January 16, 2013
My name is Scott and I have a confession to make.
I drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Beer aficionados will scoff. Here we are in a state known for craft brewing. And here I am purporting to be a serious writer about beer, admitting that I drink a brew that likely didn’t deserve the “blue ribbon” it won in 1893 and hasn’t improved much in the 12 decades since.
Well, times are tough and craft beer is expensive. The $10 I might spend on a six-pack of a locally made microbrew might buy me a 12-pack of PBR. A 30-pack for $19.99? No contest.
Plenty of others are reaching the same conclusion. PBR is among the fastest-growing beers in the nation, with sales increasing 30 percent in 2009, 17 percent in 2010, 16 percent in 2011 and 26 percent last year. All this for a beer that has all the flavor and complexity of a glass of well water.
Wherever you find young people in Colorado — on a ski lift, in a campground, tailgating at a Broncos game — odds are you’ll find PBR.
The story of PBR’s resurgence is one of the more surprising in the beer industry. Founded in Milwaukee by German immigrants in 1844, the Phillip Best Brewing Co. was the largest in the nation by 1874. Renamed in 1889 after owner Frederick Pabst, the beer earned its ribbon at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The company soon began tying a blue ribbon around each bottle to highlight its success.
The 1970s saw the start of a gradual decline, as beer drinkers began to see PBR as stodgy and old-fashioned. Being old-fashioned might have saved PBR. By the mid-1980s, the company had stopped sponsoring boxing matches and ended all television advertising.
What PBR lacked in marketing, it made up for in kitsch as a new generation came to appreciate the old signs on tavern walls, the absence of flashy television commercials and the low price.
“I’m not sure exactly why it’s super popular, but it does certainly have a cult following and I think many people drink it for the image,” said Eric Steen, of Colorado Springs, who runs the blog Focus on the Beer.
Modern PBR lovers have been called “hipsters” or “urbanites.” For many of us, enjoying a PBR is a way to drink an affordable beer that, while undeniably corporate and mass-produced, doesn’t feel that way.
And it’s not the worst beer in the world. According to user judging at ratebeer.com, Old English tops that list, followed by Natural Light and its evil twin, Natural Ice. PBR isn’t among the 50 worst.
Said Steen, “When I drink it, it’s because it’s crisp and refreshing and doesn’t weigh me down the way an IPA or maltier beer would.”
“It’s also cheap.”
Rappold writes about the local beer scene bi-weekly in Food.