“Schlabst” could be the name of an old Milwaukee beer. It has that consonant-heavy, harsh, Germanic sound. But it’s not—or rather, it is, in an absurdist, mash-up sort of way.
Schlabst is “Milwaukee’s Black and Tan,” as its fans like to jokingly call it—a pint evenly split between Schlitz and Pabst, two lagers with long histories in that beer-loving city. One-time rivals, they are now both owned by Pabst Brewing Company.
According to Peter Wilt, who proudly calls himself the co-creator of Schlabst (no others are stepping forward to wrest the claim from him), you can walk into at least a couple dozen bars in Milwaukee and utter the single guttural syllable and the bartender will know what you’re talking about.
The bar where they will really know what you’re talking about, however, is the Highbury Pub, a soccer bar on South Kinnickinnic Avenue. It was there where the half-and-half brew was born one hot August morning in 2008 when Wilt couldn’t decide what to order.
“I was getting ready to watch some soccer, and ordered my usual Pabst Blue Ribbon,” he recalls. “Robyn started reaching down to get it, when I remembered that Schlitz has just been reintroduced and said, ‘No, no, get me a Schlitz.’ I went back and forth until she said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘Give me both together.’”
Robyn Vinje, the bartender in question, did just that, pouring in the Schlitz first and topping it off with the Pabst. According to Schlabst lovers, this is the proper order. Otherwise, you end up with a Pitz.
“I tasted it that day,” she recalls. “At that point in the morning, it was maybe hard to tell if it tasted different at all. But the joke at the time is it tasted like a Hamm’s.” (Vinje’s intimation was that this was not a compliment.)
That would likely have been that if not for Wilt, an effusive personality and the founder of several Midwestern soccer teams, including the Chicago Fire and Indy Eleven. “It wouldn’t have been anything other that a dumb one-off idea if it weren’t for Peter,” says Vinje. “The guy is known as a marketing genius.”
Wilt talked up his invention wherever he drank during his business travels around the Midwest and gave the drink its own Twitter account (JoeFred UihleinPabst @Schlabst). Soon, there were Schlabst T-shirts, glasses, anniversary parties celebrating the birth of the mélange—even a Schlabst grilled cheese recipe.
Once, at the Milwaukee bar AJ Bombers, a taste test was held. For $20, all comers got a Schlabst T-shirt and three tumblers: one filled with Schlitz, one with Pabst and one with both.
“When it came to my turn to do it, I didn’t get it right,” remembers Wilt. “But I was tricked. All three were Schlabst.”
By the time Matt Sievers took a job with Pabst as a Milwaukee marketing rep for the Schlitz brand, the Schlabst phenomenon was off and running. Sievers went all in, manufacturing Schlabst Snuggies and other promotional merchandise to support Wilt’s events.
There was no animus over at Pabst headquarters. No one fretted that either brand was somehow being disrespected. “We didn’t try to take ourselves too seriously,” says Sievers. “From my perspective, it was just a fun thing. I thought it was hilarious. The play on words, the mixing of two great Milwaukee lagers.” Conversely, Schlabstmania never reached such a peak that Pabst ever considered producing the mixture in can, bottle or keg form.
Schlabst boosters also don’t pretend the drink is some greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts masterpiece. Wilt himself admits the two beers mixed don’t taste much different from either beer alone. (Sievers, while no longer working for Pabst, disagrees, asserting, “Schlitz and Pabst definitely have different taste profiles.”)
Despite Wilt’s promotional zeal, Schlabst remains a Milwaukee phenomenon. One of the roadblocks to its becoming more widespread, arguably, is the relative scarcity of Schlitz in many markets. That difficulty, however, didn’t prevent Wilt from experimenting with other blends, such as Schlitz and Hamm’s (Schlamm’s) and Schlitz and Blatz (Schlatz). None caught Milwaukee’s imagination quite the way Schlabst did.
While you can still call out for a Schlabst in many taps and not be accused of drunkenly lisping, the craze does seem to have died down a bit. The merchandise can no longer be found. And Schlabstfests are no longer annual events. “You don’t see it much anymore,” said Sievers. Vinje, meanwhile, still enjoys a Schlabst or two from time to time. She has also found an appeal in Milwaukee’s Black and Tan that goes beyond taste or novelty.
“It’s a beer for lovers,” she said, “because you need two cans.” Half a tall boy of each beer will make one Schlabst. That means you’ve got another one ready to go for your date or significant other. “You have to do two.”