Pabst goes pfffft in Allentown

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The giant Pabst brewery outside Allentown produces more than a dozen different labels, everything from Colt 45 to Samuel Adams. So when it’s time for a cold one, which one do the brewery workers grab?

“When we had company picnics,” said Dave Haberacker, who’s worked at the plant for 28 years, “we always brought our Old Milwaukee. It was everybody’s favorite. ”

I’d point out the irony of Pennsylvania brewers drinking a Wisconsin beer, but I don’t think Haberacker and the 400 other workers who will be laid off when the plant closes next month are much in the mood for irony.

Instead, let’s just accept the miserable fact that, in an era when the Big 3 – Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors – produce 8 out of every 10 glasses of beer Americans drink, even No. 4 doesn’t stand a chance.

Thus, the red-brick and glass brewery alongside I-78 in Fogelsville, Pa., probably is brewing its last batch as we speak. Already the soon-to-be-jobless employees are signing up for workshops on resume-writing and stress management.

Truth is, the plant was dead the day Pabst bought it two years ago. By then, the consolidation of low-price regional favorites was well under way, and Pabst was already looking for someone else to brew its beer.

Opened by Schaefer in 1972, the brewery was one of the last modern mega-breweries built in America. At its peak, it produced 5.3 million barrels a year (one barrel = 31 gallons). That’s almost twice as much as they turned out at the now-demolished Schmidt’s brewery in Northern Liberties.

Workers describe the facility as highly efficient, even by today’s standards. As recently as 1999, it was named Large Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival.

And Schaefer was proud of its brewery, showing it off to thousands of tourists. The place was built with visitors in mind, with glass-encased catwalks stretching high above the brewing vats. The Allentown Morning Call says factory tours attracted 500 people a week.

In 1989, it was sold to Stroh, which used it to produce many of the labels it had purchased from the old G. Heileman Brewing Co. Among them, a pair of Philly favorites, Schmidt’s and Ortlieb’s. Boston Brewing, the maker of Sam Adams, also used the facility for much of its contract brewing.

Ten years later, Pabst’s holding company – a California firm called S&P Co. – took it over as part of its acquisition of Stroh.

Though S&P said it would use the facility to brew a raft of labels it had acquired over the years, much of that beer was actually produced under contract at three Miller Brewing plants.

S&P’s long-term plan was to rid itself of costly factories.

In 1996 – three years before Pabst bought the Fogelsville plant – an S&P executive predicted in court testimony, “It’s pretty safe to say that within five years that the Pabst assets will be sold. ”

He was right on the nose.

In the next five years, Pabst closed its famous Milwaukee brewery and five others, including the Pennsylvania plant. Thousands of workers lost their jobs. Most of the plants were sold for scrap and shipped to China.

The revenues paid for S&P’s commercial real estate projects in California, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

And now, Pabst is calling itself a “virtual brewer. ”

Which is to say, the company has virtually no employees.

Haberacker, who is president of the Teamsters local that represents Pabst’s unionized workers, said, “We’re doing everything we can for our members. But there are a lot of layoffs up here. It’s not easy. ”

Meanwhile, Miller will brew Pabst and a dozen or so other labels S&P has picked up over the years. Most of them are old-man beers – Falstaff, Ballantine, Old Style, the stuff your dad drank.

Maybe you drink ’em too, but I can’t imagine they’ll last more than a few more years.

“It’s hard to conjure a viable way for Pabst’s volume to grow in the future,” said Havis Dawson, editor of Beverage World magazine in New York. “It’s a company whose brands have been in consistent decline for the past 2-3 years. ”

As for the brewery, locals are hoping someone will rescue it from the scrap heap. The Morning Call floated speculation that Coors might be interested, but that seems a long shot.

“The U.S. beer industry is nowhere near using up brewing capacity that’s already online,” Dawson said.

Indeed, Miller execs say their plants along the East Coast can easily handle production of Pabst products.

In a true measure of the state of American beer, the factories won’t even have to hire new workers.

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Blonde d’Oleye.


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