This is an article first published on RateBeer in 2005.
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A few years ago on RateBeer if you put an invalid search into the search box the response was - “Sorry, that beer can’t be found. But let us take you to Frank Booth’s Favorite....” and you would be taken to Pabst Blue Ribbon. I found that quite amusing, even though I hadn’t picked up on the Pabst Blue Ribbon reference when I originally watched the film, Blue Velvet. A little research into the beer and I discovered that Pabst’s beer originally had a blue ribbon around its neck. This created a highly charged connection between the beer and the female character, Dorothy Valens, who also wore a blue ribbon around her neck. Frank Booth greedily draining the woman in the same way he would a bottle of beer.
My interest in PBR was now aroused.
It was clear from the film that in addition to the metaphor of dominance and consumption, that Lynch intended there to be a blue collar worker association with the beer. But a very dirty, grubby, unhealthy, xenophobic association. When the Jeffrey Beaumont character reveals that he drinks the foreign Heineken, Frank Booth explodes: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” The blind and very violent allegiance to this traditional American working class beer is quite scary, and does conjure up images of the most rabid red-neck living in the heartland of America surrounded with guns and the stars and stripes, terrified of the possibility of anything new and different entering his neighbourhood - homosexuals, liberals, or foreigners; and especially a homosexual, liberal foreigner drinking a foreign beer.
On the other hand that other very popular and long lived icon of American beers, Budweiser, is seen as quite clean and wholesome. The Sandy Williams character reveals that her upright and honest policeman dad drinks Bud, and Beaumont responds: “King of beers.”
So Bud is boring and decent, while PBR is wild and very bad.
Part of the irony behind Booth’s loyal and chauvinist attitude to his beloved American beer is it was originally produced by immigrants (Frederick Pabst came from Bavaria, and the Best family came from Germany). America itself is an immigrant country, yet while Booth rejects any contemporary immigration he clings desperately to the product of immigrants from the previous century. So, 150 years of production gives the beer some stability, and history is what makes PBR special. PBR has substance. It’s been around the block and is still here.
And that long history is partly responsible for PBR’s current growth in popularity. PBR is retro-chic. It’s a laid back beer that isn’t pushed by advertising. It’s cool, it’s homey, it’s there, just as it has always been. And when the Pabst brewery closed down, rumours of the beer being withdrawn roused thousands of young drinkers to pick up a can of PBR in preference to any other beer. PBR is characteristically American. It is mostly only sold in North America. In troubled times people cling to such stability as they can find.
The long history starts when the original brewery was founded in 1844 by that immigrant German brewer Jacob Best. He started on Chestnut Street Hill in Milwaukee with a capacity of 18 barrels. Later in 1863 Frederick Pabst, a steamship captain, bought a share in Best and Company, by which time the brewery was already selling a lager which in 1875 they would bottle under the name Best Select. Best Select was a popular beer which the by now named Phillip Best Brewing Company entered in competitions, gaining several awards - sometimes winning against its rival Budweiser. In 1882 the company starting selling the beer with a blue ribbon tied around the neck to signify it was an award winning beer (11 years before it’s supposed first appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair). In 1888 the name of the brewery was changed to Pabst Brewing Company, and by 1898 the name of the beer was changed to Blue Ribbon. Such was the success of the beer that Pabst was ordering millions of yards of blue ribbon. One factory in 1902 worked around the clock for nearly a year to complete a contract for 10 million yards of ribbon.
Growth continued up to Prohibition when all alcohol production stopped. When the beer returned (without the blue ribbon) in 1933 it quickly became a national brand brewed in several locations across the country, and by 1935 was one of the first beers to become available in cans. During the second World War all cans of PBR were painted a military green and were exclusively made for the troops. And, during the 1950’s, further strengthening the beer’s association with working class men and violence, Pabst sponsored the boxing on CBS.
In 1958, with an annual production of 3.9 million barrels, PBR had now sold a total of 100 million barrels since first being brewed, an event commemorated by adding the red stripe to the logo. Annual sales figures climbed each year - helped by Pabst cutting the price of the beer to bring it even closer to the hearts of the working man - until it reached a record high of 18 million barrels in 1977. Impressive though this is, Bud had achieved the same output nearly ten years earlier, and would never again see PBR as a competitor.
Pabst now entered a period of poor management and decline. After several messy years spent fighting take-overs, Pabst gave in to the notorious brewery destroyer Paul Kalmanovitz in 1985, and sold out for $63 million. Advertising stopped. Quality dropped. Drinkers turned elsewhere. At the time of Kalmanovitz’ death in 1988 it seemed like he had sucked Pabst dry and that the brewery would have to close, but when Lutz Issleib took over he was determined to keep PBR alive. And he did, though production was fairly static. Economics eventually forced closure of the brewery in 2001, though the transfer of production to the Miller brewery is a continuation of sorts because the Miller company was founded in the Plank-Road Brewery which had been established by some members of the Best family just after the original Best brewery was founded.
And now this ailing grand old beer is cool (or deck, as Robert Lanham puts it in The Hipster Handbook). This beer is a symbol of the gritty American working man with all his pride and fear; John McClane of Die Hard, revelling in his low-tech masculinity, struggling with his sexuality in a post-modern world, would drink PBR. This symbol and survivor from the past is today drunk by Portland scumbag punks, hip skateboaders and indie bands. PBR is the outlaw brand, drunk by those on the fringes of society. PBR is the coolest beer in America right now.
Offer me any other pale lager right now and my response will be: “Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” Cult beers don’t come more ballsy than PBR.