Cool in a Can 

A trailer-trash beer wins over the ultra-hip crowd.

Pretty in Pabst: A Grog Shop  patron pounds a PBR tall boy. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Pretty in Pabst: A Grog Shop patron pounds a PBR tall boy.
The traditional Pabst drinker doesn't give a shit about being hip. His mission: get drunk for under 10 bucks, something Pabst most ably delivers. Yet this has also left the brand's image hovering somewhere between workin' man and Wisconsin redneck.

Not anymore. Visit the clubs of the Warehouse District, the restaurants of Tremont. Then listen closely. From the lips of the young and fashionable comes this demand: "PBR me ASAP." Trashy, it seems, has become trendy.

At Liquid on West Sixth Street, home to Italian-made pants and the dressed-in-all-black look, Tuesday's "low-life special" features a can of PBR and a shot of Jim Beam for $4. At Touch Supper Club in Ohio City, "I go through four cases of the stuff in one night," says owner Jeff Allison, who caters to twentysomething hipsters. It might be the only thing this generation of club-hoppers has in common with his 91-year-old grandfather, he says.

Pabst has also been popular at Mojo, a Tremont café featuring a deep wine cellar, a host of martinis, and -- until recently -- PBR tall boys. "Why not?" asks chef-owner Michael Herschman. "It's fun." But no more. Herschman sold his entire Pabst inventory, and after two months of trying to get more on back order, he finally gave up.

PBR has always sold well in the Rust Belt -- but usually in bars across the street from a factory. Never before has it found customers among the fabulous people. Yet now it's the drink of the über-cool, from Miami to Seattle, Los Angeles to Chicago.

"It's definitely a hot beer, especially among trendsetters," says Catherine Stellin, director of marketing for Youth Intelligence, a New York firm that polls young adults about their product loyalties. "It's a little under the radar. There's a sense of authenticity to it."

DraftWorldwide Consumer Intelligence, which does similar polling, says young revelers prize Pabst for its "retro" and "white trash" vibe.

So while Anheuser-Busch and Miller burn millions on advertising and market research in the incessant pursuit of cool, it seems Pabst has somehow usurped them both -- without spending a dime on TV commercials. How this happened is anybody's guess.

"I think it's the economy," says Touch's Allison. "Everyone's going back to basics. They're not drinking this hifalutin shit. Everybody's going for the good old tried-and-true beers."

Youth Intelligence concurs. Its research shows that Pabst's gains have come largely to the detriment of microbrews.

Others say it's less complex than that. Mojo's Herschman attributes PBR's success to novelty. "I call it the kitsch appeal," says Neal Stewart, a Pabst Corp. brand manager. He bases this on his consumer research, which he sheepishly admits involves "pretty much me going to bars and talking to people."

Another theory dictates that Pabst is simply following the cycles of rock and roll. The brand slumped mightily during the '90s. But as the White Stripes, the Hives, and the Strokes emerged to lead a new generation of rawer, bawdier rock, the groups' followers are seeking the same stripped-down quality in their alcohol.

"Kids love the tall Pabst," says Chris Barbera, bar manager at the Grog Shop on Coventry. "When we have a rock show, I know to order more Pabst."

"It is the beer of rock," agrees Holly Weller, a hair stylist with a large clientele of Cleveland musicians. She's loyal to the punk legends of the '70s, who were gritty and unpretentious. She finds the same qualities in Pabst. "Everywhere you go, there's these Budweiser signs, commercials -- they're cramming it down your throat," she says. "When do you ever see a commercial advertising Pabst?"

Still, not everyone is buying it. To a certain West Sixth Street set, PBR remains a beer pariah. Mike at Mercury Lounge responds with a definitive "No" when asked if his place offers Pabst. "If I had requests for it, I'd carry it," he adds. "But I don't think our clientele would ask for Pabst Blue Ribbon."

The Pabst question also elicits a laugh from a server at Spy Bar, which doesn't stock it, either. Same for Modä, the hottest joint on West 25th.

Still, Pabst seems to be thriving in its role as underdog. The question: How long will it last? That may depend upon whether Pabst tries to advertise its newfound hip. Stewart vows it will never happen. "If someone came in who wanted to do that, I'd leave," he says. "I would not work on the brand anymore, because that's not Pabst."

There's also the danger that PBR cool will alienate the beer's traditional customer base -- people who don't think of beer as a fashion statement, but as an inexpensive way of getting lubed. The rivalry is building already.

"These kids in the Warehouse District, with their black shirts and their piercings -- we have the real thing: the blue-collar, after-work, give-me-a-Pabst drinkers," says Russ at Great Lakes Tavern on Denison Avenue, where PBR goes for 99 cents a glass on weekdays.

Pabst, meanwhile, is hoping that more people take Stephen Hayes's attitude. A writer for The Weekly Standard political magazine in Washington, D.C., Hayes devoted a column last April to his yearning for PBR -- the beer of his Wisconsin youth -- which is scarce in the capital.

Told that Pabst now has budding clientele among yuppies and hipsters, Hayes at first expresses shock, then dismay, and finally support. "I can understand why blue-collar guys would get resentful, but to me, the more people who drink Pabst, the better the world will be."

More by Thomas Francis


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