately sell him on the idea, there’s no way he’ll work with us”.

Helmut Bohlenmüller, who occupied a secretive one-story home-turned-laboratory in Darmstadt, was just settling into a milk coffee when his phone buzzed. The aged scientist, known both for his ingenious design and short temper, answered after two rings.

“Helmut?”

“Ja wer spricht?”

“It’s Lee, from MIllerCoors”.

“Yes, yes. Good, great, now speak. What do you want? What do you need? Why have you phoned me just as I’m opening the Allgemeine?”.

“I apologize for disturbing you, Dr. Bohlenmüller. It’s just that we have an exciting new project in the works here, and we think you’re just the man to really bring it to life”.

Mr. Rinehart, as an interim executive, was admittedly cautious in describing the undertaking.

“It’s just that, yes, well, you see, it’s, um, we need a new flask for our Miller Lite Lager”, he said sheepishly. “One that, specifically, gets the beer out… faster?”.

All was silent from Darmstadt.

“Helmut, are you still there?”.

Dr. Bohlenmüller began slowly, his volume increasing with each word. “Blasphemous, untenable, preposterous. My capabilities will not be used for a cause so uncouth!”.

Yet the home laboratory from which Helmut spoke told another story. His equipment decrepit, he was, in truth, hurting for work. The modernizing economy spares no man, and ever since the rise of tempered glass, which he called an abomination, his contracts had begun to dry up.

Mr. Rinehart stepped back in. “I understand your reservations. However, it’s worth mentioning that the MillerCoors group is, how should we say, well resourced. Name your price, Dr.”.

There was an even longer pause.

“I’ll see what I can do”, he answered shortly, then slammed the phone down.

Eleven weeks later, the first shipments of bottles reached Wisconsin. Upon first glance, they looked unremarkable, bearing the brand’s traditional blue and white colors with fake condensation and, to Dr. Bohlenmüller’s dismay, an incorrect spelling of the word light (“It makes no sense! It’s one more letter!”) . With closer inspection, though, testers noticed concentric grooves running across the neck of the bottle.

“Smooth”, the team’s lead remarked.

“I just got one down in 19 seconds flat”, an intern chimed in.

Then came the problem, of course, of what to name this innovation. A first suggestion, the Beer Funnel, was quickly deemed too sophomoric while a second, the Malt Maelstrom, just didn’t have the right ring to it. Finally, a staid veteran of the beer advertising game strode to the front of the room and, on a large whiteboard, wrote Vortex Bottle.

The room fell silent and, quickly, the team knew they had struck gold. A commercial shoot was penciled in for the coming Tuesday. Soon, Vortex Bottles were flying off of shelves on both coasts. Dr. Bohlenmüller, following along with a morbid interest, begrudgingly cashed his check.