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Retro beers big in Capital Region

Summer Fun 2017

Retro beers big in Capital Region

For summer suds, look to past
Retro beers big in Capital Region
Bartenders Lyndsay Whalen and Christy Jablonski hold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the City Tavern rooftop in Saratoga Springs.
Photographer: Erica Miller

For some, beers are best craft-made in shades of amber and dark brown.

Others prefer less potent and less pretentious suds that show off a little blue - a blue ribbon. There's only one brand with that decoration in beer and grocery stores.

Pabst Blue Ribbon - a beer that's been around since the late 1800s - is the choice for many 20-something beer drinkers. The millennial generation has made retro beers popular, popping aluminum tabs and bottle caps on beers popular with their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

"Retro beer, it's actually got its own category now," said Andrew Crounse, owner of Glenville Beverage on Freemans Bridge Road in Glenville. "It's so uncool to drink it, it's cool to drink it."

Other beers are in on the gag. Young lager and ale drinkers also are pouring old brands such as Schaefer, Schlitz, Hamm's, Utica Club, even Rochester-based Genesee. 

Budweiser is not in the mix; Crounse said it is still considered a premium product. Despite all the advertising - including a recent campaign that placed Bud as the cool, no-nonsense, working man and working woman's choice, Crounse said the brand seems to be losing market share.

Beer experts say Pabst appeals to some segments because it's sort of anti-establishment, sort of blue collar and sort of inexpensive.

"Pabst got real lucky or real smart," Crounse said. "No one was paying attention to it and all of a sudden, people were saying 'We want more Pabst!'"

"A lot of the beers, the older names, are making a bit of a comeback," added Jack Minogue, owner of Minogue's Beverage Center stores in Saratoga and Warren counties. "A lot of it, I think, is price, especially for the 21 to 28, 29, that age group. They can get a better value with that product."

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Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is the leading brand in the "retro beer" category at Glenville Beverage. (Marc Schultz)

Pabst started with the Jacob Best brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which began operations in 1844. In 1876, the company's "Best Select" beer won a gold medal in a U.S. Centennial celebration; by 1882, employees were tying blue silk ribbons around "Select" bottles, to let people know it was an award-winning product.

The brewery name was changed from Best to Pabst in 1889, and the blue ribbon beer became Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898.

Some other examples of retro beers:

  • Hamm's began when the Theodore Hamm Brewing Co. was established in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1865. By the 1880s, the Hamm beer operation was reportedly the second largest in Minnesota. During the next century, Hamm's would become known for its catchy jingle - "From the land of sky blue waters" - and the "Hamm's Beer Bear," an animated character who became the first cartoon animal to advertise beer.
  • Schlitz, famous for several things - the white can with the maroon banner, the boast that proclaimed the suds were the "beer that made Milwaukee famous" and the ad slogan that said "When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer." It was also the beer with "gusto." While the Schlitz brand has been around since 1858, several other breweries have manufactured the beverage over the years. Now brewed by Pabst, and with the original formula, Schlitz is available nationwide.
  • Old Milwaukee was first brewed by the Joseph A. Schlitz Brewing Co. during the mid 1800s as an inexpensive alternative. The beer is now brewed by Pabst and while still a value-priced brand, it has won respect in the beer-drinking community: Old Milwaukee Light has won several awards at the Great American Beer Festival.
  • Utica Club, brewed about two hours west of the Capital Region by Utica's F.X. Matt Brewing Co., used to be the brewery's bread and butter beer. The more upscale Saranac brand is now Utica's current darling, but retro drinkers will pour U.C., which has been around since 1933 when the West End Brewing Co. made the first batch. The brand did great business after Prohibition ended - it was the first beer sold. Veteran beer drinkers remember Utica Club's talking beer steins - the tall, "German" stein Schultz and the shorter, "Irish" stein, Dooley.
  • Genesee Beer has been outside at picnics and inside in living rooms since 1878, when Rochester's Genesee Brewing Co. began producing its refreshments. According to company history, the brewery is one of the largest and oldest continually operating breweries in the U.S. Products include Genesee, Genesee Light and Genny Cream Ale. The brewery entered the small batch market during the 1980s with its Dundee ales and lagers and Michael Shea's Irish Amber (now retired). During the nation's Bicentennial, Genesee marketed "Fyfe and Drum." The company's respected - and potent - label was 12 Horse Ale, now a heritage brew.

Steve Harris, president of the New York State Beer Wholesalers Association, said Genny Cream has made a comeback.

Harris also knows about Pabst's surge in popularity. He said the brand was hot in the New York City area two years ago, but thinks people might not have been popping tops because the suds were less filling or tasted great. They just liked the look of the 16-ounce PBR can.

"I think a lot of it has to do with optics more than flavor, that's my own opinion," Harris said from the association's Albany headquarters. "I don't have any statistics or analytical facts, it was 'I want to be seen doing this. I'm not drinking it because I think it's necessarily better beer, I just want to let you know how cool I am.'"

Garry Brown, owner of Brown's Brewing Co., said he's always trying to stay relevant. That means paying some attention to the retro beer segment.

"We've been around for 25 years, so the story we were telling 25 years ago is different than the story we're telling now," Brown said. "A lot of these people who are coming in, the millennials, if you will, they've been around craft beer for a long time, it's nothing new to them.

"So you see these new styles coming out, these over the top IPAs (India pale ales), things like that, we and other brewers are looking to have 'sessionable' styles," Brown added. "You can't sit and drink a double IPA all night. So a little lower alcohol, more 'drinkability,' more 'sessionable."

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Beer authorities describe a "session" beer as a beer low in alcohol content that can be consumed over a period of time - a session out with the boys or girls - without resulting in excessive intoxication.

Brown understands the popularity of light beer during the summer months - he's always called them "lawnmower beers," favored by men and women who have worked up a sweat and want something cold. He agrees with Harris about the accessory angle; he has heard some people want to dress in fashions from another era, and a Pabst Blue Ribbon becomes part of the outfit.

"You go to a party and you can go to one side of the room and be on the Pabst Blue ribbon side or you can go to the other side of the party and drink the higher-end beers," Brown said.

Beer fans who have "graduated" to craft-made beers should not think Pabst and Schlitz are poor beers - because they are not.

"Technically, all this stuff is really good beer," Brown said. "Those brands have all won the top awards in that American pale lager style. It's like having a style for skim milk. If that's the category you're in, be at the top."

Crounse said the brand loyal beer fan - the guy who brings in 30 empty cans of Coors Light and leaves with 30 full "silver bullet" cans - is generally an older beer drinker. Young people will switch their brands for every outing or party. If something new is out, Crounse said, they'll give it a try.

Something new always shows up. Light beer, ice beer, low-carb beer and beer with fruit flavorings have all found spots in cases and coolers. There have even clear-colored beer alternatives: Zima Clearmalt was marketed by Coors during the early 1990s, part of a craze that saw people drinking clear beverages such as Crystal Pepsi and Tab Clear.

Minogue said fruit is more than just a slice of lemon or orange in a glass of Blue Moon.

"They have broadened the spectrum quite a bit with strawberry and raspberry flavoring in a lighter beer," he said.

Minogue also said Bud light is popular with the younger demographic. "Miller Light is rebounding," he said. "Corona is probably one of the strongest in the summer. The 'Find your beach' advertising connects to people, it's lighter than regular beer.

People will get a little more adventurous, even if Pabst is their main choice for summer suds.

"There's a wide variety of microbrews, seasonal microbrews," Minogue said. "All the usual suspects like Sam Adams are right there, and you're getting play from New Belgium, Ballast Point from San Diego, Founders from Michigan and one of our local brewers, Saranac."

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. 

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