Drinkin' Dirt

Bargain brews such as Pabst Blue Ribbon are making a comeback in some of St. Louis' hippest clubs, but Anheuser-Busch isn't too worried

Beer man Marc Reutter woke up one morning and felt a pain in his back. Figuring maybe he had tweaked it throwing freight at a Shop 'n Save or duking it out with a rival sales rep for precious shelf space, Reutter headed to the doc's office for a formal diagnosis.

When the doctor concluded that Reutter's back pain was caused mainly by stress, he naturally asked Pabst Brewing Company's South Central division manager whether he'd undergone any tectonic shifts in his life lately. Shaking his head, Reutter offered his doc this curt, well-rehearsed rationale:

"You ever try to sell PBR in St. Louis?"

Jennifer Silverberg
High Life in hand, Miller rep Patrick Sullivan chats up the denizens of the Famous Bar.
Jennifer Silverberg
High Life in hand, Miller rep Patrick Sullivan chats up the denizens of the Famous Bar.

Nowhere in America does a hometown brewery -- in this case, America's largest -- have such a statistical vise grip on local beer consumption as Anheuser-Busch has in St. Louis. Whereas Miller Brewing is lucky to carve out a 50 percent market share in its hometown of Milwaukee, A-B manages 70 percent of the St. Louis area market without having to resort to shameless gimmickry or price-slashing.

"A-B behaves like a monopoly does," says the St. Louis Brewery's Dan Kopman, who cooks up the Schlafly brand. "The pricing here is higher than in other markets -- because it can be. They don't have to drop prices to grow market share."

"They [A-B] probably spill more beer than we sell," says Reutter.

That said, thanks to a combination of factors -- chief among them an attitudinal migration toward working-class chic among twentysomething hipsters that's steadily infiltrating watering holes nationwide -- subpremium "anti-brands" such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life are enjoying an underground comeback of sorts.

"Kids will drink what their grandpas drank, but not their dads," says Patrick Sullivan of Miller Brewing's St. Louis office, echoing a common refrain among local lager cognoscenti. "You're saying one thing when you drink a Heineken; you're saying something completely different when you drink a Pabst or a High Life."

Simply put, consumption of highfalutin brew is so yesterday in the urban core, whereas being down with the working stiff is decidedly of the moment. Welcome to the dirt-beer revolution.

An apt cross-genre comparison for the beer industry's newfound nostalgic appeal can be found in the sneaker company Puma. Like Pabst, Puma went through a decade in the late twentieth century during which it was virtually irrelevant, having lost all sense of its ability to target the serious athletic consumer. So Puma decided to play small ball, focusing exclusively on fashion and getting its hallmark panther on the feet of urban hipsters, skateboarders, musicians and edgy celebrities.

Like Puma, Pabst has found that it's good to be the little guy -- hipsters like the underdog.

"I think it's more of a trendsetter indie person that's looking for something that's not the mainstream," says Catherine Stellin of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based firm that monitors trends among young adults. "I think that people drinking it were never really comfortable with PBR before. I think it's an homage to the working-class guy that's newly appreciated following September 11.

"There's something about PBR -- they don't do marketing, they don't do advertising -- it's more grassroots. There's definitely a move toward independent things -- indie rock & roll, indie hip-hop. It's a reaction against everything being beautifully packaged, the bubblegum pop."

Despite A-B's undisputed dominance, St. Louis is not immune to this trend. After traipsing through a bevy of the city's drinking dens with the broad-shouldered six-foot-seven Reutter, one senses that PBR's comeback is, at minimum, a notable youth-culture phenomenon -- even if it doesn't result in a rocket launch of market growth for the 159-year-old brewery's flagship brand.

Numbers alone don't tell the story. Nationally, the collective market share of Pabst's 42 brands wallows in the low single digits when pitted against the Big Three of A-B, Miller and Coors, which account for roughly 80 percent of all beer sales in the United States -- with A-B alone accounting for nearly half. But even A-B's St. Louis sales figures confirm the popularity of bargain-basement dirt beers -- its Busch brand outsells the flagship Budweiser brand in supermarkets.

Although Pabst doesn't post anything near the Big Three's numbers, its best-known brand, PBR, has experienced a considerable sales surge by its own modest standards, posting double-digit percentage gains in supermarkets. More important, PBR occupies a square on the cerebral chessboards of hepcat city dwellers by way of shoe-leather marketing and cheap, expertly targeted partnerships with the likes of KDHX (88.1 FM) -- all of which has led to a noticeable spike in popularity in haunts such as Bob Putnam's Way Out Club.

"Oh my God, yeah," says Putnam when asked whether he's seen a surge in Pabst consumption at his establishment and at other bars around the city. "One of the big things is that the big breweries went after sporting events. Miller was sponsoring concerts. Pabst has primarily focused in on music clubs. On KDHX, they run a calendar of events that's underwritten by Pabst. Rockabilly people have really jumped on the bandwagon. They [PBR] have really gone after the music market.

"I also think it has to do with the economy. Since September 11, lower-priced beers have picked up in sales. Busch is way up. Budweiser at my place has kind of gone down. Places you wouldn't think about -- like the Delmar [Restaurant & Lounge] -- have Pabst on draft."

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