Pabst: The newest retro beer

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`You know what I had the other night, and it was really, really good?” said Joe, the man who holds the fate of my scalp in his hands. “A quart of Schaeffer.”

I nodded politely, of course, and not just because he was flashing a sharpened object toward my ears. In Fishtown, the barbershop is the source of all authoritative information. It is here that you learn who’s out of work and who’s getting lucky.

Still, this bit of news was distressing. Joe is a beer enthusiast, an industrial-lager convert who I presumed had given up the dreck.

Last time I got trimmed, he was talking about California micros and Chimay, the Belgian Trappist ale. Now, suddenly, he was waxing poetic about the subtleties of the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.

He must have caught my grimace in the mirror

“Hey, I still like those other beers,” he insisted, “but sometimes it’s nice just to have a good, old-fashioned lager.”

Gulp. Was my barber going retro?

Maybe this is a natural consumer backlash aimed at the micro craze. Specialty brews are expensive and have strange names; why order a $5 Stoudt’s Honey Double Mai Bock when you can just say Bud? I suspect, though, this anti-micro sentiment is driven largely by slick advertising by the big boys. Miller, for example, built an appealing, 1950s-esque advertising campaign around the notion that it’s time to switch back to a good, old-fashioned “macrobrew.”

If I had 10 million bucks wrapped up in a state-of-the-art craft-brewing system, I might be a little disturbed about this trend.

After all, the microbrewery industry has banked its future on the prediction that, once they taste the lovely wonders of handmade, all-malt, freshly hopped ales, America’s beer drinkers will never go back to their insipid factory lagers.

But retro beer is not about taste, it’s about image.

It’s about walking into a bar that boasts a dozen first-class tap handles, sneering at the hand-crafted stuff because it’s a token of the yuppie scum, and demanding a can of PBR.

Or, in the immortal words of Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet”:

Bleep Heineken. Pabst Blue Ribbon, man!

This sweet, pale lager is the retro beer du jour, its quaint, scripted logo popping up on more and more tap handles around town – even in joints that pride themselves on eclectic beer lists. Just the other week, I saw the familiar blue ribbon on a spigot at the Khyber (54 S. 2nd St., Old City). The bar man explained that it’s a popular choice among his young, late-night crowd.

“Instead of trying to pick something they’re unfamiliar with, they order PBR because it’s easy,” he said.

“They remember when their fathers drank it.”

So much for evolution.

There was a day when Pabst Blue Ribbon was a quality lager . . . about 122 years ago. That’s when Milwaukee’s Phillip Best Brewing Co.’s Select brand was named the top beer at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Some smart brewery worker thought of decorating each bottle with a blue silk ribbon, and the name stuck. Over the years, Pabst Blue Ribbon became one of America’s most familiar brand names, up there with Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat.

But like every other big brewery that survived Prohibition, Pabst chased profits by cutting corners on ingredients. That gassy aftertaste you get with each sip is the reason the craft-brewing industry was born.

Like I said, though, retro beer is about image. So consider this the next time you order up a PBR, man:

Pabst Brewing Co. is owned by the S&P Co. of Mill Valley, Calif., a conglomerate known primarily for shutting down Falstaff’s breweries and shipping their equipment to China. Pabst no longer is brewed in Milwaukee, because the company refused to modernize its brewery there. In 1996, S&P shifted production to the Stroh plant in Wisconsin, laid off its work force and eliminated health benefits for about 800 retirees – a move that was condemned by everyone from the mayor of Milwaukee to Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

It continues to face federal accusations of failing to bargain in good faith with its union workers.

Maybe you like the taste of PBR. But if you’re drinking it because of image, your father – and anyone else who ever worked for a living – would be ashamed of you.

It’s enough to make you switch to Schaeffer.

Now, take a little bit off the sides, Joe.


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