The problem with PBR
Is the watered-down beer a working-class hero or an ironic punchline?
With the exception of skinny jeans, questionable facial hair, and the strangely contentious career of Vampire Weekend, no other emblem of so-called "hipster cool" is as simultaneously beloved and reviled as Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Proponents of PBR are quick to embrace its local, working-class roots, while naysayers cry foul at the brand’s recent ironic, counter-culture pandering. About the only thing anyone seems to agree on is that PBR is a readily available, relatively inexpensive beer with a taste that could be charitably described as “kind of shitty.” So is the blue-collar brew truly a source of local pride, or just another scourge brought to you by clever marketers and shifty-eyed bike messengers? Might the watered-down wonder actually be—gulp—good, or has the brand long since passed its counter-cultural expiration date? And, perhaps more importantly, can a story about PBR be written without using the word “hipster” a dozen times? Never ones to turn down a $2 can of beer, The A.V. Club investigates.
Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!
Much of the controversy that surrounds PBR stems from the question of whether it’s truly a benign, working-man’s beer, or one that subtly preys on cool-kid cred. The brand’s recent popularity began in the early 2000’s, when bike messengers in Portland, Ore. took a shine to the cheap, red-white-and-blue brew. Since then, Pabst has successfully employed a low-key marketing strategy that Rob Walker, author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy And Who We Are, calls “murketing”—attracting marketing-adverse consumers by giving off the appearance of not marketing at all. Because of this devious approach, PBR has never been more successful: In 2006, the beer took home the gold in the “American-Style Lager” category at the Great American Beer Festival, and in 2009, sales shot up a whopping 25 percent.
Of course, another point of contention in the PBR brew-ha-ha is the company’s severed local ties. Originally founded in 1844, the Pabst Brewing Company was a Milwaukee institution for more than 150 years. In 1996, however, Pabst closed up shop and moved its headquarters to Woodridge, Ill. Now, nearly 15 years later, not only is PBR no longer a locally brewed beer, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not even one of the cheapest: According to a 2009 study, a case of PBR costs $1.50 more than Keystone, $1 more than Busch, and 50 cents more than lowly Miller High Life.
And while blaming savvy marketing execs, bruised hometown pride, or Portland-based bike messengers for the “PBR problem” may be easy, it should be noted that Pabst’s reputation as a loathed, ironic punching bag can be traced back as far as 1986, when Dennis Hopper—playing the demented, nitrous-loving heavy in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet—famously exclaimed, “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
There’s no marketing like no marketing
Despite insidious marketing techniques and the glowing endorsement of cinematic psychopaths, Pabst Blue Ribbon remains a popular local staple—“$2 PBR nights” are ubiquitous in nearly all Milwaukee bars. The venerable Cactus Club (2496 S. Wentworth, 414-897-0663) hosts a $1 Pabst Ladies' Night on Thursdays, not to mention an upcoming PBR-sponsored spelling bee slated for May 27. The Diablos Rojos Restaurant Group also offers up plenty of PBR-themed nights: At Cafe Centraal (2306 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Bay View, 414-755-0378), a real or fake 'stache will nab you a $2 PBR on “Moustache Mondays”—along with a chance to win some PBR merch—while the Wauwatosa Cafe Hollander (7677 W. State St., 414-475-6771) urges patrons to “Drink while you think!” by serving up similarly priced cans of Pabst during its Monday Trivia Night.
Opinions of PBR among Milwaukee’s bartending elite, however, remain mixed. Tom Julio, a bartender at Bay View’s Tonic Tavern (2335 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-455-3205), is among those who take the brand to task for its calculated downscale image. “It took a slick, trendy promotional campaign by the skeleton of the PBR franchise to propel it back into the spotlight,” he says. “The irony of the popularity of this brand still baffles me, and makes me laugh at the Milwaukeeans that order up a cheap can of PBR not for its mediocre taste, but to be seen as part of the sheep that flock to the drums of a Madison Avenue advertising ploy.”
Others, if not exactly gushing, are significantly more forgiving. David Gregorski, a bartender at Y-Not III (1854 E. Kenilworth Place, 414-224-9668), seeks to put the “PBR problem” in its proper perspective. “I no longer drink, but when I did, I was a big fan of PBR,” he says. “I guess anything that gets embraced by so-called ‘hipsters’ is ripe for a backlash, but I try to ignore that sort of thing as much as I can. Once you get down to that level of watery, domestic beer, what's the difference?”