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Pabst Blue Ribbon is finally earning its hipster cred

The "retro-chic" brand is moving back to its roots in Wisconsin, where beer culture runs deep.

The Pabst Brewing Company is opening a new brewery on the Milwaukee site of its original one (AP Photo/Mark Gail)

Nearly 20 years after it closed its Milwaukee brewery, Pabst is returning to its birthplace. It’s doing so in a way that completes Pabst Blue Ribbon’s transformation from a beer for old guys with red necks and white socks to the cheap brew of choice in grotty urban taverns.

Pabst shut down its Milwaukee operations in 1996, throwing 200 people out of work and contracting production to Stroh’s. Its corporate offices migrated to San Antonio, suburban Chicago, then Los Angeles. (PBR cans do still list a Milwaukee P.O. Box as the company’s address.)

The old brewery has already been gentrified from a site of blue-collar work to white-collar aspirations: It’s now an office/hotel/restaurant/apartment complex called The Brewery, containing the Blue Ribbon Lofts, which “serves local artists, entrepreneurs and other members of the ‘creative class’ with live-work units and…a music studio, artists’ workspaces and galleries.” Pabst will be opening a microbrewery and tasting room in an old church once used as an employee training center. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the company “will use the brewery to experiment with Pabst recipes for discontinued brands such as Old Tankard Ale, Kloster Beer and other beers made before Prohibition.”

During Pabst’s decades away from home, something unexpected happened to its flagship beer. According to Rob Walker’s book “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are,” Pabst’s revival as a “retro-chic” beer began in the early 2000s, at Lutz Tavern, in Portland, Ore. For years, Portland’s bike messengers and skaters had slugged down Blitz, a low-cost local brew. After Blitz went out of business, Lutz filled its niche with $1 cans of Pabst, whose abrasive finish made it a comfort drink for connoisseurs of cheap lagers. The beer was embraced not only for its price, but also because hipsters could drink it without feeling they’d been coerced by a corporate message. Between 2001 and 2006, PBR’s sales increased 67 percent.

“Long-neglected PBR had no image,” Walker wrote. “It was just there. Scarce and cheap, it had few negative connotations beyond that it was a kind of blank canvas, where brand meaning could be filled in by consumers.”

Now, as a result of its “Portlandia”-zation, PBR does have an image. So many young people adopted the beer as a relic of the days when Rust Belt laborers drank locally-brewed lager after sweaty shifts in the auto plant (which is completely at odds with its current outsourced reality) that it’s now seen as the drink of artsy, cash-poor city dwellers. That’s what allowed Pabst to reconnect with the now-gentrified corner of Milwaukee it abandoned. “There’s so much loyalty and passion for the brand,” said CEO Eugene Kashper, who bought Pabst in November. The move also restores some of PBR’s original cred, since Milwaukee is to binge drinking what Washington is to power and ambition.

C.J. Hribal, a Milwaukee poet and novelist, once called Wisconsin a place “where the legislature can’t decide whether milk or beer is the state beverage.” As you learn on the Miller Brewing Company tour (which ends with free mugs of Miller, Miller Lite, Leinenkugel’s and not enough pretzels to make the drive home safe), Milwaukee became the nation’s brewing capital because it combined a large supply of Germans with a large supply of fresh water. In 2006, Forbes named Milwaukee “America’s Drunkest City,” citing the fact that 70 percent of adults had enjoyed at least one controlled beverage in the past month. Down at the beach, you can buy a cold one from the beer garden. Wisconsin was one of the last states to raise its drinking age to 21, doing so in 1986 only after Washington threatened to cut off its highway money. When the Onion was published in Madison, its Page 3 pinup was a “Drunk of the Week.” The World’s Largest Six Pack is a sextet of beer tanks covered with LaCrosse Beer labels. Wisconsin has over 3,000 taverns — third per capita, after colder, more sparsely populated Montana and North Dakota, and also third overall (barely), behind California and New York. Hurley, a snowmobilers’ Tijuana on the Michigan border, has 1,500 residents and over a dozen bars. This Budweiser ad, which swapped out “Ya Hey Dere!” for “Wassup?”, captures the fact that in Wisconsin, beer goes along with any and all North Country amusements.

The celebration of the news this week on social media actually overlooked one minor detail: At least some barrels of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the beer, is still brewed in Milwaukee, since Miller took over the job from Stroh’s in 1999. The lager itself didn’t leave home for long. Only the brand did. In its time away, PBR had the unexpected good fortune to fill a drinking niche — the vintage beer — that could just as easily belong to Hamm’s, Milwaukee’s Best or Stroh’s. If it weren’t for the hipsters, Pabst would be just another forgotten local lager, certainly not making national news for its triumphant return to Milwaukee. Which means a brewpub in a converted church, next door to lofts targeting the “creative class,” is right where it belongs.