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

"Those sales reps are all being courted to push a certain brand during a different time period -- Guinness during St. Patrick's Day, Corona during Cinco de Mayo, etc.," Sullivan says. "At Anheuser-Busch, you have 100 percent mind share. Michelob Ultra Light didn't exist one day, and then it was ubiquitous."

This leaves reps and district managers for the lesser brewers -- guys like Reutter -- to duke it out with one another, sometimes literally, for precious shelf and tap space at local establishments.

"I've seen fistfights break out in front of cold boxes at grocery stores," says Reutter of a gladiatorial terrain that's unique to the testosterone-laden beer industry. "I ain't never seen two pop guys throw the blows."

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.

Only the dimmest of beer hucksters would dare pull such chest-thumping malarkey with the hulking Reutter, whose hustle and gregarious nature have garnered him a healthy amount of street-level credit for his brand's recent surge in St. Louis. Between Jagermeister shots and Lucky Strikes at the Hi-Pointe one recent Friday, Reutter's all-out nature was on full display as the beer man talked patrons into test-driving bottles of Pabst -- which, according to Hi-Pointe bartender Tim Mize, is close on the heels of bestselling Old Style, also a Pabst brand.

"We move that shit," says Mize of PBR. "It's the most popular beer besides the [$4] Old Style pitcher."

At Tangerine, general manager Matt McMullin sought to offer Pabst for his eccentric establishment's kitschy 1970's Western-themed "Truck Stop Tuesdays," which feature old country records and thematic décor.

"Just about a year ago, they finally introduced PBR on draft in the St. Louis market," says McMullin. "They've done a big, huge marketing push."

Reutter confirms that Pabst only recently made PBR available on draft in the St. Louis area. He also says that the brewery's marketing -- KDHX and softball-team sponsorship aside -- is strictly of the shoe-leather variety. Here, Pabst relies on word of mouth to spread its gospel. And around these parts, Reutter is a veritable T.D. Jakes, evangelizing PBR's humble virtues, something that hasn't been lost on CBGB's head bartender Matt Wagner.

"Before I met Marc, I ordered Pabst, like, ten times and I didn't get it," says Wagner. "Then Marc came in one night. We were having a Johnny Cash birthday party. Marc drives from his home [in Arnold] -- it's snowing -- picks up the beer and [brought it] back that night."

Budweiser reps are somewhat smug by comparison, Wagner says.

"An A-B rep came in here to check born-on dates," recalls Wagner. "He opens up a cooler, and it was empty. I said, 'That's where I keep the Pabst.' He's, like, 'Oh, that's what kind of place this is.' I had three sixpacks of Bud in another cooler, and there were only, like, two beers gone. I don't think they care that much about us because we're such a small account."

Although he doesn't profess witnessing such outright rudeness from A-B reps, the Delmar's Doug Morgan says he sees an A-B rep "about once a year."

"The attitude that I've gotten is, you're kind of ignored if you don't have that tap handle," says Morgan, who only sells Bud longnecks at his U. City storefront.

The dreadlock-coiffed Morgan -- who says he drinks Pabst-owned Schlitz Malt Liquor at home -- began selling Pabst simply because he used to drink it at a "couple of dives" he liked in the '80s.

"Anybody who grew up in the Midwest remembers that PBR was big," says Morgan. "Some micros aren't the most accessible, and no one grew up drinking Heineken or Pilsner Urquell. Cheaper beer in general isn't making a comeback. It's got to have kitsch value -- and Pabst is number one in that department."

Still, Morgan says, the Bud longnecks "sell themselves," an omnipotence that's not lost on Whitney Keller, who used to handle Miller Brewing's account for St. Louis promotional agency Zipatoni.

"They [bartenders] would look at you kind of funny and find the only Miller in the back of the cooler," says Keller, now a stay-at-home mom in suburban Chicago. "I was in McGurk's one night. An acquaintance of mine, somehow related to the Busch family, said, 'What is Whitney doing drinking a Miller product?' I found it kind of amusing. I enjoyed being the only person in the bar drinking Miller."

Zipatoni handled A-B's promotions for years, but, according to Keller, "got fed up by all the politics" and began working for Miller.

At the cash register, however, none of this perceived arrogance is hurting A-B, which pumps millions of dollars into local community events, philanthropy and education. In the last category, Anheuser-Busch has its moniker emblazoned on the buildings that house the St. Louis University Eye Institute and Washington University's law school -- ironic, when you consider that excessive drinking tends to cause cataracts and keeps the pockets of DWI attorneys well-lined.

Although any company trafficking in alcoholic beverages walks a fine line, A-B doesn't actively promote excessive drinking. Its critically lauded and seemingly ubiquitous advertising and promotional campaigns -- "Wazzup," "True," the Budweiser Frogs, the Clydesdales, the Bud Bowl -- appeal to a broad range of demographics, giving its brands the ability to be all things to all people.

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