How a Bunch of Urban Hipsters Saved Pabst Blue Ribbon

Not so long ago, PBR was a working man’s beer

Sometime in the early 2000s, young urbanites took a shine to the blue-collar brew, reversing its losses and sending sales into double-digit growth by 2009.
Drew Angerer — Getty Images

If you’re the sort who suffers for days from old commercial jingles that get stuck in your head, then by all means avoid searching YouTube for the Pabst Blue Ribbon weightlifter spot. Its doubtful premise—that a champion athlete can win first prize, but really just wants a brewski—climaxes in song: “I’ve got a taste for livin’ / I’m bringin’ home the Ribbon.” But if you can withstand the jingle, the spot is worth a look. Its polyester shirts, shag haircuts and corner-tavern setting are a reminder that, not so long ago, Pabst was a working man’s beer.

And why should that matter? Because anyone who’s watched urban 20-somethings with pompadours and nose rings lifting cans of Pabst (PBR as it’s now known) understands that this ain’t a blue-collar brand anymore. And it’s Pabst’s uncanny ability to adapt, evolve and endure that explains why these 175-year-old suds are still on tap.

Before its last name change in 1899, Pabst was known as Best (1), and after its beer took first prize at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 (2), Blue Ribbon joined the name, too. Though Pabst began losing ground in the postwar years, its Milwaukee brewery (3) remained a cornerstone of the brand's rust-belt identity. So did TV commercials, like the famous weightlifter spot from the late 1970s (4). Pabst is now in the midst of its latest refresh, a grassroots effort that skips the usual celeb endorsements in favor of sponsoring National Mural Day with help from artist Cey Adams (5) and holding its annual contest to design its limited-edition cans (6).
Courtesy of Pabst Blue Ribbon

“The most impressive thing about PBR,” said marketing director Justin Medcraft, “is that it’s been able to demonstrate resilience and go through multiple rebirths.”

He’s not kidding. The beer’s roots go back to 1844, when German immigrant Jacob Best opened a brewery in Milwaukee and began selling a lager called Best Select. After marrying into the family and taking over operations, Frederick Pabst—who renamed the company after himself—sent Pabst Best Select to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where it swept the beer category. The company began tying blue silk ribbons around the bottles, and Pabst Best Select eventually became Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1899.

The smooth sailing ends there, however. Pabst squeaked through Prohibition by making cheese, then entered a slow decline after WWII. After Paul Kalmanovitz (a Polish Horatio Alger who made his fortune in real estate) bought the brand in 1985 and then promptly died, PBR became part of his nonprofit foundation—an arrangement that ticked off the IRS. Meanwhile, a struggling Pabst shuttered its famous Milwaukee brewery in 1996 and worked with MillerCoors to do the brewing on contract. Both of these deals caused headaches. Pabst would be sold twice more and, in 2015, find itself in court after MillerCoors sought to terminate its contract (the parties settled last year).

But amid the upheaval, something remarkable happened to Pabst. Sometime in the early 2000s, young urbanites took a shine to the blue-collar brew, reversing its losses and sending sales into double-digit growth by 2009. It wasn’t the marketing, since PBR didn’t really do any. Instead, the shift actually had something to do with that cringeworthy weightlifter commercial mentioned earlier.

Pabst is widely credited with introducing the six-pack. When Prohibition ended in 1933, beer consumption began a steady migration from tavern to home. Pabst responded by selling its beer in cans starting in June of 1935. Several years later, packs of six appeared on shelves—first the flat-top steel variety, and later aluminum. But why six? It’s an unsolved mystery, and speculations range from six cans having a weight manageable enough for housewives to carry home to the size of a six-pack fitting easily in the paper bags of grocery stores.
Courtesy of Pabst Blue Ribbon

“Hipsters fetishize the lowbrow culture of the ’70s and ’80s,” author Ted McClelland has written. “The hipster’s beer of choice is always going to be a cheap one.”

And Walmart sells a six-pack of Blue Ribbon for a mere $6.47.

So is PBR now rocketing into its future? Well, kinda. Domestic beer consumption has been on the wane for years now, and parent Pabst Brewing Company’s been branching out into categories like whiskey and hard seltzer. But PBR knows it has a base—one it has begun to reach out to with grassroots efforts like sponsoring mural artists and holding an annual can-design contest. Medcraft isn’t naïve enough to think that America will return to the beer-guzzling era of the 1970s, but he is optimistic that the unpretentious, reliable PBR will continue to hold its own.

“The No. 1 reason it’s been able to remain alive is because people have picked it up and identified it as their own brand—something they’re proud to stand behind,” he said. “We don’t try to overcomplicate it and be anything we’re not.”

This story first appeared in the July 8, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Recommended articles