As novelty beers go, is JoePa’s a faux pas?

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T’S A THIN line between tribute and hokum.

On one side, the new Paterno Legacy Series beer from western Pennsylvania’s Duquesne Brewing is a heartfelt bow toward the memory of Penn State’s popular yet scandalized former head football coach, Joe Paterno.

On the other, well, who can forget Three Stooges Beer?

Or Harley-Davidson Beer? Or Kid Rock American Badass Beer? Or J.R. Ewing Beer? Or an entire cooler-full of other collectible cans in which the contents were an afterthought to the schlocky labels?

Novelty beers are a goof, of course – a tongue-in-cheek scheme to make a buck on a fad or celebrity.

Some, like Billy Beer, are wildly successful. That was the brand that Falls City Brewing produced in the late ’70s with President Carter’s redneck brother. “It’s the best beer I ever tasted,” said the label, autographed by Billy Carter himself. “And I’ve tasted a lot. “

According to some estimates, more than 2 billion cans were sold before the brewery folded.

The beer itself was a largely forgettable pale lager. Billy himself was said to favor Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Other novelty beers come and go. Intercourse Brewing, which attempted to trade on those bawdy Pennsylvania Dutch town names (e.g. Blue Ball Porter), never did much more than sell a bunch of T-shirts.

So, where does Paterno Legacy Series fit in?

For starters, it’s actually a decent beer – an extraordinarily smooth, red-colored Vienna-style lager whose clean-finishing, malt-forward flavor (and $22 case price) is geared toward the Yuengling Lager crowd. Yes, the attraction of the cans will drive sales. But a good bit of it is packaged in kegs for taprooms, where the liquid will have to stand on its own.

More to the point, both Duquesne and the Paterno family seem dead serious about their beer. They say it’s a fitting tribute to the coach’s career – one that will eventually raise money for charitable causes.

“It’s not a novelty beer,” said Mark Dudash, a former Pittsburgh Brewing executive who revived the defunct Duquesne brand five years ago. “Our idea is to build a brand, not come out with a gimmick-y can you’d just buy and put on a shelf.

“If we were going for a gimmick, we could have easily charged $40 or $50 a case and gotten out after a quick hit. That’s not the case at all. “

Jay Paterno, the coach’s son, whose company, Blue Line 409, partnered with Duquesne to market the beer, agreed.

“The idea was to create a brand and a product that people would really enjoy, while raising money for charity,” said Paterno.

No details on the charity have been disclosed, yet.

Raising a buck for a good cause, however, is not unheard of in the beer world, nor is honoring a local sports star.

In San Diego, for example, AleSmith Brewing makes San Diego Pale Ale .394 as a tribute to ex-Padres star Tony Gwynn, and raises funds for a Tony Gwynn Museum.

Gwynn, though, was universally loved in Southern California. Paterno – his image tarnished by the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal – is still a divisive figure in Pennsylvania.

Thus, it was hard to predict the success of JoePa beer.

The original plans called for a single, 500-barrel batch from City Brewing’s Latrobe, Pa., plant – a supply that Dudash thought would last till about midway through the college football season. But after taking orders from enthusiastic wholesalers, the production run quickly grew to 3,000 barrels.

Jay Paterno said, “We thought we’d do maybe 7,000 cases in pre-sales. Next thing you know, it was up to 40,000 cases. “

Nima Hadian, whose Shangy’s beer distributorship wholesales the brand in the Lehigh Valley, said he sold out of his first shipment of 2,000 cases in 63 minutes. “We’ve ordered another 6,000 cases for delivery in a week,” he said.

A second batch was brewed, and Dudash said that sales should continue through the college bowl games. “We’re already working on the cans for next year,” he said. “We’re in this for the long haul. “

A few notes to would-be collectors:

Don’t expect your can of Paterno Legacy Series to be worth more than a couple of bucks in 10, 20 or 100 years from now. With more than 1 million cans in circulation, there will never be anything rare about it.

The same goes for Billy Beer, Three Stooges Beer and all the other novelty cans in your attic.

If you’re going to save the can, drink the beer now. Full cans of old beer are worth even less because they sometimes rust or leak. To preserve its looks, open the can from the bottom.

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