C’mon, America, can’t you do better than Pabst Blue Ribbon?
That was my immediate reaction to the news that the hipster beer will have a home once again in Milwaukee. the birthplace of the 171-year-old brand. So now, you can enjoy the classic but relatively flavorless lager with the added benefit of knowing it’s re-embraced its roots. Score one for those who value authenticity.
But not for those who care much about quality.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed a cold PBR upon occasion, but it’s never been a go-to beer. I think of it not much differently than I think of Budweiser BUD, -1.38% or Corona, beers that are fine when the weather is hot and there aren’t many alternatives.
The thing is, there’s almost always an alternative these days. Consider that sales of craft beer — you know, the kind that has actual flavor — soared by 22% in 2014, reaching a value of nearly $20 billion, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group. Even when I visit my corner grocery, I’ve got my pick of all sorts of beers in all sorts of bold styles, from India pale ale to Russian imperial stout.
And it’s not like I’m alone in my tepid assessment of PBR. At the BeerAdvocate site, Pabst scores a lowly 68 out of 100 points (a rating of “poor”). Individual reviews on the site are even more telling. Here’s one: “Tastes like ice cold water. Then, when it gets warm, it tastes like dirty water. It is drinkable but it provides zero enjoyment.” As another reviewer puts it: “It is what it is.”
So how did PBR become the hipster brew of choice. especially given hipsters’ reputation as fairly sophisticated types when it comes to food and drink? In a word, it’s all about marketing — or, in this case, the lack of marketing as a form of marketing unto itself. PBR was indeed a “drinkable” old-school brew in much the same category as Bud. But it didn’t have the same ginormous advertising dollars behind it. That gave it a street-level, iconoclastic buzz, one that the
brewery’s ownership further exploited a few years ago by connecting the brand with events like a bike-messenger rodeo and by promoting it heavily in hipster-minded cities like Portland, Ore.
Suddenly, PBR was no longer just a beer. It was a lifestyle statement. As Michael Neff, the acclaimed New York mixologist behind the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. puts it, PBR was like a “marketing company’s idea that was reverse engineered into a liquid.”
And a successful reverse engineering it was. Over the last decade, PBR’s sales have more than doubled, from 151 million liters in 2005 to 373 million in 2014, according to Euromonitor, a market research firm. Little wonder that brand parent Pabst Brewing commanded a price of $700 million–plus when it was sold in 2014 to a partnership called Blue Ribbon Intermediate Holdings LLC.
But I’m not so convinced that PBR will be able to sustain its growth trajectory. For starters, other “retro chic” beers are gaining in popularity. (Narragansett, a brand with roots in Rhode Island, is an oft-cited example.) But more to the point: There’s going to be a time when hipsters will surely realize there’s not a whole lot happening in that beloved red-white-and-blue PBR can of theirs. Perhaps that time has already come: The Brewers Association notes that craft-style pilsners — essentially, the more flavorful, hoppy version of lowly American lagers like PBR and Bud — have seen a huge spike in sales (112%) in the past year. In other words, people are discovering you can have a refreshing beer that tastes like, well, beer.
Perhaps the folks behind PBR are sensing this trend, too. As part of the announcement that the brand was re-establishing itself in Milwaukee — mind you, not with an actual full-scale production facility, but with more of a museum/beer garden/tasting room/what-have-you space — Pabst revealed that it intends to “brew new craft beers inspired by recipes from the Pabst archives.” (Pabst did not respond to a request for additional comment for this story.)
I look forward to trying one of those new Pabst brews when they’re out. In the meantime, I think I’ll seek out some of those craft pilsners.
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