Ten years ago, some junior poli-sci major at Reed College in Portland, OR, slapped a dollar bill on the bar at the Lutz Tavern and raised his middle finger to the whole corporate/yuppie beer establishment.
Heineken? Budweiser? Microbrews? Bleep that shit—Pabst Blue Ribbon, man!
And, thus, one of the most perplexing trends in American consumerism was born: Retro beer.
Perplexing, not because an anonymous 20-year-old kid with a fake ID settled on a bland-tasting, nearly extinct industrial lager. That part’s actually easy to explain: Until the late ‘90s, the specialty at the Lutz—regarded as ground zero for PBR’s rebirth—had always been Blitz. When that brand was killed off after the shutdown of Portland’s old Blitz-Weinhard brewery, the bar simply replaced it with the next cheapest thing, Pabst.
The true puzzle is why this trend has lasted so long.
We’ve seen other fads—dry beer, ice beer, low-carb, malternatives—come and go; retro beer, though, seems as permanent as a tattoo. And not just PBR. Rheingold, National Bohemian, Utica Club, Ballantine, Narragansett—they’re all names from the ‘50s that have attracted new fans a half-century past the brands’ prime. It’s such an appealing phenomenon, it’s even spawned neo-retros, like North Coast’s Acme label and Full Sail’s Session Lager.
“I always thought it was just a hipster kind of fashion statement,” said Dave Wilby, whose Philadelphia craft beer oasis, the Dawson Street Pub, gave in and started serving PBR in 16-ouncers about 8 years ago. “It was something to go along with the trucker hat.”
Retro is fashion, yes, but it is also anti-fashion. It is the repudiation of mainstream advertising and the affirmation of nostalgic tripe. It is counter-cultural defiance and the sentimental bond between son and father. It is a bold statement of individuality and just another consumer product that defines one’s character.
One sip tells you it’s all about the can, not the contents.
Indeed, before it caught fire, Pabst was widely mocked as one of the worst beers in America—the sort of insipid excretion that Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko famously said tasted like it had been “run through a horse.”
Though it had been one of America’s top-selling brands since the 1800s, Pabst was on life support by the end of the 20th century, suffering through 23 consecutive years of declining sales. There was no advertising. Distributors didn’t bother to pay their bills. Its longtime Milwaukee brewery had been shut down. The company was owned by a charitable foundation in California and managed out of offices in San Antonio, and its beer was brewed by Miller on a contract basis. People saw the familiar Blue Ribbon logo and wondered, “Who drinks that stuff?”
Bike messengers, indie rock fans, sound techs, snow boarders—and they weren’t just drinking PBR, they were loving it.
Neal Stewart noticed it almost immediately after he took over as Pabst brand manager in 2000. At just 27, he was hip enough to realize that college kids with PBR tats in grunge bars represented a trend. “It was a symbol of antiestablishment with a blue collar spirit,” said Stewart, who is widely credited with rebuilding Pabst’s image. “It was ‘Americana,’ which is different from ‘American.’”
Taking advantage of its built-in appeal was Pabst’s biggest challenge. The company had no money for TV or celebrity endorsements or focus groups. Instead, Stewart took the message directly to his audience, inside those packed barrooms. “I’d look around and tried to reach a certain person out there—the influencer—and hand out PBR stuff,” he said. “By the end of the night, people would be coming up to me asking me for stuff, not me trying to give it away…
“My sales guys would be telling me to advertise at alt-rock band shows, and I’d say, ‘No way—don’t do that,’” said Stewart, who is now a marketing executive at Flying Dog Brewery. Instead, he traded beer for sponsorships at bike messenger races. When some dude in beat-up Converse sneaks got into his face and threatened bodily harm if he ever saw a neon PBR sign at his local bar, Stewart knew he was on the right track.
“I didn’t start the trend,” he said. “I just didn’t mess it up.”
By 2002, the brand began to take off big time, spreading rapidly across the country, hitting double-digit annual growth and doubling sales in just 6 years.
More significantly, PBR has become a bona fide cultural icon, one that implies working class individualism, independence, even idealism—and who does that remind you of?
Recall, for a second, a brief interlude on the presidential primary campaign trail last May, when Barack Obama was facing accusations from Hillary Clinton that he was out of touch with the common man, a member of the chardonnay-sipping elite. The moment of truth came during a visit to Raleigh, NC, in a bar where Obama found himself in front of a row of taps pouring the exotic likes of Avery Maharaja IPA and Blanche de Bruxelles.
The bartender tested him: “What’s your pleasure, Mr. Candidate?”
Obama made his choice and buried the incessant defamation with just three letters: “PBR.”
Obama wasn’t just being a regular guy when he raised a golden pint to photographers. He was speaking directly to his core supporters: young people, tired of slickly packaged corporate brands—whether beer or presidents.
“Pabst appealed to Gen-Xers who just had this natural rejection of brands that they thought were too big,” Stewart said. “I knew these were people who would not drink Anheuser-Busch simply because it was Anheuser-Busch. They had a reject-the-mainstream mentality.”
You’d think microbrews, by definition, would appeal to disaffected antiestablishment types. In fact, many retro fans view craft beer with the same skepticism as those hated corporate brands: the labels are fancy, the prices are steep and that guy at the end of the bar who’s sipping a pint of imperial Russian stout is a dweeb.
The Lure of Authenticity
For some young consumers “there is sort of a natural resistance to anything too commercial or trendy,” said author Christopher O’Hara, whose Great American Beer (Clarkson Potter, 2006) examined the lingering appeal of the likes of gems, like Knickerbocker, Falstaff, Ortlieb’s and Piels. “…After being socked in the head a million times by the Bud lizards and the Coors half-naked ski bikini team, they may well unconsciously reach for their dad’s value brand out of instinct—the sheer, gut reaction to embrace something authentic and express their individuality.”
The irony, of course, is that these “authentic” old brands are part of the American landscape precisely because of mass advertising. Today’s retro was yesterday’s million-dollar Bert and Harry ad campaign.
But even in its irony, retro beer is surprisingly sincere. Some beer drinkers instinctively reach for that can of Schaeffer because its jingle—“the one beer to have when you’re having more than one”—still brings a reflexive smile. Throughout Pennsylvania, people prefer Yuengling over BudMillerCoors because it’s homegrown. Genny Cream? Isn’t that the beer dad used to drink after mowing the lawn?
Good ol’ dad. You can’t stand his politics, his jokes or his second wife. But as O’Hara notes, “For many men, beer drinking is one of the few things—aside from football—that they share with their dads… Even if you never really could stand your old man, there is something mighty comforting in cracking open a can of Rheingold in the garage, just like Dad did.”
Strange, isn’t it? For all its counter-cultural expression of edgy individualism, retro beer—at its heart—represents comfort. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes and Hamm’s.
“It takes you back to a happy time, a time of less-hectic, calmer life,” said Scott Baver, whose Legacy Brewing Co. has begun brewing its own retro, Reading Premium.
Reading gets its name from the Berks County, PA, town 60 miles west of Philadelphia, where Legacy has been making full-flavored beers, including Hedonism and Midnight Wit, for the past five years. Though he sells plenty of those craft brands throughout the mid-Atlantic, Baver said he’s always been troubled by a common refrain from bar owners:
“Howcum you guys can’t make a ‘regular’ beer that the average person can drink?”
Instead of lecturing the bartender on the wonders of handcrafted ales, Baver responded by reviving the old Reading brand—a local favorite until it shutdown in the mid-1970s. “It was a no-brainer,” he said. “Ninety percent of the bars in the area still had all the Reading Premium point-of-sales material hanging up.”
Baver knew locals would go nuts for the beer. In less than a year, it was out-selling Legacy in Berks County. “I keep meeting people who tell me, ‘My grandpop used to drink it—I’ll drink one for him.’ Then, after they taste it, they find out the beer is pretty good.”
Oddly enough, the beer has legs. It sells well throughout Philadelphia, and last spring Baver sent two pallets of six-packs to Boston, where he said it sold out in two weeks. “Retro is very cool, right now,” Baver said. “You see it in art, the way people dress. I stopped in one place in South Philly, and the bartender looked like he was from a ‘70s porn movie.”
Reading isn’t the only comeback kid. Straub’s, Utica Club and even Miller High Life have sought to replicate PBR’s retro magic. Going retro doesn’t always work, however. Rheingold from New York has had its share of fits and starts under new owners; Terre Haute’s Champagne Velvet made a big return in the late ‘90s, but it’s gone once again. Last spring, Schlitz (also owned by Pabst) took a stab, too, re-introducing its “Classic 1960s Formula” packaged in brown bottles at a premium price. The idea is to recapture the 50-and-older market with an “old-school attitude to reinforce the values that resonate with guys who remember the 1960s.”
Will it work? Maybe, but Stewart warns that you can’t invent a retro beer. “There needs to be an organic nature to it,” he said. Even O’Hara, a fan of mainstream lagers, is skeptical:
“The reason people like them has to do with locality and tradition.” After all, he said, “Most of these beers don’t win on taste.”
Don Russell writes the Joe Sixpack beer reporter column at the Philadelphia Daily News.