“PBR is Dead,” read the headline of a New York Post article earlier this year, the latest in a pile-on of trend pieces about the once-promising, now-fading revival of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Witness: “Have We Reached Peak PBR?” (Outside, 2014), “The Rise and Fall of PBR: How Pabst Blue Ribbon Lost Its Cool” (Smithsonian, 2014), “After PBR: Will the Next Great Hipster Beer Please Stand Up?” (Time, 2013).
There is a sort of gleeful schadenfreude in some of these articles. “Hipsters bought PBR by the American Apparel-clad armful, despite the fact that Pabst isn’t indie…nor is it considered a premium beer,” said that Outside article, reiterating a common refrain that PBR was an ideologically incoherent brand choice for counterculture twenty-somethings. Sales of PBR grew over 20 percent in 2009, but have slowed to around 4 percent in 2014. Speculation about the cause of the slowdown has ranged from bars hiking up prices on PBR to gouge hipster would-bes to the very nebulous concept of brand fatigue.
But even though sales of PBR are still way up since the early 2000s—hardly cause for panic—in case you missed the message: Even your parents know that PBR isn’t “cool” anymore. So what will take (or what has already taken) its place?
The answer, according to some media outlets this summer, was Narragansett, a 125-year-old brand that originated in Rhode Island that reverted to its old recipe in 2004 after years of selling a watered down version. Sales are up to $12 million from just $100,000 in 2005 and, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, it’s the cheapest of the top four fastest growing beers in Brooklyn over the past year.
“’Gansett,” as it’s often called, is on the menu at trendsetting places like Rippers, the Roberta’s spinoff on Queens’ Rockaway Beach (where it sells for $4 as opposed to Miller High Life’s $5); Sunny’s, the venerable dive bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn; Pine Box Rock Shop, a craft beer bar in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and many others, both in and outside Brooklyn’s vortex of cool.
But Narragansett’s ascendency to the hipster beer of choice is far from complete. Bloomberg Business noted that the brand is still weak outside of New England. More anecdotally, on Twitter in September, New York-based cocktail writer Robert O. Simonson wrote, “General feeling that Miller High Life has passed PBR in the hipster beer fast lane.” When I wrote to him for explanation, he replied that he has started to see it more often on cocktail menus in the city.
“I took it to be a sign of the eternal restlessness of the hipster bartender, the shark-like need to move from one ironical drinking totem to another,” he said. “I also suspect they’re charmed by the corniness of the old ‘Champagne of Beer’ slogan.”
Though he was swiftly corrected on Twitter by beer geeks, including beer writer Joshua M. Bernstein, who posited the reign of Narragansett, he says, “I stand the position I stated then, that Narragansett isn’t intrinsically uncool enough to be a true hipster beer.”
Which brings us to the question: What exactly made PBR a hipster beer? What was countercultural about drinking it at all, and which culture was being countered? In the peak days of hipsterdom—whose “robust” phase was defined as 1999 to 2003 by New York magazine’s “What Was the Hipster?”—the beer world, like the alcoholic beverage world in general, was a much less stylistically diverse place. Big Beer—the “Whassup” era of bro’d out Budweiser commercials—still reigned.
So which is it now? Is it more hipster to drink craft beer or mass beer, and which particular brand? The answers seem—unsatisfyingly for alcohol writers, perhaps—to be both, any and all.
PBR, which lacked the marketing budget of the giants, represented a different type of brand. “Long-neglected P.B.R. had no image. It was just there,” said a 2003 New York Times Magazine article, on the brand’s then rising popularity. When executives noticed an uptick in sales for PBR among young, urban markets, the brand began to aggressively court alternative culture, sponsoring bike messenger races and DJ contests, and, in a further quest for street cred, it turned down what would have been a high-profile but off-brand partnership deal with Kid Rock.
But over the last 12 years the landscape has changed dramatically. Craft beer is regularly posting double-digit growth, even as the lines between Big Beer and craft grow blurrier with each buy-out. The anti-marketing techniques used by PBR have become commonplace. And further, the definition of the hipster—and his or her preferences—has changed.
Google “hipster beer,” and you’re just as likely to find entries for a person flying to Portland, OR, ready to drink “hipster craft beer” as a photo captioned, “Look at this fucking hipster drinking a Miller High Life.” In the turtles-all-the-way-down race to cool, for every person drinking Narragansett at the Ace Hotel, there’s another bringing Genesee tallboys to a house show and another rejecting Goose Island because it was bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev.
So which is it now? Is it more hipster to drink craft beer or mass beer, and which particular brand? The answers seem—unsatisfyingly for drink writers, perhaps—to be both, any and all.
A very unscientific poll of my non-food world friends who live in the hipster enclaves of Brooklyn on what has filled the void left by PBR revealed no consensus: “I think Kelso Pilsner might be the current winner”; “Bud Light? I feel like hipsters are over craft beers”; “The first thing that comes to my mind is Narragansett?”; “Heady Topper, but that kind of overlaps with the obnoxious foodie crowd”; “I want to say Genesse and Lone Star, etc., may be the new Miller High Life…”; “I would DEF say Modelo and Tecate are the go-to cans of beer round these parts lately.” As a snapshot of this diversity in microcosm: The fridge at Silent Barn, a DIY concert venue in Bushwick, is filled with everything from Lagunitas to Yuengling.
But this diffusion of opinion may not even be that new: in 2003’s The Hipster Handbook, a plurality in preference was already acknowledged. Hipsters could be said to drink anything from imports and microbrews (“wise choices for the connoisseur”), to Michelob (“for when you are feeling as smooth as Billy Dee”), to Zima (“Ignore the naysayers. Drinking Zima is deck”). So while PBR may have turned into the default stock photo choice for illustrating articles about hipsters, the actual underground—insofar as The Hipster Handbook’s satire reflected the tastes of a generation (or at least, a taste of a generation, to paraphrase Girls)—may have been more diverse than we tend to acknowledge.
And to further confuse the issue today, craft brewers have started making inroads on the American lager front, further mashing up the difference between what’s craft and indie and what’s mass and manufactured. At the Great American Beer Festival this year, two indie beers—Lone Tree Mexican Lager and Sycamore Brewing’s Southern Girl Lager—landed medals in the American lager category, which had long been dominated by the giants.
In the Los Angeles area, House Beer, a year-and-a-half-old brand that could be designated “craft” because of its size, is attempting its own spin on American lager—a 4.8-percent ABV beer bottled in red, white and blue cans that do not look dissimilar to Budweiser or PBR. Brendan Sindall, House Beer’s 28-year-old president, says the beer can be found anywhere in L.A. from “hole in the wall pizza joints to the Ace hotel to the Warwick to dive bars with locals to gastropubs,” with the common denominator being “the younger millennial consumer.”
Priced slightly higher than Miller or Bud (a 12-pack case costs anywhere from $12.99 to $14.99), but not as high as, say, Lagunitas or Stone, Sindall says he’s hoping to appeal to a younger generation that wants something similar to the imports that their parents drank, but doesn’t “want the beer that dominated the mainstream marketplace.”
Its message of mass-indie seems to have penetrated, with snapshots of the brand’s logo showing up on trendy L.A. residents’ Instagram feeds. Case in point: A musician friend who lives part-time in Los Angeles responded to my question of what beers are cool in L.A. with both “Tecate is also a beer that people get when they want to look cool with a cheap beer,” and “The new hipster thing to my humble opinion is the ‘House Beer’ made in L.A. in a can.”
[Pabst mural by Justin Seng]