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

"Jack Daniel's Hard Cola and Skyy Blue are growing like crazy," says Sullivan. "I don't know if it [pushing multiple malternatives] was too many, but it took focus away from our trademark brands. [However,] it is a brilliant strategy for the liquor companies to become relevant again."

Even as Miller struggles to regain focus and works to stem a slipping market share, any damage caused to its leading brand has hardly been terminal.

"The past two or three years, Miller has had a stronger presence," says Morgan. "I've had to bring in Miller Lite. Maybe I have a more transient crowd with college students."

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.

Results have been similarly steady at supermarkets, where Miller Lite consistently battles Coors Light for third place in national sales rankings, behind Bud Light and Bud. In St. Louis, Miller Lite is number four, with A-B's bargain brand, Busch, nudging out Budweiser, the brewery's flagship label, for second place -- Coors Light places a distant eleventh. Whereas Pabst's Old Milwaukee brand holds its own in St. Louis supermarkets, its Blue Ribbon brand doesn't even register in the top twenty.

But PBR, despite its relatively skimpy overall market share, has seen an upsurge of 11.5 percent in recent supermarket sales nationwide, compared with a 1 percent gain for Miller High Life, according to BMI's Shepard, who considers the renaissance experienced by both PBR and High Life truly unique and finds himself at a loss to explain just why.

"If I had an answer, I'd be sitting in Milwaukee or St. Louis explaining it to people who would be giving me goo-gobs of money," says Shepard. "Generally when brands go down as far as both those brands had gone down from their peaks, it's very difficult to come back like they have."

With Reutter passing out all sorts of gear while making his nightly rounds, Pabst's retro mesh hats and gas-station jackets have become more popular than ever. And with the comeback of hard-rockin' "the" bands such as the Hives, Strokes, Vines and White Stripes showing no signs of letting up, the environment seems fertile for Pabst to continue to thrive by tapping into the rock & roll demographic. Still, relying on the fickle consumer whims of America's youth is not a survival strategy that any credible economist would prescribe. Conversely, Anheuser-Busch's model for global beer domination most assuredly is. As Beer Business Daily's Harry Schumacher says of the dirt-beer uprising: "It's definitely something to watch, but A-B is not worried about it."

No, not yet -- or at least one would assume. But Morgan has heard rumblings among Pestalozzi Street foot soldiers that the brewery is thinking about more aggressively pursuing the youthful dirt-beer crowd with its promotional efforts, something that Miller's Sullivan believes has already kicked in, with Bud employing a variation on its classic Clydesdales-playing-football campaign during its most recent Super Bowl ad blitz.

In the clubs of St. Louis, PBR and Reutter are more than enjoying their fifteen minutes, something that Frederick's Music Lounge owner Fred Friction recently affirmed by giddily replacing the Budweisers of a duo performing onstage with fresh bottles of PBR. Friction's a Stag man himself -- another Pabst brand that he refers to as "steaks, taters and gravy."

"That PBR sign subliminally affects people -- including me," says Friction of the cardboard can behind his stage. "I always drink Stag, but I ordered a PBR the other night. I don't know why."

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