PABST SMEAR

Pabst sucks. And so do you, stupid hipster.

Let’s be honest.  This isn’t the type of blog where you’d expect to read about Pabst.  Most aleheads aren’t hipsters.  We don’t ride fixed-chain bicycles.  None of us have ironic mustaches.  We don’t wear wifebeaters.  We don’t live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  And we sure as hell don’t drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Over the past several years, Pabst has gone from trashy beer to the trashy hipster drink of choice.  But it turns out there’s more than meets the eye to Pabst.

With all the recent hubbub about BrewDog, we had some interesting discussion about the brewing industry, what it needs, and what it doesn’t need.  Of course, the Aleheads consensus is that more craft beer is good for everyone.  Pabst (believe it or not) agrees with us.  They’ve recently announced a craft brew exclusively made and marketed in China, of all places.  They’re calling it China’s first craft brew, and it sells for around $42 a bottle.

When this news came out, Time had a reactionary story called “Pabst Blue Ribbon is Classy and Expensive in China,” implying that Pabst were going to charge $40 for a can of their awful brew. This proved to be utterly incorrect. Pabst has decided to break into the Chinese market by developing and marketing a new beer exclusively for the Chinese. It’s an entirely different beer called Blue Ribbon 1844 (for the year when Pabst was founded).  So it’s not Pabst Blue Ribbon, but a true craft beer with a slick marketing campaign.

So what’s the brew like?  Modern Brewery Age has this to say in their March 5 issue:

Alan Kornhauser, who started his brewing career at Jos. Huber, and subsequently worked at Anchor Brewing Co., Portland Brewing Co., August Schell and elsewhere, now works for Pabst in China six months of each year. Interestingly, he reports that Pabst China has started expanding its horizons beyond Blue Ribbon. “We just produced China’s first real specialty beer, an all-malt, reddish brown strong (15.7 plato) ale, dry hopped with Cascade (38 IBU) and aged in new uncharred American whiskey barrels,” Mr. Kornhauser reports. “It’s being bottled in a nice looking 720-ml brown bottle with an enamel label and it is called Blue Ribbon 1844, a reference to Pabst’s founding date. It will only be sold in China, and it’s going to sell for over $20 a bottle!

Quite a departure from the norm for Pabst, and I don’t know about you, but I’m interested! A cask conditioned Belgian strong?  Unfortunately, we can’t get it here in the states (so if you live in China and have tried some, let us know!).  What gives, Pabst?  First you carpet bomb us with trashy beer, then when you finally come up with something that seems like it might be worth drinking, you only market it in China?  This does little to decrease my hatred of Blue Ribbon and the people who drink it.

Maybe Pabst doesn't suck?

It turns out that Pabst’s interest in China is significant.  Kornhauser, Pabst’s man on the ground in China, wrote a fascinating article about the beer industry there for bnet.com called “Making beer (and drinking it) in the Far Out East.” Impressively, Pabst is currently the only profitable foreign brewer in China, a feat that could turn out to be incredibly important in a market of 1.3 billion people.  In my real life, I work in an industry that’s gutting US and European operations to gain a foothold in China, so it’s no surprise to see this happen in brewing as well.  But I’ll be honest, it’s nice to see an American company making money from the Chinese instead of the reverse for once.

What’s it like to be a brewer in China?  As you might expect, the counterfeit industry is large and detrimental.  Apparently, Budweiser has had the problem of imitators making cans to look suspiciously like Bud and Bud light.  This is something that Pabst sees as well.  Kornhauser says:

“Some garage operation was supposedly taking empty cans of Pabst, removing the lid, filling them with local cheap beer, resealing them and selling them as the real thing.”

Think about that for a minute.  Pabst was upset with local brewers for replacing their beer with a cheap one.  Let that sink in for a minute before you go on.

For most breweries, profitability is years away due to state restrictions on the industry.  But, China will soon become the largest beer producing nation on earth despite drinking drink far less than Americans or Europeans per capita.

It sure doesn’t seem like the craft brewing movement will take hold in China anytime soon, due to a lack of demand from the Chinese restrictions from the government, and the harmful counterfeit operations.  I applaud Pabst for at least attempting to make a decent product, just wish they’d sell it to Americans.  For now, we’ll have to settle for PBR in the states.  Which means that Pabst won’t be getting any of my money for a very long time.

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4 comments

  1. First, very nice post. You know it’s a good article when I can make it all the way to the end without clicking on the shiny embedded links. Nice work.

    It’s funny that I can see this beer working in China, or even in Europe and traditional beer drinking countries for the matter, but I couldn’t see it working here. Just look at Budweiser and their American Ale (Or the Michelob Amber Bock of years past). Even if that was a good beer, which it’s not, anyone that’s drinking it is thinking in the back of their mind that they’re drinking Bud. Budweiser has worked for years to put out a chemically engineered food product and mass-market it to, well, the masses. Their process has worked magnificently so why bother trying to enter a new niche market where the consumers hold utter disdain for your company? To me, if people started to see Budweiser as a quality producer of craft beer, it would actually hurt their image and in turn their sales.

    Back to Pabst, they’re a little different in that most beer schwillers don’t see the big deal and probably think PBR offers “Too much flavor, not smooth enough”. The people that actually drink PBR, as you pointed out Professor, drink it as much for the image and low price as they do for an alternative to Bud/Miller/Coors. I suppose if any big brewer is going to dive under the shark (I think that’s the opposite of jumping it) it might as well be Pabst. Maybe they make this work in China and maybe those same hipsters in the US start paying $100/bottle to get some high-end shit shipped over for Christmas.

    As anyone that homebrews knows, making a light tasting, light colored beer is a whole lot more difficult than brewing something with substance. There’s simply nothing to cover up “off” flavors when there’s barely any flavor to begin with. To that end, I think the brewers at these giant corporate breweries must be pretty damn good at their jobs. They put out a product that’s practically translucent and every single can tastes the same as the last (It helps that they use a myriad of chemicals, but still). They’re probably huge beer geeks too, except that unlike most of their brethren they actually like making money. I wouldn’t be surprised if every big brewery could produce award winning beers. It’s not like they don’t have the resources to do so. In the end though, if your product is shit and people still buy it you better not start producing something good. Maybe I’ll go out and buy a craft beer produced by Pabst, but if the everyday Pabst drinker starts seeing a bottle on the shelves for $20 with the same Blue Seal as their $5 six-pack that might create a bad image.

  2. Great read Professor. I admit I always had a bit of a soft spot for Pabst, with their throw-back packaging and straightforward malty swill(at least until the recent d-bag revival discussed above).

    I do have a mustache, but it’s not ironic. At least I don’t think it is.

  3. Slouch, I’m having a fantastic time imagining you as a hipster. In fact, it’s making my afternoon.

    I think this is a great move for Pabst, just wish I could try some. I think it’ll work for them as well. Thanks for the discussion!

  4. And the more I think about it, Ripped — you’re totally right. Although we don’t like their beer it’s quite a feat to have the consistency that places like Bud and Coors get. As one example, water quality is a huge determinant in beer flavor (as it is for soda, etc.). In fact, one of the things that’s supposed to make Trappist ales so unique is their water sources. When you think about it, these huge breweries are able to brew in places all over the country, mostly starting with public drinking water or something like it, and come out with a virtually identical product at the end every single time. The scientist in me can’t help but be impressed with that.

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