The clickbait industrial complex was ablaze in September of 2014 when it was announced that Pabst Blue Ribbon had just been sold to the Russians. “Sad, sad day. Never drinking that commy piss water again [sic],” lamented one Twitter user. It turned out this was fake news and PBR had simply been acquired by the Russian-American entrepreneur Eugene Kashper—though his plans were perhaps even more insidious. As chairman of Oasis Beverages, Eugene Kashper had begun snapping up failing beer brands to try and revive them as local products.
“We’re ideally suited for the whole locavore thing,” he told the New York Times in 2016, referring to the beer brands he now had in his portfolio. That wasn’t said tongue-in-cheek.
As of the article’s publication, the Los Angeles-based Kashper owns 77 beer brands, including once-famous names like Pearl, Schlitz and Olympia, all of which he was contract-brewing at large MillerCoors’ facilities across the country, then sending them back to their original markets.
But these lagers weren’t always owned by international conglomerates and private equity firms. There was, in fact, a time when these local beers were actually local, and often brewed by Czech and German immigrants whose names still grace many cans. They each became part of their city’s culture and iconography, lighting up giant billboards and lending their names to historical buildings; locals drank them almost exclusively and passed down their fiercely loyal allegiance to future generations. These were beers that were locavore before that word entered the lexicon.
It’s no wonder, then, that Old Style is still so beloved in Chicago (even if it’s currently brewed in Milwaukee). Or that “Natty Boh” remains big in Baltimore (even if it, too, is owned by Kashper and brewed in Milwaukee). While these products aren’t locally produced anymore—and few “local” lagers aside from Yuengling actually are—they nevertheless loom large for an aging generation of folks who came of age when they were uniquely theirs.
We are now in an era where national beer brands have begun to struggle. Not just “macro” brands like Bud, Miller and Coors, but even the bigger craft beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager and New Belgium Fat Tire—all of which have seen sales dips of late. Similar to wanting to eat local, younger consumers want to now drink local, too. Whether that’s a day-fresh IPA from the nano-brewery down the block or, as Kashper is banking on, some ersatz local libation grandma had long waxed poetic about.
So, while it’s impossible to tell if any of these beers are as they once were, back when Gottlieb Heileman (Old Style) or Samuel Hoffberger (National Bohemian) or Joseph Schlitz (Schlitz) were brewing them just down the block, we can still check in to see if they’re still worth being lionized by locals.
For our blind tasting of more than 15 regional lagers, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin. While we mostly stuck with once-regional lagers, we did include some of today’s national powerhouses—none of whom distinguished themselves. Here are our favorites.
This was the runaway top choice for the panel—so much so that we actually picked it twice (a duplicate can made it into the tasting). First brewed in Brooklyn during the 19th century, when Williamsburg alone had 45 breweries, it’s currently owned by Pabst and brewed in Milwaukee. It pours soft and creamy, almost nitro-esque in texture, with distinct grain notes and a savory umami quality. Schaefer’s once-famous slogan, “[T]he one to have when you’re having more than one,” still rings very true.
- ABV: 4.6 percent
Pabst Blue Ribbon
First introduced in Milwaukee in 1844, it won that blue ribbon at the World’s Columbian Expo in 1893—hence the name. After decades of sluggish sales, by the early aughts, the brand had become an unexpected hipster favorite. Today, it’s ubiquitous and, we would say, deservedly so. The beer is clean and grainy with a sweet maltiness that isn’t too cloying. One panelist summed it up as being defined by “good calibration.”
- ABV: 4.7 percent
Genesee Cream Ale
First brewed at Rochester, New York’s Genesee Brewing Company in 1960, “Genny” Cream takes the unusual step (for a macro lager) of kräusening, meaning the finished beer is primed for carbonation with wort as opposed to sugar. This cream ale is still brewed at a 140-year-old facility in Rochester—though it’s now owned by Costa Rica-based Florida Ice and Farm Company. While it’s not particularly complex, its cleanness and sheer drinkability appealed to the panel. It’s yeasty with a touch of green pear and apple, backed up by tiny hit of bitterness on the finish.
- ABV: 5.1 percent
Washington state has two beloved local lagers: Rainier, and this brand, which was established at Tumwater Falls near the south end of the Puget Sound in 1896. That locale was once critical, as their marketing claimed the secret to the beer’s flavor was in the fresh water, though it’s now owned by Pabst and contract-brewed at a MillerCoors facility in California. The beer was one of the more interesting in our tasting: saline and also intensely savory (one taster likened it to pork fried rice), it’s backed up by a sweet, creamy mouthfeel that avoided reading as cloying thanks to a kick of crisp acidity on the finish.
- ABV: 4.8 percent
While some of Anheuser-Busch’s more famous brands performed poorly, this 30-rack “economy” favorite surprised us all. Introduced in 1955, Busch was mostly enjoyed by our tasters for what it lacked—as in, any off-flavors. Extremely light, with the faint aroma of brioche, it was crisp on the palate with a hint of banana- and clove-like esters. This, everyone agreed, was not a beer to contemplate, but one to throw back without consequence.
- ABV: 4.3 percent