Foam, Sweet Foam

27 09 2010

I have been a breweriana collector for 37 years. Yeah, I may have technically been underaged at the moment (I was 14 when I started), but I did it anyway. Beer can collecting was a huge hobby back in the 70s, and I was one among many who picked up cans along the street and cajoled parents into buying specimens for my collection.

Today I have over 25,000 items in my collection (including both beer and soda cans). Through the years I have become acquainted with more brand names than a regular consumer could ever begin to remember. And in many regards, my collecting passions actually meshed nicely with my chosen field of marketing. After all, brand names are to marketing what beer is to good times.

Or something like that.

I have seen brands come and go. Mostly go. There has been considerably consolidation in the US brewing industry the last few decades, with two players (ABInBev and SABMiller) commanding a whopping 80% of the marketspace. Sure, microbrews have shown steady growth the last decade, and have been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise flat market, but they remain the bastion of beer snobs.

Whose group of which I am a charter member.

But I have stood in amazement at how some of the old brands have staged a bit of a resurgence of late. Thanks to cigarette-smoking, asymmetrically-coiffed, tattoo-covered messengers on fixed gear bikes in Portland deemed Pabst Blue Ribbon a cool thing to swig, the beer that once haled from Milwaukee has become a cult favorite.

And that no doubt helped create the recent purchase of Pabst by a New York family. Pabst owns a whopping 42 nostalgia brands from the past, and only about half are currently being used…and the majority with little or no marketing. Interestingly, Pabst does not even own a brewery. They are strictly a marketing company. The majority of their beers are contracted-brewed by Miller Coors.

What made Pabst so appealing to those Portland bike messengers was the fact that it was counter-culture. Just like them. Of course, there is danger in any counter-culture artifact trending, because it…um…becomes dominant culture. This means that as Pabst continues to surge, those same hipsters may need to find something else to drink.

The new owners see great value in all of these old brands (brands that still adorn my shelves). You see, all of us aging baby boomers remember Stroh’s. Falstaff. Red White and Blue. My Dad drank those very brands, and personally emptied those (and many more) cans in my collection. To see those brands reappear does a middle-aged man’s heart good.

And whereas the previous owners intentionally cut the marketing budget (unwittingly giving rise to its counter-culture pop status), the new owners will no doubt try to pump a little buzz back into the brew. They plan to get most of those brands back in supermarket shelves and streaming through sports bar taps.

The fact that they are also at least one price point below the major brands works to their advantage. In terms of flavor, they are aimed at the mainstream American taste in beer, which is a fairly light pilsener. They do not compete at all with craft brews, and apparently have been so effective at whittling away sales of Budweiser’s flagship brew that ABInBev is planning to give away beer this Wednesday across the country at a National Happy Hour event.

While the beer snob in me still prefers the malty aftertaste of a Fat Tire, I don’t have a problem sipping a PBR or a Lone Star (another Pabst property) every now and then. The fixed gear cyclist in me kind of understands the mindset of those Portland guys.

I just don’t have enough hair left to style asymmetrically.

Dr “Don’t Worry, Be Hoppy” Gerlich


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