Old friend makes a trendy comeback

What they're having - once again - is Pabst Blue Ribbon

August 18, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The old-man beer has been reborn. Pabst Blue Ribbon has staged an unlikely comeback in the big, foaming-at-the-mouth business that is beer. Once your father's or grandfather's beer, Pabst has caught the attention of their offspring.

Pabst isn't threatening to knock off Miller or Sam Adams or Sam anyone. But sales jumped 15 percent last year for a label once thought extinct. Young people - loosely defined as NOT US - are actually drinking the beer historically nicknamed PBR. The beer might be as hip as a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers.

For some of us, the first taste we remember is not our mother's milk but our father's Pabst. Dads would offer their young sons just the first smacking sip, which would make the eyes water. Hair would grow on your chest. The same kids then turned to Miller Lite in college and maybe later latched on to some darkly expensive microbrew. But the taste of Pabst remained encoded and dormant in the tastebuds.

"It's making a comeback!" says Richard Ashburn, owner of The Sidebar, cater-cornered from City Hall. He laughs because what else can you do? How else to respond to this turn of beer events? "Now Serving Pabst Blue Ribbon on Draught" reads the sign in the window. The beer even rates its own all-you-can-drink night here on Wednesday.

There have been PBR sightings nationally. A beer distributor in Nashville reported Pabst sales rose 99 percent last year. At the Cave, a popular University of North Carolina bar, the familiar aluminum cans with the familiar ribbon logo are one of the most popular beers sold to Tar Heels. Bars in Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Chicago also report a rebirth of your dad's beer.

"Your Dad's Beer" wouldn't make a bad slogan, but we're showing our age. For the prime 21-to-29 year old beer market, Pabst is actually billed as your grandfather's beer. "It's cool to drink your grandfather's beer but not your dad's. Dad drank Budweiser. Your grandfather drank Pabst," says Brad Bridges, associate brand manager for Texas-based Pabst. The company calls itself a virtual brewery - it no longer makes beer itself, but contracts with Miller to brew most of its brands.

Like many trends, Pabst's spike in popularity started on the West Coast. Bike messengers, extreme sports athletes and skateboarders in the northwest started drinking the anti-established Pabst, Bridges says. "It became the badge of these subcultures." The mini-craze spread to the East Coast, and the company found itself posting a 15 percent increase in sales last year. Not bad for a brand that hardly had a pulse a few years ago.

Low profile

Call up the Pabst Blue Ribbon Web site, see the archival Pabst advertisements and slogans ("What'll You Have?" and "PBR ME ASAP"), then read: "Currently there are not any promotions." Pabst is not a proud sponsor of the Olympics. And it's unlikely Paris Hilton will be hawking PBR ASAP. But Pabst has been making cameos.

In support of local bands, the company places ads in alternative weeklies, such as City Paper. And despite its babe-less, jock-less marketing, the blue label - awarded to Pabst at the 1893 World's Fair - is appearing on more taps and local menus.

Pabst headlines a homemade concoction nicknamed the Slurp and Burp. The raw oyster/cocktail sauce/PBR is a featured shooter at Mama's on the Half Shell in Canton, the apparent Baltimore epicenter of the Pabst comeback. Philadelphia has Bob and Barbara's Lounge - a virtual Pabst museum featuring "Blue Ribbon Bingo" and Jim Beam-PBR shooters - but Baltimore has Mama's and her PBR fried shrimp and Slurp and Burp.

Our waitress at Mama's on a recent evening is Jane Connell, psychotherapist by day. She's from Milwaukee - the birthplace of Pabst. In 1864, a steamship captain named Frederick Pabst bought a small brewing company from Jacob Best, whose granddaughter, Maria, had met Captain Pabst on a boat trip. "Maria thought Fred was a hunk," says PBR's Web site. The two married and two years later, Captain Hunk had a beer company.

Connell says a family member once dated a Pabst, which makes her sort of kind of related to, well, a beer.

"I sell a ton of Pabst. People are excited we have it. Pabst is even big at our Sunday morning brunches," says Connell, a Miller Lite drinker who occasionally strays to Pabst.

A certain place has frozen over when Sunday brunches feature Pabst Blue Ribbon. It's not like they have changed the Pabst formula - it still has that yeoman flavor (opponents might say "swillish") accentuated by the seductive fact a pint costs about $1.50 or less. Pabst never fills you up, but what other nice thing can you say about the brand beyond the nostalgia and financial angles? It's not a bad beer.

"I really think it's about getting back to basics. Pabst drinkers used to be hard-working, blue-collar types who wouldn't drink Sierra Nevada if it was free," Connell says. So, who is today's Pabst drinker? "Anybody. Anything goes." Pabst is retro. It's the Sundance of beers. It has even been called the Ralph Nader of beers!

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.