Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Heck of a Recession Beer

"When you're out of Schlitz, dum-dum-dum-dum, you're out of beer," was a legendary ad campaign in the era of JFK and LBJ and physicians recommending Camel cigarettes on the then new fangled color television sets. Times were good and Schlitz was one of the largest selling beers in these here United States.

I was about seven or eight and my job - on certain and special Sundays - was to fetch the Schlitz when my uncle drove down from Cleveland. These were the days when the NFL was able to block the local broadcast of the game if the stadium did not sell out. Old Municipal Stadium packed in eighty thousand plus which meant that two or three times each Autumn my uncle Buzz (a hard earned nickname) drove his blood red Oldsmobile, with the Rocket-88 motor, down from Rocky River to our house to watch the beloved Brownies with me, my Dad and the immortals - Dr. Frank Ryan, Paul Warfield, Dick Mojelski Gene Hickerson and - of course - Jimmy Brown!

Good times all around.

For Schlitz, times were very good as well. In fact, the company built the largest brewery in the world, in North Carolina, to keep up with demand for "the beer that made Milwaukee famous." From its peak in 1957, when it was the largest brewer in the United States, Schlitz began a fifteen year slide that was triggered by a crippling strike that in turn led to a disastrous recipe change. Caught up during the long strike with insufficient product, the brewery decided to quicken the brewing process to make up for beer sales lost to the strike. The new ingredients and brewing short cuts resulted in a thin, tasteless brew that had a nasty tendency to go skunky.

The error was fatally compounded when Schlitz attempted to use intensive marketing to make up for what was essentially bad beer. Schlitz's hired the Leo Burnett group to develop a new ad campaign. The Burnett team dumped Schlitz's iconic "Gusto" themed ads for a "Drink Schlitz or I'll Kill You!" message. The ads were horrible, they were actually worse than horrible and on top of that they were promoting a beer that was flat, often skunked and always thin and watery.

The company nose dived. The brand was temporarily rescued by Stroh's but that was like getting snagged on a tree limb after falling half way down the face of a cliff. Stroh's had a number of its own problems and soon went under and was bought, in turn, by Pabst. Schlitz has spent the ensuing decades, as a definite off-brand, a cheap beer typically occupying the far distant corner of the grocer's cold shelf, appealing only to the insanely loyal or, more likely, those with only four bucks and change to spend on a six pack.

Now, Pabst doesn't brew beer, it manages and markets beer brands. Over the last decade it has reformulated and relaunched the Pabst brand and turned it into a trendy counter to "beer snob" brews. It's damn good beer. I got turned on to it when my local micro-brewer shared that it is the beer he drinks at home. The late great brewer Karl Stauss orchestrated a brilliant reformulation and relaunch of Pabst Blue Ribbon and it has become one of the truly positive stories in macro-brewing over the last five years. The Strauss-inspired approach of going back to basics, reviving a legacy beer recipe with quality ingredients and a more patient brewing processing has certainly worked with PBR.

This approach is now being bestowed upon the Schlitz brand and with similar results. My local beer store can't keep it in stock. Customers are requested to only buy a single six pack. The packaging is definitely retro, with the bold maroon Schlitz logo and a notation that this is the classic 1960's recipe. The beer is balanced, with a mild hop note and a reasonably malty base. It finishes crisply and pairs well with burgers, fish and spicy foods. It retains the one essential positive of mainstream American lagers - it won't bloat. You can have two, three or more and you don't feel like an overly inflated Bullwinkle in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

This is a good story to tell. Pabst brings Schlitz back from the dead, with a product that is positioned somewhere under a Pilsner Urquell or Sam Adams, but definitely above Bud or Miller. At $5.99, it is one heck of a recession beer and another sip reminds me that I'm saving a couple of bucks per sixer! I'm buying an American made product and I am rewarding a macro-brewer for – finally - doing the right thing! It’s a good feeling to go with a good beer.

Now this could be a great story to tell, but alas, there is one small hitch. As I mentioned before, Pabst does not brew beer. This bottle of Schlitz I'm sipping from right now was - in fact - brewed under contract by SAB Miller. Ironically, it is brewed in Miller's Eden, NC facility which is just down Route 158 from the brewery that Schlitz built back in the 1960's when it was in expansion mode. Bottom line, from an economics point of view, some of that six bucks I paid for this carton of beer is going offshore to the South African conglomerate.

Now, I'm a free trade kinda guy, most of the time at least, but I really wish I could claim that this was a US product through and through. In these recessionary times, I would much prefer that every red cent spent on my barley-jones stayed here in the States. It may take another cold Schlitz to cement this notion, but I'm thinking I can live with this - a very good story, just shy of being a great one.

Perhaps as Schlitz sales continue to ratchet up, the Pabst bean counters in suburban Chicago can figure out a way to move production into American hands. Doesn't Sam Adams own the old Hudepohl brewery outside of Cincinnati? That’s a really big facility, wonder if those boys from Boston are utilizing all that capacity? Yeah, this will definitely take another bottle of Schlitz to ponder!


the Bier Kaiser

1 comment:

Jason said...

There was a good article in all about beer magazine last year about PBR making a comeback. It was pretty interesting. And, I regularly see the PBR tap sitting next to some nice micro's. I think Bukowski's even has it.

I think Sam does brew to capacity in Cinci. They are in the process of getting another brewery they just bought in PA up and running. I think they will have brews flowing from PA this summer.