"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 31 May 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Despite our determination never to face a holiday without a thermos full of Rob Roys, we always try to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day. This year, in addition to honoring America's fallen veterans, we'd like to take a moment to honor America's fallen industries. We wish to do so with an article that is itself something of a memorial: specifically, The Inconspicuous Consumer's eulogy to Milwaukee's defunct Pabst Brewery. This article, along with many more fine pieces of journalism, now gathers family heirloom value in our archives; but like the cemetery at Arlington, it's one of those national treasures you know you don't visit nearly often enough.

What'll You Have?


A bit of American history came

to an end on October 17. The

Pabst Brewing Company, citing

years of red ink, announced that

it will soon close its Milwaukee

brewery - the oldest major

brewery in the nation, dating

back to 1844 - and contract out

its meager remaining production

to the G. Heileman plant in La

Crosse. With Old Milwaukee and

Schlitz ("The Beer That Made

Milwaukee Famous") having

abandoned the city in years

past, along with hordes of

smaller Milwaukee-based brands

that either left or fell by the

wayside (Remember Weber's? Of

course you don't), Pabst's

departure leaves Miller as the

sole remaining major brewery in

a town once considered

synonymous with beer.



The decision to remove Pabst

from its own brewery and job it

out to a rival facility will

reduce the brand to nothing more

than a logo on a can. This fate,

already suffered by a caseload

of other beers (Schmidt's,

Rheingold, Black Label, Hamm's,

Colt 45 - the list reads like

the inventory of a fraternity

fridge, circa 1974), is sorry

news both for those depressed by

the snowballing market

consolidation in so many

American industries and those,

like myself, who got ripped for

the very first time on Pabst. In

retrospect, Pabst's fate was

probably sealed tighter than a

non-twist-off bottle cap back in

the mid-'80s, when the brewery

was purchased by a California

conglomerate that essentially

ran the company into the ground.

Advertising and promotion were

nearly eliminated at first, and

then restored ever so barely on

a regional basis. If you

remember the "What'll Ya

Have...?" campaign, you're older

than you look (and have watched

way too much televised football

besides); and if you remember

the more recent "PBR Me ASAP"

campaign, then you must live in

the Midwest, because it didn't

play anywhere else. And by then,

Pabst's distribution didn't get

much beyond the Midwest, either.


Interestingly, the news of

Pabst's demise has coincided

with a curious elevation of the

brand's profile in some unlikely

places. In the indie film Trees

Lounge, which opened mere days

prior to the Pabst announcement,

assorted characters guzzle a

great many cans and bottles of

beer - almost every one of which

is a Pabst. Another recent indie

flick, Palookaville, features

Pabst exclusively. While the

beer's previous appearance in

indie cinema no doubt

ingratiated it among Oedipal

fetishists and gas-huffers

alike, neither Trees Lounge nor

Palookaville seems destined for Blue

Velvet-style cultdom, and they

both lack lines which deliver

the mnemonic rhythm of

"Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst

Blue Ribbon!" In any case, it

all adds up to one of the more

inexplicable product-placement

trends in recent memory.



Of course, Pabst's cinematic

resurgence probably owes more to

coincidence, or to the

respective directors' drinking

tastes, than to an orchestrated

marketing effort by the brewery.

Calls to the two film studios

and to Pabst were unavailing,

but it's tempting to speculate

that these low-budget

productions may offer a window

into the business mentality that

held sway in Pabst's waning

days. Perhaps the brewery, its

promotions budget down to next

to nothing, was desperate to

establish a toehold in Hollywood

but could only afford to buy

itself screen time in small,

independent projects. Or maybe

Pabst, in a daringly calculated

but tragically misguided attempt

to connect with new demographic

segments, decided to develop a

new hipster-chic image by

establishing a presence on the

art-film circuit. Picture it:

two tickets for Secrets and Lies

gets you a coupon for $1 off a

medium popcorn and a PBR draft.

If so, it's safe to say that

such wrongheaded expenditures

only hastened the brand's



Meanwhile, with Miller now the

only major brewery left in town,

Milwaukee's baseball team - the

Brewers - is saddled with a name

that is quickly becoming

obsolete. Perhaps the Brewers,

whose home games feature the

antics of one Bernie Brewer, a

character who celebrates home

runs and victories by sliding

down a ramp into a giant mug of

beer, should consider an

alternate name. Harley-Davidson

is still headquartered in town,

so how about the Milwaukee Hogs?

Or maybe the Milwaukee Brats, in

honor of the city's

sausage-driven culinary culture?



According to Laurel Prieb, the

Brewers' vice president for

corporate affairs, no such

changes are in the offing. "So

much of a team's name is really

built on history," he explained.

"Even if the Miller Brewing

Company, hypothetically, were to

leave, you could make a strong

case that the heritage of

southeastern Wisconsin is so

well-tied to the beer industry

that the name makes all the

sense in the world." If you

dispense with the mushmouth

equivocating, Prieb is

essentially admitting, "We've

still got a lotta drunks in this

town, ya know what I'm sayin'?"


Fair enough, but Prieb has his

own reasons for retaining the

team's moniker - after all, the

Brewers' new stadium, which just

had its groundbreaking ceremony

and is slated to be ready for

the 2000 season, will be called

Miller Park. Memo to the

outgoing Pabst execs: Now

that's a product placement.

courtesy of The Inconspicuous Consumer



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