After PBR: Will the Next Great Hipster Beer Please Stand Up?

Now that Pabst Blue Ribbon is mainstream, the beer has lost some of its authentic, cheap no-frills appeal. The assumption is that another beer will take its place, but there are reasons why the "next PBR" might never come

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David Becker / Getty Images

The Pabst Blue Ribbon booth during the 28th annual Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center on March 21, 2013

Pabst Blue Ribbon, the so-called nectar of the hipster gods, has been hip for longer than anyone could have possibly imagined. Now that PBR’s popularity is mainstream and the beer has lost some of its authentic, cheap no-frills appeal, the assumption is that another beverage will take its place as the top hipster brew. But there are reasons why the “next PBR” might never come.

The research firm Restaurant Sciences recently released data indicating that not only had Pabst Blue Ribbon prices in bars and restaurants risen substantially — up over 10% from April 2012 to April 2013 — but that the entire category of cheap “subpremium” beer had gotten more expensive because of PBR. “I believe the single biggest driver in subpremium-beer-price increases is indeed specifically PBR,” Chuck Ellis, Restaurant Sciences president, told the Daily News. “It has become quite fashionable.”

Tons of publications jumped on the study and issued hipster-bashing headlines, usually to the effect of how PBR-loving hipsters “ruin everything,” even cheap beer. But wait a sec. PBR didn’t just become hip recently. It’s been years, in fact, since PBR emerged as the beer of choice of the bearded, Brooklyn-focused masses. In the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote of hipsters embracing PBR thanks to its nonmarketing marketing back in the early 2000s. Why would PBR prices be only spiking just now?

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Well, it’s not clear Pabst’s recent price hike is much of an anomaly at all. Restaurant Sciences only has data for a little over a year, so there’s no way of telling if the latest price increase is unusual, or just part of a years-in-the-making trend. The recession gave inexpensive PBR an extra boost with budget-conscious drinkers, and its popularity allowed the company to increase prices in 2009. Ad Age noted that in 2011 beer manufacturers raised the prices of several subpremium brands like Keystone Light mainly in order to help push consumers into trading up to slightly pricier, supposedly tastier brews like Bud and Coors.

So there’s nothing particularly new about rising beer prices, even at the subpremium level. Also, while Restaurant Sciences data focuses on the price increases as percentages, it’s easy to see that the figures don’t add up to big cash in terms of your bar tab. A 10% price increase sounds like a lot, but when we’re talking about a PBR draft that costs $2.50, that amounts to a bump of just 25¢. That $2.75 PBR is still way cheaper than the typical $5 or $6 craft pint. And none of those prices are as nonsensical as the absurd $10 or $11 charged for Bud Light in certain Manhattan “whale” restaurants.

In any event, as PBR has grown incrementally more expensive and increasingly mainstream, it’s been assumed that the beer will inevitably lose its hipster following. “No product stays hip forever, and at seven years old, the Pabst boomlet is reaching a generational breaking point.” That’s a quote from a Salon.com post — published in 2008. In 2011, the Pabst Brewing Co. and its portfolio of working-class beers were sold and the headquarters shifted from the Midwest to Southern California, of all places. Many thought that the people drinking PBR “because it is unsexy, unpretentious and blue-collar Midwest,” in the words of the Chicago Tribune, would turn away from old-school brew now that it was perceived as a sellout.

And yet here we are, in 2013, discussing how PBR’s popularity is responsible for pricing shifts throughout the entire beer industry, even as the craft-brewer movement continues to explode — and has changed the beer marketplace far more than Pabst.

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So why the fascination with PBR? And considering that hipsters shun the mainstream, why haven’t they turned their tastes elsewhere? Some would argue that some hipsters have, in fact, done just that. Several PBR sister brands — Old Style, Lone Star, National Bohemian — are often in the discussion concerning the “next PBR.” So are a few brews from the world’s largest beer companies, including Natural Light, Hamm’s and Miller High Life. Then there are regional beers such as Genesee, Narragansett and Yuengling; they’re all relatively cheap brews, and they’ve all been mentioned by beer-industry experts as hipster favorites and potential contenders for PBR’s crown.

Despite the fact that hipsters seem willing to pay top dollar for things like artisanal mayonnaise, cheap price is essential for any hipster beer, says Rene Reinsberg, the founder and CEO of the menu-advisory company Locu. In March, Locu published heat maps of hipster neighborhoods revealing the availability of PBR in bars and restaurants. “Cheap signifies underdog,” Reinsberg says. “The underdog thing is important to this audience. If a beer is expensive, it doesn’t fit the story. Hipsters are into adopting the underdog.”

Such criteria would seem to rule out the possibility of a small craft brewer from becoming the next big hipster success story. Don’t count craft out, though, says Restaurant Sciences’ Ellis. “My own theory is that there’s been such intense competition at the high-craft end, there is bound to be a fierce battle for the low end,” he says. “There are so many craft brewers out there, and they’re all trying to break through. There could be someone willing to trade volume for price.”

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Another wholly unscientific factor in a beer’s rise in popularity could be its nickname. It seems to help a beer’s street cred to have a code name or sorts, perhaps so the “in the know” crowd knows how to order at the bar, and how to recognize fellow enthusiasts. Pabst Blue Ribbon, of course, is shortened into PBR. Natty Boh (National Bohemian), UC (Utica Club), Natty Light, Genny and ’Gansett are a few of the others.

Speaking of ’Gansett, the Rhode Island beer appears to be one of the most overt in its pursuit of the hipster drinking crowd. The brand had been dead for a decade before new owners took over in 2005, a time that just so happened to coincidence with PBR’s rise. Since then, Narragansett has kept retail prices low — around $4.99 for a six-pack of 16-ouncers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic — while making other efforts to appeal to hipsters. Last summer, for instance, the company released retro “Crush It Like Quint” cans, named in honor of the memorable character who drank Narragansett (and crushed the can) in Jaws. The company website also features a “’Gansett Girl of the Week,” who, in addition to enjoying the beer, is usually an enthusiast of some hipster activity like roller derby.

Mark Davidson, one of the founders of the beer-price-tracking site SaveOnBrew.com, says Narragansett’s active targeting of hipsters could backfire. “You can’t set out to be the beer of choice for a counterculture,” he explained via e-mail. “Just like you can’t set out to make a viral video.”

Davidson says it is silly for hipsters to think they are “fighting the power” by drinking PBR, which is actually brewed by one of the world’s largest beer companies, but it’s equally silly for any company to try to advertise in a traditional way to this group of consumers, who in their minds “don’t want to bend to the will of corporate masters telling them what to drink.”

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Davidson isn’t sold on any current beer as a replacement for PBR, or even on the concept that there will ever be another success story like Pabst over the past decade. “Maybe it’ll never happen again. Maybe the next wave will really be into whole milk and label the people who drink 2% as ‘slaves to the corporate teat,’” he joked.

What he does know is that beer drinkers are a “predominantly male” group that tends to “spend more time indoors, are less physically active, play more video games, spend more time on their smartphones, are enamored with smarts over looks and tend to be more cynical about their future and the future of the planet.” And what beer will most appeal to them? “One that hasn’t been invented yet,” said Davidson. “But I bet a room of savvy marketers somewhere is thinking the exact same thing.”

22 comments
EvanSchmeits
EvanSchmeits

There are tons of beers that are cheaper than PBR, at least here in Nebraska. I always drink Old Milwaukee (Old Mud), Hamm's, or Schlitz. All better and cheaper than PBR.

Rightyoh
Rightyoh

There's really only one true hipster beer, Olympia: " It's the water."

zelsj
zelsj

I wonder if they will dredge up "Buckhorn"?

JasonNota
JasonNota

Stroh's would be a great replacement. There is still some very loyal Stroh's drinkers in Michigan.

DorianGray
DorianGray

Ok. I have had 100's of very exotic beers and things that one could only get in NYC because of the wealth and it's an import center for the USA.  I can say that as a cheap beer, it is the only one that is decent, no hangover, no crap in it, and tastes quite fine.  Compared to a 7 dollar beer on tap, it's not that great.  For 3-4 dollars max on a tap, it is really amazing.  It is the best of the cheap beers.  miller high life is more expensive actually :)  (this convo doesnt apply to anyone living in middle of nowhere, this is about New York City).  For a beer and shot drinking, really, who wants to break the bank?  Pabst isnt going anywhere unless someone severely makes a huge marketing scheme and push.  I like the taste.  In and of itself it drinks well and gets you drunk. Other stuff just is terrible like drinking chilled cardboard.

jefnvk
jefnvk

Hipster bar by me has Carling Black Label cans for seventy-five cents one night a week.  Seems to be a good replacement...

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Never understood the fascination with PBR...barely a mediocre beverage.

DeanJP
DeanJP

PBR tastes like S**T and should have been outlawed eons ago by the Centers for Disease Control.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

As usual, the hipsters lead from the rear. Clutching desperately at anything they think will make them "cutting edge" (is "cutting edge" out? Sorry, I didn't get the Vimeo!) How about Hamms? "From the Land of Sky Blue waters"? 

ratkade
ratkade

My era was 1965-1975 for massive beer intake. Along with other Milwaukeeans, we made PBR the only beer to drink. Special Export from Heileman's in LaCrosse was the popular premium choice. Our Chicago neighbor's drank so much Old Style  that it hurt Peter Hand and Meister Brau. The Pabst brewery was bought and sold numerous times ...the Pabst buildings in Milwaukee are now re-opened as a beer garden and restaurant. Visit the Harley Museum, have great Mexican food at Conejitos (two blocks away) and drive two miles to the Pabst Beer Garden and see our beautiful lakefront some day.

pmack77
pmack77

God-damn ol' boy we need to get you a PBR.

pmack77
pmack77

PBR, Natty Light, Shlitz, Keystone, The Beast, hipster beers? Not really, these were college beers, drank by co-eds and frat boys way before we even knew what a hipster was. Back in the stone-age of the mid-90's, when a PBR was .50 for a tall boy. I'll always remember my first PBR. It was a country-boy from Perry, MO and not a hipster from Williamsburg who introduced me to it. When I told him I never had one his response was,

BorisIII
BorisIII

I think the currently hip generation believe its cool to be cheap.  A response to the flashy big spending baby boomers and generation X that didn't care about dept.  My Bar beer is Miller High Life.  The only taste it has is a beer taste.

sleeeeez
sleeeeez

Nobody drinks macro lager like the ones listed here because of taste. Some drink it because it's inexpensive (mostly kids), some because it's all they've ever known (mostly old people) and some because they think it makes them cool (hipsters). Bikini girl commercials help sales too. You only live once, drink the good stuff! Ain't nothing like a nice coffee stout early in the morning. Mmm hmm.

ruraynor
ruraynor

In the UK, the choice for us young hip lot who want cheap beer is either Red Stripe, a gorgeous Jamaican lager, or Tyskie which is potent and Polish. I love both, and I love the fact the newsagent sells them for close to £1 a can, even in central London where EVERYTHING is over priced.

In terms of microbrews, it has to be Camden Hells lager. Yum.

jonlee99
jonlee99

Ever think hipsters drink PBR because it tastes pretty damn good? Especially when compared to all the other cheap beers out there. It didn't get thet blue ribbon from a marketing campaign!

NamecNassianer
NamecNassianer

PBR was popular because it was the cheapest drink other than water.  And it tastes like water (which does have appeal for those whose taste buds cannot handle the taste of real beer).

Support your local craft brewer!


jefnvk
jefnvk

@pmack77 Don't forget Blatz.  Wasn't too long ago you could still buy a case for a few cents over $9, and that was in the old-school stapled cardboard crates and reused bottles!

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@BorisIII

i think you're confusing "beer taste" with "water taste."

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@jonlee99

no. they drink it to be cool. most of the hispters i know can barely force it down, yet that's all they drink because it's "cool."  hipsters don't buy this for the same reasons normal people do (taste, price, etc.). they buy it because it's "cool"