Depending on who you are, Pabst Blue Ribbon has many different meanings. To some, it’s a beer that is heralded for its great price, wide availability, and decent-enough taste. You can drink it from the can, clutched in a soaking paper bag, outside of a liquor store or while your body submerges deeper into the couch. To many, Pabst Blue Ribbon directly equals the working man’s beer. The blue ribbon may just in fact share a close relation to the blue collar. But to others, Pabst Blue Ribbon is condemned as a cheap, watered-down beer, one closely knit to stereotypes of alcoholics wearing white tank tops conjoined with the tattooed hipsters who seemingly drink the beer solely because of its low price and supposed niche popularity. Regardless of the image that forms when you hear the words Pabst Blue Ribbon, the love-it-or-hate-it beer is seemingly in the midst of an identity crisis.
The truth is, Pabst Blue Ribbon is far from the award-winning beer that it once was in 1882, back when the beer was known as Best Select. There’s a lot more to the history of Pabst Blue Ribbon, but there’s no denying that the foundation of this beer was built solely in this bygone era, back when the United States was inventing the first power plants, when Colorado had just been established as the 38th state, and the country passed laws to stop immigration and enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
It’s too much history again, I know. I promise there is beer at the end of this and that the thread of how exactly Pabst Blue Ribbon misidentification fits into America’s troubled history will reveal itself clearly.
Pabst Blue Ribbon is good, in my opinion. Of course, I like it because it’s cheap, because the taste is tolerable, because it’s funny to see looks of confusion, disgust, and pity when you ask for one.
And these different opinions Pabst Blue Ribbon has built itself upon—the love and the hate—is exactly what Pabst enables to occur. The company and brand thrive on this confusion through a subdued marketing scheme that helps strengthen sales and ultimately, allow for the identity of their beer and their consumer to become more convoluted.
The history of Pabst Blue Ribbon is anything but simple. The company was the evolutionary result of Best Select Brewing Company, which became Pabst Brewing Company in 1899. The beer made its name in Milwaukee, where Pabst pioneered multiple brewing methods and ways of distribution, claiming to have even produced the first beer cans. To skip something that anyone could easily waste their time on Wikipedia reading about, Pabst Brewing Company was purchased numerous times, the original brewery in Milwaukee was eventually shut down, and Pabst outsourced brewing their brewing before eventually reaching a contract to be brewed by MillerCoors, which PBR is still brewed by till this very day.
The beer business is far from cut and dry, yet the information from Pabst’s history that is necessary to this entire argument revolves around the constant shifts in power the Pabst Company endured, the loss of their original brewery, and the tumultuous nosedive of sales from the 1980s until the early 2000s.
From there, what is left? What remains of Pabst Blue Ribbon? Gutted. Disrespected. Outsourced. Who could have possibly imagined that the beer selected as America’s best in 1893 would fall out of favor?
In the early 2000s Pabst and their beer seemed to be nothing more than an afterthought to the beer market consistently dominated by beers stemming from Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. PBR was mocked, cast aside as a derelict beer reserved for rednecks and trailer trash. It was a cheap option for those in need of a drink, one that brought a gaze of shame from those who witnessed others consuming this beer, or at the very least, a thought of sympathy for the poor soul reduced to drinking PBR.
This low point in Pabst’s existence was the catalyst for change. In 1999, Pabst decided to lean even further into the brand image their company had at this time, an image that was essentially forgotten or anchored as a beer for the lower class. Advertisements for Pabst Blue Ribbon seemingly vanished and it seemed as if one of America’s oldest beers was about to become history. Pabst instead began a marketing campaign that did not invade TV screens. They did not sponsor any sort of stadium or become closely-knit to a certain sport.
Pabst targeted music festivals. They put their marketing into niche, local markets and brought the beer back into the cultural conversation via word-of-mouth. Steve Nilsen, the Lifestyle Marketing Manager at Pabst for nine years, admitted to targeting the “cool kids”, or essentially, letting those behind the curtain of mainstream media lead the charge in influencing others to drink PBR, diverging from the social norms of advertising. A marketing campaign forcing PBR into the subconscious of the latest generation of drinkers would’ve only pushed them further away.
Is this subdued way of marketing what causes the misunderstanding that surrounds Pabst?
Scrubbing the historical foundation of PBR in exchange for a new, refreshed version of the beer that has been in existence for more than a decade would’ve been a mistake. A beer with such a mundane past like Pabst does not need to be canceled and it does not need to be modernized. A route like that would’ve surely scorned those who had been drinking PBR for all of their lives.
Yet, the less-than-worthy connotations attached to the Pabst name is still prominent within this country, but outside of the United States Pabst Blue Ribbon is viewed as something entirely different from the elixir of hayseeds.
When Pabst had just been born as Best Select the United States wasn’t allowing Chinese immigrants into the country. As noted earlier, this was due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law kept in place until its repeal in 1943. These laws and many other exclusions passed during this era prohibited entire generations from tasting PBR and thus, excluded them from forming the same stereotypical ideas of the beer that our country has.
In China, Pabst Blue Ribbon is revered. PBR is more than just a beer, it is a luxury. And this is all because the PBR made available in China is a different variation of the PBR we drink here.
China’s PBR is actually Pabst Blue Ribbon 1844. It’s an ale that’s brewed with German caramel malt. It comes in a long glass bottle and is supposed to be served in a champagne flute.
What’s critical here is not judgment for the actions of America in the past, but our current attempts to alter what we are seen as to others, specifically how PBR, without influence, has a different meaning outside of the United States.
Now of course immigration and the laws enacted against the Chinese many years ago has nothing to do with what PBR is heralded as in China today. But there is some purpose within the past stereotypes that still burden PBR. Pabst did not attempt to influence the minds of the various generations that enjoy their product in China, while within their home country they’ve adopted a new scheme to incept the beer into the minds of the next generation of drinkers. Maybe that’s why PBR’s influence in China is surprising to what the Pabst company seems to adhere to. Their claim to “respect our past while always looking forward to the future” feels somewhat misplaced.
Should it be instead that Pabst is simply a beer for the lazy? For those who want to drink a beer and neither dwell on the past nor future? For those who were unaware of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the unfair treatment of immigrants?
Through tactful laziness—or perhaps simple negligence—Pabst’s marketing campaign has managed to propel their beer back into the national conversation. Pabst Blue Ribbon still remains a beer closely anointed to the hard-working and the free-spirits by adhering to their anti-marketing campaigns and odd sponsorships. Pabst hasn’t done a great job of ousting the way their beer misidentifies those who consume it, but that’s because doing so would be in violation of exactly who they are.
Pabst Blue Ribbon is a beer for all, but this may be the case because of how misinterpreted the beer is. The company still adheres to their past generation of drinkers while managing to firmly cement themselves with the drinkers of today. Yet the question remains, will this confusion amongst the masses of what exactly Pabst Blue Ribbon is and who their supporters are, continue?
PBR is for all. The clarity many seek in regards to who exactly drinks PBR remains elusive. They could be anywhere, lurking at the end of the bar or hidden secretly in the garage fridge. Hope remains that these identities are easier to comprehend, and that as time passes the judgment placed upon a single can of PBR fades until it becomes just another beer, one that is surprisingly loved by China.
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