Recent articles in the NY Times, the Wall St. Journal, and elsewhere have noticed the apparently sudden resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the national beer marketplace. The articles all credit PBR's comeback to an apparently instantaneous spike in the product's young-adult hipness factor, or to a stealth-marketing campaign to create such a hipness factor. None of the articles tells the real story:
In the '80s, both Pabst and Stroh bought up dozens of second-tier mass market beers across the country. They included Heilman's, Lone Star, Iron City, Hamm's, Schmidt, former national powerhouse Schlitz, and all of the Northwest's onetime Big Five (Olympia, Rainier, Heidelberg, Lucky Lager, and Blitz-Weinhard). Pabst bought Stroh in 1998 and decided to retire or de-emphasize all these legendary names. The plan was to use the strong distribution networks of these local beers to relaunch Pabst Blue Ribbon as a national major. Bars and taverns were given deep discounts and promotional incentives to switch from Pabst-acquired local brands and make PBR their principal swill on tap.
With the former Olympia brewery, the last of the Big Five, having closed last week, it's clear at least around here that PBR's comeback has little to do with street cred and nothing to do with the movie Blue Velvet. It has everything to do with the familiar themes of corporate consolidation and the homogenization of regional cultural landmarks.
Clark is being a bit myopic here: The boom in microbrews is an important countertrend, and while Iron City may be symbolically important to Pittsburgh and Lone Star to Texas, the fact remains that both beers taste like donkey piss. Still, if Humphrey's tale is true, it's amazing that none of the mainstream reporters covering the story picked up on it.