Pabst Unsold

On a recent Saturday evening, about a hundred serious bicyclists, most of them young men, many tattooed and pierced and at least one wearing striped tights and a floral thrift-shop dress, arrived en masse at Alberta Park in northeast Portland, Ore. They gathered near a fenced-off hard-top court and, in teams of three, began a ''bike polo'' tournament. Almost all were bike messengers, about a third of them local (others from Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere), and they lived up to the image of couriers as marginal, testosterone-charged troublemakers. They drank beer, smoked cigarettes and other things and yelled profane insults at each other.

Also, they had a corporate sponsor. What appeared to be a party in the park was part of the West Side Invite, prizes for which were underwritten by a $1,750 contribution from the Pabst Brewing Company. Virtually no banners or signs announced this, and no one from Pabst showed up to glad-hand the bikers.

Pabst Blue Ribbon — P.B.R., as fans call it — is currently enjoying a highly unlikely comeback. In 2002, sales of the beer, which had been sinking steadily since the 1970's, actually rose 5.3 percent. From the start of 2003 through April 20, supermarket beer sales are up another 9.4 percent. It is endorsed in ''The Hipster Handbook,'' a paperback dissection of cool, and is popping up in trendy bars from the Mission District to the Lower East Side. Sales in Chicago are up 134 percent. But the growth started and is most pronounced in Portland — a city best known in the cosmology of beer as a haven for fancy microbrews — where most agree that bike messengers have been in the P.B.R. vanguard. The lowbrow brew has risen to the No. 5-ranked beer in town and is still the fastest-growing of the top-50 domestic beer brands. In local supermarket sales it trails only Coors Light, Budweiser, Bud Light and Corona.

Of course, not even bike messengers can drink enough beer to explain this. So what does? At first, even the people at Pabst — which has barely advertised for more than 20 years — were at a loss. But any trend with even the slightest commercial implications in the American marketplace immediately becomes subject to two iron laws. The first is that it will attract a swarm of consultants, marketers and journalists, trying to deduce the trend's origins. Second, efforts will be made to amplify and prolong the trend, profitably.

The most interesting theory is that P.B.R.'s fan base grew not despite the lack of marketing support, but because of it. The beer industry as a whole spends about $1 billion a year to pitch its product. Most of this advertising, through huge TV campaigns and relentless logo-slathering, is devoted to image-building (not surprising, since Consumer Reports concluded a few years ago that even devoted fans of the megasellers Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft could rarely tell them apart by taste). Long-neglected P.B.R. had no image. It was just there.

Understanding why some people might find this attractive is easy. The hard part is figuring how to exploit it. The answer that the Pabst Brewing Company has come up with involves cash payments to rowdy bike messengers. And the brewer may be onto something.

• • •

Neal Stewart was 27 when he joined Pabst as a divisional marketing manager in the summer of 2000. Stodgy Pabst was in the process of shutting down its breweries and contracting its actual beer-making (formula preserved) primarily to the Miller Brewing Company. P.B.R. was not hot. In 2001 sales would fall, yet again, to less than a million barrels, its lowest figure in decades and 90 percent below its 1975 peak. There were minor signs of a new constituency — Kid Rock wearing a P.B.R. belt buckle, a bunch of top snowboarders in Utah running a ''Pabst Bowl'' on Super Bowl Sundays — but for the most part Pabst was still focused on its stalwart 45-to-60 demographic. Stewart mentions low-grade car-racing sponsorships, country music events, and "fishing promotions."

But a sales rep in Portland had noticed that ''these alternative people'' were ''starting to get into the brand,'' Stewart, now a baby-faced 29-year-old with blond-streaked hair and a snowboard on his office wall, told me. The rep, Stewart said, ''was as strait-laced as could be. He wasn't someone who really understood the culture.'' Pabst was still not targeting these drinkers. ''It was just a group of people who embraced the brand.''

So Stewart went to Portland, visiting bars like the Lutz Tavern near Reed College and the Ash Street Saloon, a bike-messenger hangout downtown. He learned that the kind of people who had ''embraced the brand'' were also the kind of people who detest marketing. But this was not necessarily bad news. He would walk in — wearing street clothes, never a Pabst logo — tell the bartender who he was and ''really just sit there,'' he said. ''The word would leak out — 'Hey, the Pabst guy is here.''' He carried a bag of P.B.R. keychains and T-shirts. Stewart had once been a cog in the gigantic Anheuser-Busch marketing machine in St. Louis and had firsthand experience with barging up to drinkers and foisting trinkets on them. For the Pabst Guy in Portland, that wasn't necessary. ''I was mobbed.''

The trend-explaining industry has mostly framed the rise of P.B.R. as part of an alleged ''retro-chic'' movement. Of course, iterations of retro-chic (Fiestaware, cocktail music, etc.) have bubbled through the culture for a decade or more now. A subset ''white trash'' theory links P.B.R. to Levi's (whose sales have actually fallen) and trucker hats (a fad that was revealed and snuffed out almost simultaneously, when Ashton Kutcher wore one on his MTV show, Punk'd). One zeitgeistmeister has even suggested that P.B.R. drinkers were inspired by the blue-collar heroes of 9/11.

One person who has put a lot of thought into P.B.R. is Alex Wipperfürth, of a San Francisco marketing boutique called Plan B, whose clients have included Napster and Doc Martens. He has a particular interest in brands whose identity is created not by their owners but by consumers. Plan B did a little consulting work for Pabst last year, and Wipperfürth includes P.B.R. in a book he's completing called Brand Hijack.

His analysis turns on a slightly different axis, one that pulls everything from vague identification with the working class to the dead-end feel of a slow economy to a general disenchantment with advertising to "anti-consumption He saw in P.B.R. a long-withered brand with few negative connotations. A false rumor that Pabst was about to go out of business (untrue) worked for some as a ''rallying cry.'' P.B.R.'s scarcity, and its cheapness, also helped make it an ''underground darling.''

The single key text in Neal Stewart's codification of the meaning of P.B.R. is the book No Logo, by the journalist Naomi Klein. Published in 2000, No Logo is about the incursion of brands and marketing into every sphere of public life, the bullying and rapacious mind-set that this trend represents and evidence of a grass-roots backlash against it, especially among young people. Klein's view is that this would feed a new wave of activists who targeted corporations. Stewart's view is that the book contains ''many good marketing ideas.'' He says it ''really articulated the feelings, the coming feelings, of the consumer out there: eventually people are gonna get sick of all this stuff'' — all this marketing — ''and say enough is enough.''

Under these circumstances, the thinking goes, P.B.R. needs to stay neutral, ''always look and act the underdog'' and not worry about those who look down on the beer, presumably because they're snobs whose negative opinion only boosts its street cred. The Plan B analysis even says that P.B.R.'s embrace by punks, skaters and bike messengers make it a political, ''social protest'' brand. These ''lifestyle as dissent'' or ''consumption as protest'' constituencies are about freedom and rejecting middle-class mores, and ''P.B.R. is seen as a symbol and fellow dissenter.'' Eventually all of this sounds like satire, but the punch line is that it isn't really that far off from P.B.R.'s strategy.

• • •

In theory, a company that discovers one of its products has started growing of its own accord could simply do nothing. But it's hard to do nothing. Especially for marketers. For P.B.R. it was clearly important to at least appear to be doing as little as possible. This is one reason that a traditional response to the discovery that ''alternative people'' were buying the beer in Portland — taking out ads on local alt-rock stations — was nixed. It's one reason that when Kid Rock's lawyer came sniffing around to work an endorsement deal, Pabst said no. It's one reason that the company has passed on the chance to back a major snowboarding event or to sponsor an extreme athlete. It's one reason that even upbeat five-year plans for where the brand may go envision no television advertising at all. So what does that leave? It leaves underwriting a bunch of bike messengers screwing around in the park.

When Stewart talks about the small-scale projects the brand has been involved in, he constantly uses words like ''organic'' and ''genuine'' and phrases like ''let the consumer lead the brand.'' All marketers do that, but it's striking how many of P.B.R.'s mini-relationships were initiated by the representative of some subculture approaching Pabst. Stewart didn't court the bike messengers of Portland; one of them approached him. Later he started hearing from messenger groups in New York and elsewhere. Other sponsorship requests were relayed to him through contacts at underground-ish magazines like Vice and Arthur. Each little sponsorship effort — skateboard movie screenings, art galleries, independent publishers — expands the network.

P.B.R. was starting to sound like some kind of small-scale N.E.A. for young American outsider culture, which seemed pretty cool, although not quite a marketing strategy. But think back to the notion of P.B.R. as a somehow ''political'' brand. It's a cliche to say that political parties operate like marketers. But here it's marketing that is like politics. When Pabst provides direct support to the subcultures that first embraced P.B.R., it is shoring up its new base. The brewer still needs the swing voters — beer buyers whose loyalty is up for grabs, and who may latch on to a hot-button brand — and hopes that its conspicuously cool base will influence them. But without the base, the whole structure comes down.

In April 2001, Pabst Brewing got a new C.E.O., Brian Kovalchuk, formerly the C.F.O. of Benetton, and the company's marketing department began to be overhauled. (Stewart is still the youngest marketer there, but he's also the one with the longest tenure.) Last July Pabst hired a new vice president of marketing, Alan Willner, a 44-year-old Coors veteran. The temptation must have been overwhelming to do all the things marketers usually do when a product seems to be catching on — a splashy new package design, ads full of glamorously ''edgy'' people, etc. But Pabst did none of it.

Of course, one reason is that Pabst is a bit player in its industry, and the P.B.R. marketing budget is measly. Stewart reckons that a deal with Kid Rock — maybe half a million to sign him up and another million promoting the association — would have emptied his coffers for the year. Still, Willner seems concerned about the beer getting too trendy when he emphasizes how ''we're not overcommunicating false promises.'' No doubt what's on his mind is the third iron law of cultural trends: the backlash.

• • •

You can tell Scott Proctor is a beer veteran — he refers to bars as ''accounts.'' He spent years working for Oregon's Blitz-Weinhard before its brands were sold or discontinued and its brewery shut down in 1999. A few months ago Proctor joined Pabst as its Oregon sales manager. He remembers Pabst having ''a minute base'' in Portland — four years ago the company had just 41 accounts there. Today the number is more than 10 times that. Proctor is 48, affable and openly baffled by the ''weird'' P.B.R. base. ''I've seen some different accounts than I would normally see, if I was gonna go have a beverage myself,'' he says. ''I had to open my mind a little bit.''

We visited the Lutz Tavern, a homey place with a pool table and an apple-green linoleum bar top. Slumming students here used to drink Blitz, now a defunct brand. But in 1999 the owner decided to start selling cans of Pabst for $1 (they cost the bar about 35 cents each) as a summer special. More than four years later, the sale hasn't ended, and P.B.R. is the bar's top seller. As ''Planet Claire'' played on the jukebox, the bartender and a few post-college-age patrons, all drinking cans of P.B.R., mulled the state of the brand. They promptly brought up the no-advertising thing, and while the subject of poseurs treating the beer as a fashion accessory came up, it didn't seem like much of a problem. They encouraged us to eat at the Delta Café, down the block, which sells southern-style food and, for $3, 40-ounce PBRs served in a small bucket of ice.When we drove though the vaguely bohemian Hawthorne neighborhood, every bar seemed to have a PBR sign. In the Fred Meyer grocery store, there was more shelf space in the cooler for PBR than for Budweiser. It was like a parallel universe.

We ended up at the dank and scruffy Ash Street Saloon, where I met a 28-year-old named Phil Barnes, who recently went through four tattoo sessions to get a Pabst logo about a foot square burned into his back, which he showed me. ''Pabst is part of my subculture,'' he said, somewhat emphatically. ''It's the only beer I think about.'' He's a skateboarder, works as a cook and describes his peer group as ''scumbag punk rockers.'' Barnes was a little cagey about talking to me at first — his friends worried that somehow a picture of his tattoo would get used to promote Pabst and he wouldn't be compensated. Later, however, he noted that he had never seen a Pabst ad of any sort, which he liked because it showed that "they're not insulting you."

A couple of weeks earlier, a local alternative paper, Willamette Week, ran a big picture of a guy drinking P.B.R. at the Lutz Tavern, with a blurb that mocked ''middle-class, college-educated, salaried Portland hipsters'' for drinking P.B.R., and raised the connection to Miller Brewing: ''It's totally not indie rock! So there!'' Barnes had given this a lot of thought, and had concluded that he did not care. ''The only thing that's going to stop me from drinking Pabst is when I die,'' he said, lighting a cigarette.

I also talked to the bike-polo crowd about this. Ryan Kelley, a mild-mannered guy who actually arranged the first P.B.R. sponsorship, allowed that the beer's newfound popularity was slightly annoying. ''But basically,'' he said, ''we're going to drink whatever beer costs a dollar.''

• • •

For a mass-market product, subcultures aren't enough. Pabst Blue Ribbon has about 2.5 percent of the beer market in Portland. But as Benj Steinman, editor of ''Beer Marketer's Insights,'' points out, it's only roughly one-half of 1 percent of the market in the United States as a whole, and its parent company's business is ''declining substantially.'' P.B.R. needs more swing voters.

Summer is prime beer-selling season, and Pabst is trying a couple of new strategies. The Portland music licenser Rumblefish is arranging with indie bands in two other cities to issue both a P.B.R. CD compilation of their previously recorded music and a series of seven-inch vinyl singles, which will be given to the bands, to sell, give away or whatever they want. The idea is for Pabst to position itself as a supporter of local music, rather than chase endorsements from famous artists.

Pabst has also hired a small Chicago marketing firm called Liquid Intelligence to help expand its network of contacts. ''Field marketing reps'' will be hired in Chicago and four other cities — reps, Stewart says, ''who live in the cool neighborhood, who know people down at the tattoo parlor and the record store.'' Basically they'll help P.B.R. sponsor more small-scale events. Won't the PBR base look at a network of hipsters-for-hire as, you know, marketing? Stewart thinks not. The reps aren't even allowed to wear Pabst gear, and in any case the hires "are so well respected by their peers that everybody's really happy for them."

Earlier I was assured by the author of ''The Hipster Handbook,'' Robert Lanham, that there is no sign of a backlash in New York either. (New York may or may not be the ultimate birthplace of new trends in American pop culture, but it is absolutely the ultimate birthplace of backlashes.) ''If Ashton Kutcher shows up on Punk'd drinking a Pabst,'' Lanham mused, ''there might be a backlash.'' I mentioned the Kutcher Factor to Willner and suggested that he might want to start sending Kutcher free cases . . . of Miller High Life. This was a joke, but when brand-owners live in fear of the wrong kind of popularity, jujitsu marketing suddenly seems inevitable.

• • •

On the side of every can of Pabst Blue Ribbon is a P.O. box in Milwaukee. Pabst does trace its roots to a brewery founded there in 1844. These days Pabst Brewing Company is based in San Antonio. In 1985, the brewery was bought by Paul Kalmanovitz, a self-made beer and real-estate baron. While other big brewers were spending to build national, image-based brands, Kalmanovitz's idea, apparently, was to buy up ailing ales, slash all associated costs and let them ''decline profitably.'' Kalmanovitz died in 1987. (Pabst is owned by the charitable foundation he left behind, which also owns commercial real estate in California) and his lieutenants ran the show for the next dozen or so years along the same lines. The current Pabst Brewing portfolio includes Schlitz, Carling Black Label, Falstaff, Olympia, and Stroh's. It also owns a few regional stalwarts (Lone Star, Ranier, Old Style) and malt liquors (Colt 45, St. Ides). Its top seller, with about 1 percent of the U.S. beer market, is Old Milwaukee.

Along the way, Pabst shuttered its Milwaukee brewery, eliminating nearly 250 jobs and touching off a legal battle over pension obligations to former workers. This might explain another quirk of the Pabst resurgence — that it has radiated out from part of the country that had no particular historic tie to the brand. ''They really alienated people in Milwaukee,'' says Dennis E. Garrett, a marketing professor at Marquette University. In 2001, Pabst finalized its outsourcing deal with Miller, becoming a ''virtual brewer,'' as one executive put it at the time. Having virtually wiped out its blue-collar work force, Pabst now employs just 166 people, about half of them selling beer in the field, and the rest in the home office. This, of course, is exactly kind of thing that No Logo was complaining about.

Does it matter? I actually doubt that a single P.B.R. drinker who hears the history of Pabst Brewing will give up the beer as a result. P.B.R. may be a ''political'' brand but not in a 1960's sense of political, which assumes a kind of zero-sum ideological game. In this politics, symbolic solidarity with the blue-collar heartland trumps the real thing. (Actually, the brand's growth is occurring in urban centers; it's losing share in the rural Midwest.) And you could argue that no-benefits line cooks, bike messengers and temps add up to new blue-collar equivalents.

But perhaps the way to think of it is that the P.B.R. base is less concerned with protesting boorish and heartless corporate behavior than with protesting boorish and invasive corporate sales tactics. The connection to Miller seemed more potentially damaging to such an ideology than the elimination of a few hundred pension-bearing jobs. (How many recent college grads expect a pension nowadays?) It's very much a politics of individual freedom, of rejecting overt pitches and elite tastes. Pabst did not set out to fill that niche, but it's well positioned to do so. Turns out that P.B.R. actually does have an image, but it's an image that its consumer base can hardly complain about, because they're the ones who created it. That's what makes it perfect.

• • • • •

A very similar version of this story appeared in the June 22, 2003 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

**June 26, 2003 Postscript: Several people wrote to me after this was published to ask why I had failed to mention Blue Velvet. There's a famous scene in the movie in which a character called Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, reacts to another character's preference for Heineken by saying: "Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!" I was of course aware of this scene (in fact I rented the movie again during the reporting of this story), and even if I weren't, Alex Wipperfürth (quoted in the article) specifically cited it in his analysis of P.B.R. I actually mentioned Blue Velvet in an early draft. I wrote about questioning Wipperfürth on the relevance of the film to something happening now: "'The time is ripe,' he answered. 'You have maybe 30 brands that could have taken the place of P.B.R. Could've been Stroh's, Schlitz, whatever. But Pabst is the one that had the credibility, because David Lynch and Dennis Hopper kind of sanctioned it.' I still wasn't convinced, but it certainly couldn't hurt that Frank Booth's endorsement was obviously not paid product placement, since almost no company would pay to have its name invoked by the scary and dangerous lunatic that Hopper played in the film."

None of this made the cut that I finally sent to my editor. I took it out. Why? Well, the story was running long. And, more to the point, if (as I wrote) I wasn't convinced, I couldn't leave it it. The bottom line is that Blue Velvet came out in 1986. It seems odd to overlook 15 years of falling sales in all demographics in all parts of the country — and credit the movie with causing a resurgence now. Of the PBR drinkers I spoke to, only one brought up the movie.

But who knows? It obviously doesn't hurt to have a connection to Dennis Hopper and David Lynch. And in the end I don't disagree with people who say the movie is an important part of the P.B.R. mystique. I think the point is valid. I just didn't believe I could support the idea that the movie had an impact on the story I was telling.

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