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

Although success in scruffier hotspots such as Frederick's Music Lounge, CBGB's, the Hi-Pointe and the Way Out Club might not be spectacularly revealing, Pabst has gathered a head of steam in joints that, at face value, appear to contradict its gritty, nostalgic image. Mangia Italiano, the Pageant Theatre and its Halo Bar, Tangerine and the Delmar all consistently rank among the brand's top dozen on-premises retailers, according to the brewer's internal tracking.

If Pabst's re-emergence has its San Antonio-headquartered brass flashing their pearly whites, what's equally clear is that the Puma of the beer industry doesn't exactly have Pestalozzi Street shaking in its boots. But a sustained surge in nostalgic coolness, coupled with unprecedented power plays by the likes of Denver-based Coors, have some wondering whether the brewing giant's deft marketing brain trust should quietly reassess some of its home-turf tactics -- if it hasn't already.

PBR booster Marc Reutter (left) enjoys some of his product and some secondhand smoke with lead bartender Matt Wagner at CBGB's.
Jennifer Silverberg
PBR booster Marc Reutter (left) enjoys some of his product and some secondhand smoke with lead bartender Matt Wagner at CBGB's.
Delmar Lounge head honcho Doug Morgan has luckily avoided selling Coors Light: "It's garbage beer. It's a West Coast thing."
Jennifer Silverberg
Delmar Lounge head honcho Doug Morgan has luckily avoided selling Coors Light: "It's garbage beer. It's a West Coast thing."

There was a time when A-B and Pabst -- which was founded in Milwaukee and now subcontracts its brewing operations to Miller -- dueled annually for the title of top U.S. brewer. Unfortunately for Pabst, that time was more than a century ago, when Pabst earned a blue ribbon as America's best beer at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair -- hence the name Pabst Blue Ribbon. Since then, A-B has never looked back -- whereas Pabst and essentially every domestic brewer outside of the Big Three, including former local kingpins Falstaff and Griesedick, have either been squeezed out of business or relegated to the end of the retail bench by rampant industry consolidation.

Nowadays, Pabst's advertising and marketing budget is "close to zero," says Eric Shepard of Beer Marketer's Insights, a popular industry newsletter. This is a slight exaggeration, of course, but not much of one -- Reutter classifies a no-frills one-eighth-page newspaper ad as a "big commitment" for the brewery. The only variation of this low-overhead strategy came shortly after Pabst acquired Stroh's in 1999 and launched a $40 million radio and newspaper advertising campaign. This investment was driven, Reutter says, by an unexpected surge in the popularity of various Pabst brands in the Pacific Northwest and Chicago, as well as on the snowboarding and skateboarding circuits -- where extreme-sport stalwarts such as Seattle-based snowboarder Blue Montgomery voluntarily wear Pabst gear and publicly extol the old-school brewer's anti-establishment virtues.

"Our ads follow the consumers, not vice versa," explains Reutter.

By contrast, the Big Three combine to spend some $1 billion per year on advertising, paced by Coors' five-year, $300 million deal to become the NFL's exclusive regular-season sponsor. Even if Pabst had the loot to pull off such a coup, doing so might imperil the brand's underground popularity and stealthily cool image.

"When Red Hook aligned itself with Anheuser-Busch, they lost that edge," says St. Louis Brewing's Kopman of the Seattle-based craft-brewing pioneer. He vows not to make the same mistake with his Schlafly line.

"It's like Uncle Tupelo," says Miller's Sullivan, a native St. Louisan who has served time with all of the Big Three. "Once they named a magazine [No Depression] after them, they weren't as cool. Pabst has a lot of appeal because it's kind of the anti-brand."

It's also a damned inexpensive anti-brand, something that dovetails nicely with a persistently flagging American economy. And affordability is a factor for both patron and proprietor, as evidenced by Llewelyn's recent decision to sell Pabst in its upstairs music room in the Central West End.

"Our main reason was just for all the college kids that come here on Friday and Saturday," says Llewelyn's manager Mike Headrick. "Some of our beer was a little too pricey for them. I needed to give them some kind of a break."

Reutter has a more elaborate theory about Pabst's popularity among undergrads -- especially come wintertime.

"When kids first go back to school, they've got money. They're buying Sierra Nevada and whatnot," says Reutter, a 40-year-old St. Louis native who spent seven years in the Bay Area working for Miller before returning to the Midwest for Pabst in 1994. "Come the first of the year, they're looking for a bargain."

"It's cheap," says 22-year-old Casey Pinkert at South Grand Boulevard's dimly lit CBGB's, the number-one on-premise Pabst purveyor in town, which offers PBR bottles for a meager $1.50. "It's good, though, too."

Good? That's stretching it. But does Pabst really taste any worse than Budweiser?

"I choose PBR over Bud when available if I'm drinking domestic," says South Side resident Fred Hessel. "It's cheaper than Bud and better-tasting than other discount beers. But let's face it -- they're both swill."

Not everyone agrees with Hessel's sentiments, even among A-B's competitors.

"A-B can do anything, but they make great American light lager," says Kopman, whose Schlafly Tap Room will add a suburban cousin, a 36,500-square-foot restaurant/brewery in Maplewood, this spring. "A-B also does a fantastic job of controlling distribution."

What Kopman's driving at is this: A-B has an army of its own in-house distributors canvassing the metropolitan region, whereas most other major brewers -- including Coors, Miller and Pabst -- rely on one distributor, Summit Distributing, to get their products into the city's bars, restaurants and markets of various sizes.

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