Cheap beer?

Why do hipsters drink PBR? Rob Walker takes a look at brands and meaning in the marketplace.

Speaking of PBR and all the love it receives from hipsters, here is an interesting excerpt from New York Times Columnist Rob Walker's new book, Buying In:

"The Blackspot sneaker that I mentioned earlier-the creation of the antibrander, Kalle Lasn, and his Adbusters crew-is premised on the belief that a logo (or antilogo) product can have real meaning for people who are sick of logos; it is premised on the belief that the marketplace of goods is a marketplace of ideas. The "hijacking" of PBR [Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer] shows how this really can happen, although its different from the Blackspot idea in two important ways.

The first is that while the meaning of the Blackspot as a sort of protest brand was created by Adbusters and announced to potential consumers, the meaning of PBR as a kind of protest brand did not come from its owners; it came from the grass roots, from consumers, from the bottom up.

And here is a second difference: On the side of every can of Pabst Blue Ribbon is a P.O box in Milwaukee. Pabst does trace its roots to a brewery foundered there in 1844. These days, however, Pabst Brewing Company is based in San Antonio. In 1985, the brewery was bought by Paul Kalmanovitz's idea, a self-made beer and real estate baron. While other big brewers were spending to build national, image based brands, Kalmanovitz's idea, apparently, was to buy up ailing ales, slash all associated costs, and let them "decline profitably." Kalmanovitz died in 1987 (Pabst is owned by the charitable foundation he left behind), and his lieutenants ran the show for the next dozen or so years along the same lines. The current Pabst Brewing portfolio includes Schlitz, Carling Black Label, Falstaff, Olympia, and Stroh's. It also owns a few regional stalwarts (Lone Star, Rainier, Old Style) and malt liquors (Colt 45, St. Ides). Its top seller, with about 1 percent of the U.S. beer market, is Old Milwaukee.

Along the way, Pabst shuttered its Milwaukee brewery, eliminating nearly 250 jobs and touching off a legal battle over pension obligations to former workers. This might explain another quirk of the Pabst resurgence-that it has radiated out from a part of the country that had no particular historic tie to the brand. "They really aliented people in Milwaukee," Dennis E. Garrett, a marketing professor at Marquette University in that city, told me. In 2001, Pabst finalized an outsourcing deal with Miller, becoming a "virtual brewer", as one executive put it at the time. Having virtually wiped out its blue-collar workforce, Pabst employed just 166 people, about half of them selling beer in the field and the rest in the home office. This, in other words, is exactly the kind of scenario that people like Lasn and books like No Logo were complaining about.

That is to say, PBR's blue-collar, honest-workingman, vaguely anticapitalist image-image attached to it by consumers-is a sham. You really couldn't do much worse in picking a symbol of resistance to phony branding."

From reading the hundreds of comments on the hipster article, I expect many people would say, "I drink PBR because it is cheap, not because it is cool". But if you were in the liquor store, staring at a fridge that had Budweiser and PBR next to each other for exactly the same price, which would you choose? Some would probably choose PBR because its image is grassroots and blue collar. But this image is false. What do you do when you find out that PBR is owned by an American company, but that the production of all its twenty-nine beers is outsourced to SABMiller, based in South Africa? What do you do when you find out your rebellious Converse are now made by Nike in China? In a time when image is cleverly manipulated, we need to become increasingly aware of where our products come from and what our brands stand for so we can hold them up to the standards we expect.