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.”