The cheap American lager argues that MillerCoors is forcing PBR out of business by breaking a decades-long contract
A dystopian future is brewing in a Milwaukee courtroom. A future that could subject hundreds of thousands of bearded, tattooed, sort-of-cool (sort-of-not) people to a perishing thirst. Pabst Blue Ribbon may be no more.
The American lager, known for its cheap price, popularity among hipsters, and – some critics say – insipid taste, is locked in a legal battle with manufacturers of rival beer manufacturer MillerCoors, which may leave Pabst without a place to ferment its signature brew.
Pabst Brewing Company, the owner of PBR, argues that MillerCoors is attempting to force it out of business by breaking a decades-long contract whereby MillerCoors produces Pabst’s ale.
MillerCoors disagrees. The company says it is not obliged to carry on producing PBR, and claims it gave Pabst plenty of notice to make other brewing arrangements.
The crisis stems back to a 1999 agreement forged between Pabst and MillerCoors, whose own beers include Miller Lite, Miller High Life, and Miller High Life Light.
That agreement saw MillerCoors take on responsibility for producing, packaging and distributing nearly all of Pabst’s beers – which also include Texas favorite Lone Star and Old Milwaukee.
But MillerCoors says it is not obliged to continue to manufacture Pabst’s beer when the agreement expires in 2020.
“We are deeply disappointed that MillerCoors, the US subsidiary of multinational brewing conglomerate Molson Coors, has willfully breached our 19-year agreement in an effort to stomp out the competition,” a Pabst spokesman told the Guardian.
“Even though MillerCoors’ market power is much larger than Pabst’s, we will not allow this industry bully to push us around.”
Pabst Brewing Company was founded in Milwaukee in 1844. PBR was originally known as Pabst’s Best Select, taking on the Blue Ribbon moniker after winning an award for best beer at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
According to the Smithsonian magazine, Pabst beer had previously “won many other awards at many other fairs”, and as a marketing gimmick the company began tying a blue ribbon around its bottles and rebranded its beer Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“By the turn of the century, Pabst was going through more than one million feet of ribbon per year, pausing only when the first world war caused a silk shortage,” the Smithsonian says.
Pabst, presumably to the relief of silkworms everywhere, stopped wrapping ribbons around its beer after the Great War, instead adding a blue ribbon design to its label. PBR eventually became known as a blue-collar beer, and trudged on for decades before becoming – to the surprise of everyone – the go-to drink for people wearing skinny jeans and Converse shoes in the early 2000s.
Sales increased by almost 200% between 2004 and 2013, and academics have written papers about how PBR was the beneficiary of “ironic consumption”.
“Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and trucker hats, which previously had an older, uncool image, became fashionable in the early 2000s when celebrities and young, urban consumers started using the products,” Caleb Warren, a professor at University of Arizona, and Gina Mohr, a professor at Colorado State University, wrote in the Journal of Consumer Research this year.
“Although many of these consumers initially drank Pabst and wore trucker hats ironically, their adoption ended up giving the products a more youthful and urban image. This rejuvenated image resulted in a new wave of consumers who started drinking Pabst beer and wearing trucker hats sincerely in an attempt to signal the product’s new, more desirable meaning.”
That hard-earned ironic consumption is now at risk. A spokesman for MillerCoors said it told Pabst back in 2015 that it might not be able to produce its beer beyond 2020. MillerCoors has problems of its own – beer sales in general are declining in the US – and says it may have to close the facility where PBR is brewed.
But Pabst claims its agreement means MillerCoors must help it find a place to brew its beer. Pabst says it needs 4m to 4.5m barrels brewed annually and MillerCoors is the only place with the facilities to do it. Pabst is seeking more than $400m in damages.
The case is set to run until 30 November, when we should have a better idea if PBR will continue to be the beer of choice for the sort-of-hip, or whether the days of the famous blue ribbon are over.