Pabst Blue Ribbon may be on its last cans. To many, the news may be like seeing a death notice and swearing that person died years ago — proof it was already dead to them anyway.
Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, it’s just a lawsuit from Pabst Blue Ribbon claiming that MillerCoors, who brews, packages and ships PBR, is secretly trying to shut the company down to take the lowest end of the beer market back for itself, Time reports.
Whatever unfolds next will be a fascinating chapter in beer history, but obviously the real reason all this would even come to beer fisticuffs in the first place is the notoriously fickle taste of trendy young drinkers, who never met an obscure, long-forgotten product they could co-opt and absorb for a brief period… until it got too mainstream.
There’s nothing wrong with the beer, per se. Pabst — cheap, palatable and often sold with a shot of whiskey — is a beer of simple pleasures. With PBR comes the promise of an easy, cheap daytime buzz you can ride into the night. And of course, Dennis Hopper gave it enduring indie cred in 1986’s Blue Velvet.
But it ceased to be the beer du jour years ago, when hipsters caught wind of craft beers, sour beers, microbrews and high-gravity beers. These are better, cooler beers to love these days because they telegraph erudition, foodie-ism and snobbery — the true trifecta of hipster cool.
As Time notes, the cheap beer market is split between MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch at 28.4 percent and 41.6 percent, and both have been battling the aforementioned smaller beer markets who’ve been slowly cannibalizing their good thing. “The beer market has shifted and beer lovers are increasingly demanding more variety, fuller-flavor, and local products from small and independent producers,” said Brewers Association economist Bart Watson, Time reports.
In other words, people want beer to taste good again.
To be clear, as someone who loves light, shitty beer, PBR isn’t that shitty of a light beer. It’s just the beer of people who don’t have much money, don’t have much taste, don’t know much better, and just want to be able to drink and still mow a lawn or refinish a hardwood floor. It’s a beer for when you get off work on Friday and need to relax.
The design looks inadvertently generic, like something you’d win if you finished third in a 4-H competition for cornbread. Like most light beer, it’s fairly unremarkable but good for maintaining a buzz on a budget. All light beer tastes like dogshit at room temperature, but I’ve never had a beer at room temperature I liked anyway, no matter its born-on date.
But the modern embrace of PBR was never about appreciating a classic, award-winning American beer; that “Blue Ribbon” is more ironic than descriptive. PBR’s trendiness was all part of the hipster co-opting of the white, rural South. That’s something I understand all too well as a formerly poor white Southerner living in a trendy L.A. neighborhood, but it still sticks in my craw. I see it everywhere. Trucker hats, overalls, workwear, raw denim, alt-country, Johnny Cash, biscuits, farm-to-table, Mason jars, and the other kinds of shit poor people love because it’s all they could afford: It’s all become a forgotten lost-and-found trough for hipster inspiration.
Hipster influencers don’t completely invent trends — they refashion and elevate existing, known quantities into something that seems unique. They are the ultimate re-branders. Then, they find a way to make it so precious and bespoke that it inflates both its value and its price. Take vinyl, for example: Hipsters singlehandedly brought it back because a select group of music nerds have always understood that vinyl, when actually recorded from analog, sounds better. Its persistence and a select few pop culture moments (ahem, High Fidelity) were marketing opportunities waiting to happen. Most people couldn’t tell the difference between digital and analog, which is why today, “cool” bands release records on vinyl that were recorded digitally, removing the exact thing that would make them sound better in the first place. No one knows, but I’d venture most people who just picked up a used turntable don’t care either.
As for PBR, hipsters didn’t change the product itself, just its association. Privileged but broke, they had little choice but to resurrect shitty beer everyone had forgotten about. The trend is typically traced back to Portland bike messengers and beer lovers, who responded to its lack of aggressive marketing, super-low price and association with the working class. Rednecks drink Bud, Coors and Miller Lite. Sorority girls (and Miles Klee) drink Stella, which they’ve been conned into thinking is a fancy import, and Blue Moon. But PBR’s buzz is also functional. You can’t get drunk all day on Guinness and do your bike messenger job in between cans.
But it’s not that PBR looked cool. PBR didn’t actually do anything, and that was its appeal. PBR was cool because, unlike every other ad for beer you can think of, it didn’t project an image of a gross, sexist, “Amurrica” frat party on loop. With no truly negative associations but obscurity, it became the beer of choice of over-educated white people living in Brooklyn who wanted to “slum it.”
But thankfully, outside the revival in Southern and soul food, which is luckily being treated with genuine affection and anthropological care, the worst of the trend seems to be passing. PBR might have been its last hurrah.
Another thing happened, too. Authenticity and backstory started to matter more in marketing and branding, particularly beer branding.
“People want a beer that they can attach a face and a name to, and PBR doesn’t really have either right now,” beer expert Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course, told CNN in 2015, when PBR sales had dropped 2.6 percent. “Even dive bars now have really great craft beer on tap. … I don’t foresee PBR overtaking that.”
In other words, hipsters made the low high when they got sweet on PBR. And then, suddenly, like trends go, it was cooler to be high than low. In that moment, PBR ceased to be cool.
Anyone drinking PBR now is either some kind of weird stubborn holdover or just hasn’t gotten the memo. Look around at any bar and see who’s holding a tall boy — that would be the blissfully unaware middle-class person who still vaguely thinks it’s transgressive but really just wants something light and easy to quaff.
In other words, millennials probably killed PBR too. But that’s not so bad. In my mind, PBR is now back in the hands of the working class who always appreciated it just the way it was — no marketing, no hip association needed. Just an easy, light beer they could afford. People who didn’t want to be cool. They just wanted to get drunk for cheap.