Pabst making comeback

Lawrence beer drinkers among those opting for nostalgic brew

Sunday, March 21, 2004

When the Replay Lounge is jamming to the tunes of a local rock band, the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer start piling up on tables and chairs.

It is a scene that is being played out across the country, pumping new life into a former-blue collar beer that is decades removed from its heyday.

Matt Sullivan, manager of the Replay Lounge, 946 Mass., said his customers preferred PBR instead of offerings produced by brewery powerhouses Budweiser or Coors.

"PBR is cheap and it's free from the massive ad campaign that Budweiser or Coors have." Sullivan said.

After a steady decline since the 1970s, sales of PBR rose about 5 percent in 2002 and 15 percent in 2003.

In 2001, sales of the 160-year-old brand had fallen to less than 1 million barrels, about one-tenth its peak in 1975, said Pabst Brewing Co. senior brand manager Neal Stewart.

It was about three years ago that Pabst's comeback started.

Small marketing budget

There had been no change in marketing. Pabst somehow appealed to trendsetters: punk rockers, people into bluegrass, kayakers and mountain bicyclists, Stewart said.

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Elizabeth Lessner stands behind the bar at Betty's Food and Spirits in Columbus, Ohio. Lessner said distributors laughed at her when she began asking for kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer three years ago. Now it's so popular her supplier frequently runs out.

The brand is the top seller in Portland's Lutz Tavern, which began carrying it in 1999 to replace a discontinued regional beer.

"It's really popular with not only the college students but also the working class guy and the Social Security crowd," said Lilias Barisich, whose family has operated the Portland bar since 1954.

The revival spread to cities like San Francisco and Seattle before hopping across the country to the Northeast, Stewart said. By some accounts, its young buyers are rebelling against established, mass-marketed brands.

"There's a theory that there's a niche out here for a consumer that's anti-marketing," said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer's Insights.

Shawn Hogan is the assistant manager at Lawrence's Pat's Blue Rib'N Barbeque, 1618 W. 23rd St. The restaurant has PBR specials everyday.

Hogan said that PBR was becoming a trend because it's not a mainstream beer. He said the people who drink PBR the most are indie-rockers, which is the same crowd that The Replay Lounge serves on a regular basis.

The San Antonio-based Pabst Brewing Co.'s marketing strategy -- or lack thereof -- eschews conventional advertising in favor of generating word-of-mouth buzz.

While you won't find any Pabst commercials on NFL telecasts or FM radio, Stewart said you might notice the company sponsoring an art gallery opening or running ads for bands in local publications. But chances are, the only place you'll see the Pabst logo is at a local bar or convenience store beer aisle. The company's marketing budget is minuscule by industry standards.

In 2002, Pabst spent $427,000 on measured media, which includes television, magazines, billboards, radio and newspapers, compared to Anheuser-Busch's $419 million and Miller's $275 million.

Growing demand

Distributors across the country confirm the brand's success but say they don't quite understand it. In Nashville, Tenn., sales shot up 99 percent in 2003, said John Curley, DET Distributing Co. general manager.

"It's almost got this cult-type following," he said. "I have never seen that kind of growth, especially in a brand that's been down and out."

On Chicago's north side, Louis Glunz Beer Inc. added Pabst to a list of beers it recommends to bars and stores after sales went up by about 35 percent in each of the past two years, said general manager Jerry Glunz.

"Pabst was not that kind of beer you had to sell in only the cheap joints anymore," he said.

Despite PBR's success, its parent company is still a distant fourth in the domestic beer market, Shepard said. In 2003, the Pabst Brewing Co. sold an estimated 8 million barrels overall and 1 million barrels of PBR, while Anheuser-Busch sold about 103 million barrels, Miller 38 million and Coors 22 million.

"It's a nice story for Pabst that Pabst Blue Ribbon has caught on and is quite popular in many markets, but I don't know if any of the major brewers are quaking in their boots," Shepard said.


-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.