The fate of Pabst Blue Ribbon was in the hands of a jury.
The classic lager — the cheap, light beer of choice among many hipsters and baby boomers alike — was at risk of disappearing from the shelves, the jury had been told. Wednesday marked the end of a nine-day trial involving a brewing contract dispute between Pabst and MillerCoors, one beer company vs. a much bigger one, both steeped in more than a century of history.
The question was whether MillerCoors, which has been brewing PBR since 1999, would extend its brewing contract with Pabst to 2025. Pabst sued MillerCoors in 2016 after the brewer said it would be cutting ties with Pabst in 2020, the year the contract expires, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. PBR’s lawyers argued that it had the option to extend the contract for five years and that MillerCoors’s decision not to extend it was made in bad faith. PBR claimed MillerCoors’s reasoning — that it no longer had the capacity to brew PBR into the next decade — was false and flawed. Likewise, MillerCoors claimed that PBR’s fear of going out of business was simply exaggerated, arguing that its chief executive had more than seven years to find a new brewer, the Journal Sentinel reported.
But just as the jury was busy deliberating Wednesday, the beer companies returned to court: They had reached a settlement agreement, they told the judge. And it involves keeping PBR alive.
“The parties have amicably resolved all outstanding issues in the case,” a representative for Pabst told The Washington Post in a statement, while declining to disclose the terms of the settlement. “Pabst will continue to offer Pabst Blue Ribbon and the rest of our authentic, great tasting and affordable brews to all Americans for many, many years to come.”
To understand how Pabst, at one time the best-selling beer in America, could even find itself in a situation such as this, you have to go back — way back — to where it all began. Pabst has been around for more than 170 years, but it really has lived two separate lives: the one inside a Milwaukee brewery, and the one after it shuttered, when, for reasons that still fascinate marketers, it experienced an unexpected renaissance as a hipster beer.
The beer’s roots in Milwaukee date to the 1840s, when German immigrants were busy turning Milwaukee into the hops capital of the country. Jacob Best opened the brewery in 1848, but a certain Captain Frederick Pabst joined in 1863 after marrying into the family. Under his leadership, Pabst would grow to become the nation’s largest brewery by 1874 and win an actual blue ribbon at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. For decades thereafter, the blue ribbon never left Pabst.
But the Pabst family eventually did.
The captain’s great-grandson, August Pabst, the last remaining Pabst family member involved, sold his holdings in 1983, and it was about that time that things started to get rocky. Sales had been declining for several years. A California company, S&P Corp., bought Pabst in 1985, and things only got worse. One Pabst brewery employee told The Post in later years that he felt the tides beginning to change in 1990, when the bottomless coolers of free beer in the lunchroom disappeared, and beer on the job was no longer allowed. For six straight years thereafter, the brewer failed to turn a profit.
Like at the Schlitz and Miller breweries, Pabst was beloved by its longtime employees, many of whom had been on the job since its heyday in the 1970s. The same could be said of its loyal drinkers, many of whom snubbed Schlitz and Miller the same way Cubs fans don’t root for the White Sox. But all of that love evaporated the day Pabst brewery closed its doors in October 1996. The local taverns started dumping it. Customers started boycotting. The brewer’s union sued on behalf of disgruntled unemployed workers. As Milwaukee historian John Gurda told CNN that month, “The closing of the brewery is more or less like a death.”
That brings us to why MillerCoors started brewing Pabst shortly thereafter, and why, for the past nearly 20 years, Pabst has relied on the larger company.
The thing is, Pabst today is nowhere near the nadir it experienced after shuttering the brewery in 1996, which has made its desperate-sounding legal battle with MillerCoors seem all the more unusual. According to the Brewers Association, Pabst Brewing Co. was ranked fifth in overall beer sales volume nationwide in 2017 (down from third in 2016), trailing Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Constellation and Heineken. At the same time, its growth is also not anywhere near its astounding comeback in the mid-2000s.
If Pabst died in Milwaukee in 1996, it was reborn several years later — in Portland, Ore., maybe. For the first time in more than two decades, the company experienced a climb in sales in 2002. It was listed in the 2003 “Hipster Handbook” as the “best-tasting domestic beer,” recommended for hipsters along with its Milwaukee cousin, Schlitz. And it was especially popular in Portland, the New York Times Magazine discovered in 2003, when it went looking for the reason PBR had mysteriously reemerged as a beer for cool underground “alternative people,” as a Portland sales rep described the new customers.
The Times found that it was especially popular among Portland bike messengers, who secured PBR sponsorships that never required them to display flashy advertisements like signs on their backs. Mocking the Portland hipsters, the local alt-weekly newspaper, the Willamette Week, ran a large picture that showed a guy drinking PBR, the Times noted. The Week said of Miller Brewing, “It’s totally not indie rock!”
So what was the reason behind this resurgence? The main theory for PBR’s seemingly organic re-brand, experts told the Times, was Pabst’s marketing strategy of, well, no marketing. The bike messengers didn’t owe them any free ads. Kid Rock, a noted PBR fan, wanted to do an endorsement deal, but PBR execs said no, as the Times reported.
The other theory, put forth by marketing consultant Alex Wipperfurth in the book “Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing,” was that a rumor that percolated during the late 1990s that Pabst was going out of business had the effect of a “rallying cry."
After this latest drama with MillerCoors, there’s no telling for sure who will keep brewing Pabst Blue Ribbon for, as its representative promised, “many, many years to come.”
But at least, loyal PBR drinkers, you can rest assured it’s not going away.