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Into the Heislerverse

Shared cinematic universes have become a big thing since the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. The MCU started with Iron Man back in 2008 and now consists of 23 movies (at time of writing) and a bunch of spinoff TV shows too. Rival comics company DC has had a couple of DC universes since then, and has a separate TV universe to complement its film universe.  

Some commentators would say the MCU was the first shared universe, that it spawned this phenomenon, but what if I told you there was a much older shared television and film universe. One so expansive and complicated it dwarfs the MCU, a shared universe joined together solely by beer: The Heislerverse!

Heisler may sound familiar to you. The name sparks that annoying hint of a memory you just can’t place. Like that actor you see on screen, and you just know you know them but don’t know where from. The kind of thing you need to look up online or it’ll bug you all day. So familiar in fact you might remember drinking it when you were at college, or a favorite bar having it on tap. Those memories, however, aren’t true because Heisler is entirely fictional.

Heisler is a fake beer brand created by Hollywood props company Studio Graphics. Studio Graphics designs a gauntlet of products for film or TV production from food and beverages to household items. But one of Studio Graphic’s most popular products is their range of fake beers, which includes their best-selling Heisler beer. I reached out to Studio Graphics to talk about Heisler and spoke to their Vice President Angie Csernay.

Angie told me that Heisler was first conceived in 1996 by company founders Shari Skadden and Gregg Bilson. They hired an artist who designed the first Heisler bottle label and the design was updated in 1998 by senior designer Kirk Skadden, who remains with Studio Graphics to this day.

Studio Graphics produces Heisler bottles, cans, boxes, and beer tap handles. They make safety glass bottles so that they can be used in stunts. They even fill the bottles with a non-alcoholic beer so an actor can drink from them through multiple takes without getting blind drunk. The brewery producing that non-alcohol beer is a closely guarded secret. While bottles get non-alcoholic beer, prop cans being opaque are filled to order at the preference of the actor, so they sometimes contain seltzer water or soda instead.

Why would a TV show need a fake beer instead of using a real brand anyway? Brands pay handsomely for product placement on TV shows, so why pass up that opportunity? Well because getting an alcohol advertising contract is exceedingly difficult and can be a bit of a legal minefield. If you feature alcohol product placement in the United States, FTC regulations require that 70% or more of your audience should be over the age of 21. This rules out anything appealing to a teen audience or family viewing.  

But there may come storylines where you want your characters to drink a beer or just have some on a shop shelf or in a home fridge, so that’s where fake beer brands come in to add a sense of a realism without incurring the regulations that apply to product placement.

Heisler is in fact so popular that Studio Graphics took out a trademark on the Heisler brand — this is thought to be the only fictional brand that has been trademarked. Studio Graphics does own other beer brands too, including Jekyll Island and HaberKern, but none are as popular as Heisler.

 “The Heisler design is so versatile and timeless that it works in just about every scenario, which also lends to its popularity,” Angie said. “Heisler can play just as convincingly at a frat party or hipster dive bar as it can in a rough cowboy bar or at home on the couch in the hand of a regular Joe.” 

Heisler has been around since the mid-nineties supplying this need for fictional beer to innumerable television shows and movies. An incomplete list on the website fictional companies wiki (yes, there really is a website for everything) lists over one hundred TV shows and films that Heisler features in. From Jess and her roommates chugging back bottles in New Girl, to Lorelai and Luke drinking them while decorating Luke’s Diner in Gilmore Girls, to their cardboard boxes being used to make makeshift prom King and Queen crowns in Glee and bottles getting the forensic science montage treatment on CSI, Heisler has been absolutely everywhere.

And it stands to reason that if this beer doesn’t exist in the real world and it does exist in all these TV shows then they must be in a shared universe: The Heislerverse! (And to those naysayers out there reading this, saying, “But it’s just a prop, it doesn’t mean they’re all connected,” I say leave me alone and let me have my fun.)

Though based on a rock solid basis of shared beer branding, this Heislerverse however is not without its minor plot holes. For one, there are in fact at least three different apocalyptic futures shared within the universe. Heisler shows up in the Walking Dead spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and The Colony, giving us alien, robot, and zombie apocalypses in the Heislerverse. But who’s going to pick up on niggly little plot holes like that? 

There’s also the fact that Sarah Wayne Gillies plays three different characters in Heislerverse shows, but haven’t people heard of long lost triplets?

Brewing Heisler

So for this legendary beer that connects a good chunk of television into one shared universe, there is but one problem. It’s not available in any bar near you, or any supermarket or corner store. It exists only on TV, even the brewery that makes its real non-alcoholic contents is secret so we can’t drink it, unless we make it ourselves.

And that’s when it hit me.

After all, when has a little thing like not being able to get hold of a brand ever stopped a homebrewer? That’s why we have clone recipes. So for us to be able to step into the Heislerverse ourselves I set about creating a clone recipe we could all enjoy.

I can almost hear you ask, as indeed the editor of Brew Your Own did when I pitched this article, “How do you design a clone recipe for a beer that doesn’t really exist?” And while it’s true that most of the usual routes for coming up with a clone recipe are closed off to us — we have no brewery we can contact and we can’t smell or taste the beer — that doesn’t mean there aren’t clues for us to figure out how to remake this beer.

Heisler’s packaging feels similar to a lot of mass-market lager brands. Indeed this was considered upon Heisler’s inception as Angie told me it “was designed to convince the audience that it is a real beer brand. The driving force behind our designs is to hide in plain site on screen. To achieve that blend-ability.” It feels like it would sit on the shelf between Heineken and Budweiser so you might think a Pilsner would be the starting point, but you’d be wrong. On Heisler’s packaging it is clearly identified as a “gold ale.” There is a “British Golden Ale” style in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines, but colloquially golden ale or gold ale are used interchangeably with pale ale. 

I asked Angie about the wealth of technical beer information seen on the branding and how they had decided this. As it turns out not much thought had actually been put into this, because as Angie points out, “The original design team also didn’t have the pressure of the viewers’ current ability to pause and zoom into every little detail of a scene as our current design team now has to take into consideration. Ingredients lists on our fictitious products created in the 90s could be as ridiculous and creative as the designer wished.” 

“When the Heisler Beer was first created, there was no possible way the designer could have foreseen its popularity or known anyone would even notice the small text she chose to denote malts and ABV. Today is a very different story!” she said.

Angie suggested these small details then — that the designers never expected anyone to actually be able to read — were likely taken from beers the designers may have seen in store shelves or on a bottle of beer in their own fridge. The internet was in its infancy in the 90s and you couldn’t just find out what ingredients might be appropriate for a gold ale as easily as you can today, so the ingredients aren’t exactly what you might think. In fact, it may sound more like a dunkel or amber ale when looking at the ingredients, however we’re going to call it a gold or pale ale, since that’s what is clearly stated on the label.

Heisler’s bottle box proudly proclaims it is “Brewed with a variety of specialty malts including Munich and chocolate malts.” I use Munich malt in almost all of my pale ales to add a bit of malty sweetness and color, but the chocolate malt might seem harder to justify. Any significant amount and we’ve got an amber ale or a porter rather than a gold ale. The addition of chocolate malt can be useful in pales, however. If you use a very small amount (1% or less of the total grain bill) of roasted malts in pale ales it can help with head retention without affecting the color too much.

Digging deeper, we actually learn a little about Heisler’s brewery in the information down the side of the label. Alongside some nutritional information it states that Heisler is brewed and canned at “Heisler Industries, Bavaria.” So this is a German brewery, a Bavarian brewery no less.

If it’s a Bavarian brewery it seems fitting we stick to the Reinheitsgebot, the historic Bavarian beer purity law that states beer should only consist of four ingredients: Malt, water, hops, and yeast. So that means we’ll be avoiding adjuncts for the recipe. 

Knowing Heisler is a German brewery would lead me to want to use German hops for the recipe, but it doesn’t feel quite right to do so. There’s nothing about the branding that makes me think this is a traditional German beer. “Gold Ale” certainly isn’t a German style, and Bavaria is far more famous for its lagers and wheat beers. The beer is also marketed worldwide — it shows up in Britain in an episode of Inside Number 9 and Australia in The Good Place. Such a beer aimed at a worldwide market I suspect would use American hops.

But what American hops to use? There are so many these days, and there is no clue on the packaging as to what flavor the beer is or what hops might be used. The thing is though, that Heisler as a prop was invented in 1996 and first aired on TV in 1997 (unfortunately we don’t know the exact show that started the Heislerverse because Studio Graphics doesn’t have records going that far back). The beer being around since the late 90s immediately precludes a lot of modern hops such as Citra®, Mosaic®, and Simcoe®. All these modern citrusy hops weren’t bred or commercially available until the 21st century, so that whittles our choices down. 

For the recipe I’ve gone for some more classic American hops. Cluster is actually the oldest hop grown in America. It imparts a blackcurrant flavor but also a gentle bit of spice. Nugget was a fairly popular hop for bittering in the mid-nineties as one of the early high-alpha hops. And finally, Cascade, which has been a core hop for American pale ales for decades. I’m a massive fan, so if I’ve found an excuse to throw a bit of Cascade in the boil I’m going to take it. 

The question of strength is decided for us on Heisler’s packaging, where the ABV is clearly given as 5%.

What we end up with then is a sessionable pale ale that would have mass market appeal. A bready, slightly sweet malt base and a moderate hop aroma with grapefruit from the Cascade, pine from the Nugget, and spice from the Cluster hops. And if you brew this beer you’ve not just made a tasty beer, you’ve written yourself into the Heislerverse.

The real-deal Heisler, brewed by the author as he slipped into the Heislerverse.

Heisler

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.053   FG = 1.015
IBU = 30   SRM = 7   ABV = 5%

After seeing the infamous Heisler bottles, cans, and tap handles throughout television shows and movies, this is my rendition of the “gold ale,” which is
much like an American pale ale crossed with an American amber ale.

Ingredients
8.5 lbs. (3.9 kg) 2-row pale malt
1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) Munich malt
1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) Vienna malt
3.5 oz. (100 g) melanoidin malt
0.5 oz. (14 g) chocolate malt
4.6 AAU Nugget hops (60 min.) (0.35 oz./10 g at 13% alpha acids)
7 AAU Cluster hops (5 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 7% alpha acids)
13.75 AAU Cascade hops (5 min.) (2.5 oz./71 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
SafAle US-05, Mangrove Jack’s M44 (West Coast Ale), or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mash grains at 149 °F (65 °C) for 60 minutes. Batch sparge for 15 minutes at 162 °F (72 °C). Bring wort to a boil and conduct a standard 60-minute boil. Add Nugget hops at start of boil. Add Cluster and Cascade hops five minutes from flameout. 

After the boil is finished, cool wort down to 65 °F (18 °C) and transfer to fermentation vessel. Add yeast as directed, a small yeast starter is often recommended if using a liquid strain.

Ferment at 66 °F (19 °C) until signs of fermentation are complete. Let condition in the 60s °F (upper teens °C) for one week prior to packaging. Carbonate to 2.5 volumes CO2 either in bottle or keg.

Heisler

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.053   FG = 1.015
IBU = 30   SRM = 7   ABV = 5%

Ingredients
4.5 lbs. (2 kg) extra light dried malt extract
1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) Munich malt
1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) Vienna malt
3.5 oz. (100 g) melanoidin malt
0.5 oz. (14 g) chocolate malt
4.6 AAU Nugget hops (60 min.) (0.35 oz./10 g at 13% alpha acids)
7 AAU Cluster hops (5 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 7% alpha acids)
13.75 AAU Cascade hops (5 min.) (2.5 oz./71 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
SafAle US-05, Mangrove Jack’s M44 (West Coast Ale), or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Place crushed grains in a large muslin bag. Submerge grain bag in 1 gallon (4 L) of water at 162 °F (62 °C) to settle temperature at 149 °F (65 °C) and try to hold at this temperature for 60 minutes. Slowly wash grains with 1 gallon (4 L) of hot water. Add another gallon (4 L) of hot water to the wort and add half of the dried malt extract. Stir until all the extract is dissolved then bring wort to boil. This is a standard 60-minute boil. Add Nugget hops at start of boil. Add Cluster and Cascade hops and second half of the dried malt extract five minutes from flameout. After the boil is finished, cool wort down to 65 °F (18 °C) and transfer to fermentation vessel, then top up with water to 5 gallons (19 L). Add yeast as directed, a small yeast starter is often recommended if using a liquid strain.

Ferment at 66 °F (19 °C) until signs of fermentation are complete. Let condition in the 60s °F (upper teens °C) for one week prior to packaging. Carbonate to 2.5 volumes CO2 either in bottle or keg.

Tasting Notes:
Heisler has everything that comes to mind when I think about an American pale ale. The Nugget imparts those resiny, pine, herbal background notes and the grapefruit character of the Cascade bursts through and takes center stage. 

The beer has a velvety mouthfeel from the more complex malt bill. Caramel and toffee notes come from the Vienna, Munich, and melanoidin malts and are a pleasant addition and not cloying at all.

Not too bitter, nothing too assertive within this beer to stop it being a great session beer that could catch on worldwide, no matter which universe you are a part of.

Issue: November 2021