NO ONE EVER accused the Inquirer of being a Joe Sixpack kind of rag. It’s a pinkie-extended, wine-sipping broadsheet that prefers to sniff, not guzzle, before enlightening all with its fruity yet (dare we say?) pretentious character.
But credit goes to the Inky for a landmark, though largely forgotten, work of journalism 30 years ago this week, when the ivory-tower snoots briefly put down their pinot grigio and cracked open a few cans of blue-collar beer.
The work – a simple taste test conducted by a group of six unnamed editors and reporters at the Inquirer’s Sunday magazine – was a goofy stunt. But its results were seismic.
It almost certainly delayed the demise of one the city’s last remaining industrial breweries, saving hundreds of jobs.
And it helped lay the groundwork for Philadelphia’s great craft beer renaissance.
The report was published on March 30, 1975.
Within days, reporting duo Donald Barlett and James Steele would win the newspaper’s first Pulitzer. The Inquirer was finally on the verge of replacing the Evening Bulletin as the city’s leading newspaper.
Meanwhile, Ortlieb’s was fading fast, Schmidt’s was up for sale.
And Coors had just arrived in town.
Three decades later, it’s easy to forget that for most of its history, Coors was a regional beer distributed only in 11 Western states. The light lager was unpasteurized and the Coors family – believing their beer did not travel well – refused to permit its sale beyond the Mississippi. Until the mid-1970s, the only bottles that made it to Philadelphia were carried in the suitcases of locals returning from Denver.
The Coors mystique
Dan Baum, author of “Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty,” said the refusal to permit distribution was not some sly marketing plan to create demand for the beer.
“You have to remember,” Baum said, going back 30 years, “the old men running Coors spent nothing on advertising or marketing. They think it’s evil. These are people who are deeply committed to the notion that the 20th century was a bad idea . . . .
“Rather than spend on advertising, they put their money into making better beer. They don’t think they can trust people to keep their beer cold nationwide. They consider their beer like milk: It’s gotta be drunk immediately, kept cold from the brewery to the glass.
“They’re nuts, they’re insane, they’re pathological brewers. This is not business talking. It’s kind of a wacky family tradition. They’re really nuts.
“So the idea of expanding eastward is anathema to them. They were horrified that people would come from the East and drive home with cases in the trunk. They thought the people back east were drinking spoiled beer. “
The limited availability, though, only enhanced what became known as the “Coors mystique. “
It was said to be Paul Newman’s favorite. President Gerald Ford reportedly stocked it on Air Force One. Even Hollywood got into the act, with Burt Reynolds outsmarting Buford T. Justice with a truckload of illicit Coors headed east in “Smokey and the Bandit. “
Still, you couldn’t legally buy a case of the stuff in the East.
Finally, in January 1975, a crafty Olney beer distributor and a Center City lawyer broke the embargo.
Today, Paul Lipschutz runs a sports-collectible firm. But 30 years ago, he was a partner at Paul Bros. Beer Distributors on Chew Street near Rising Sun Avenue.
“Some Secret Service guys had just gotten caught smuggling a couple of sixpacks of Coors on Henry Kissinger’s plane,” Lip-schutz remembered. “The publicity was enormous, and we just wondered why we couldn’t just import it ourselves. “
They went to Barry Goldstein, a local liquor-law attorney, and Lipschutz told him, “Find out how we can sell Coors in Philadelphia. “
Like any decent Philadelphia lawyer, Goldstein found a loophole. As an importing distributor, Paul Bros. was permitted to buy beer from out-of-state beer distributors, even if the brewery wouldn’t sell it to the company directly.
So, the company sent a refrigerated trailer to Wyoming and bought all it could. When Coors caught on, Lipschutz sent the trucks to Kansas City.
They hired locals to purchase a legal maximum of seven cases at a time for $7.50 each and filled the truck with 2,000 cases.
The feds got word of the scheme, tracked down Lip-schutz’s partner and discovered he had 10 grand in the motel safe. “Everyone was suspicious,” Lip-schutz said.
“But Barry got on the phone and says, ‘What did we do wrong? ‘ The feds said they didn’t know, and they immediately released the beer. “
Soon, Paul Bros. had a Coors pipeline to Philly. “I had my mother, my aunt, my cousins working the phones,” Lipschutz said. “No one really believed Coors was here in volume. “
The Inquirer actually sent someone to Paul Bros. to photograph the first cases to arrive. Publicists for talk show host Mike Douglas leaked an item to Larry Fields, the People Paper gossip, about scoring some for Newman. Daily News columnist Larry McMullen wrote how, suddenly, everyone was sitting around Pop Edwards’ on Market Street wearing a Two Guys jacket and drinking Coors.
It was an instant sensation. The distributor was moving 4,000 cases a week and, Lipschutz said, “the demand was at least three to four times that much.”
The taste test
All the excitement, though, ignored one essential. As Inquirer food editor Bill Collins wondered, “How good is it? “
Noting there was “a small but noisome minority of beer drinkers who refer to Coors as ‘Kool-Aid with bubbles,'” Collins put the beer to the test. He assembled “six intrepid Inquirer editors and writers” and conducted a blind taste test. Sipping from paper cups, the panel rated 10 beers on a scale of 1 to 10 for “purity, body and flavor. “
The results were a shock, and not just because Coors finished a very mediocre 5th.
In first place, well above the rest, was our town’s lowbrow but lovable Schmidt’s.
Collins is no longer among the breathing, and the names of that tasting panel are forgotten, so it’s impossible to know whether they were stunned by the findings. And maybe the results would’ve been forgotten, too.
But within days, the smart execs at Schmidt’s were all over the test.
They blanketed the airwaves with radio ads, trumpeting their victory. TV ads re-enacted the tasting. Billboards declared Schmidt’s “the beer the experts rated best. “
Never mind that the panel was just a bunch of newsmen whose expertise was largely the result of long hours devoted to lounging at the Pen & Pencil Club. Schmidt’s was No. 1, and everyone knew it.
The impact on the brewery was immediate.
For years, sales at the 19th-century Christian Schmidt brewery in Northern Liberties had been declining. Just weeks before the taste test, the family owners brought in Drew Lewis, the man who oversaw the breakup of the Reading Railroad, to find a buyer. G. Heileman, the Wisconsin conglomerate, made an offer. Some feared the firm would buy the equipment, shut down the facility and put hundreds out of work.
But the Inquirer taste test halted the sale in its tracks.
Sales began to creep up. Locals rediscovered an old-time favorite; some conducted their own taste tests, often with the same results.
Within six months, Schmidt’s – buoyed by increased sales – cut off talks with Heileman.
You might say the results of the Inquirer taste test were temp-orary.
Within a year, the brewery would be sold, though to a local guy, Billy Pflaumer. He kept it going for another 10 years before it closed like almost every other regional brewery in America.
Meanwhile, Coors took over Philadelphia.
After going to court to halt the sale of its beer in the East, the brewery finally figured out how to ship nationwide. By the 1990s, Coors Light was the No. 1 selling beer in the city.
The aftershock of the taste test, however, extended beyond these two brands.
As an internal Schmidt’s marketing report noted, the significance of the Inquirer’s tasting and those that followed “is that beer drinkers were telling Schmidt’s – instead of Schmidt’s telling them – that Schmidt’s beer is better. “
For the first time since St. Louis homogenized American palates, beer drinkers were choosing a favorite not because of slick advertisements, not because it was trendy, but because it tasted good.
And isn’t that the essence of handcrafted beer?
In 1975, Anchor Steam Beer – America’s first modern craft beer – was just getting its legs. In 1976, the nation’s first post-prohibition microbrewery opened in California. In the next 30 years, 1,500 new breweries would open nationwide – and almost none of them benefited from huge, image-making advertising budgets.
Just as the Inquirer showed 30 years ago, it was all about the taste.
Thanks for documents and assistance in preparing this column go to beer historians Dale P. Van Wieren and Rich Wagner, and, belatedly, to Bill Collins.
Joe Sixpack, by staff writer Don Russell, was written this week with a can of Schmidt’s.