Every so often, the beer geek in me needs a little change. So, as I went looking for a beer that seemed to say something about the Fourth of July holiday -- the number-one occasion for U.S. beer sales -- I chose the classic golden American lager. I wanted to find one that has a sense of history and a tie to Wisconsin. Obviously, I couldn't resist the red, white and blue can of PBR.
What is it? Pabst Blue Ribbon by the Pabst Brewing Company of Woodbridge, Ill.
Style: PBR is an American-style premium lager. The style is known for its light to medium body, pale- to straw-golden color and effervescence. This beer contains adjuncts (such as corn or rice), less than 25% of its total malt components. The flavor features low bitterness and a soft maltiness. Some light fruity esters are common and often add to the beer's crispness. Alcohol strength usually falls between 3.6% and 4%.
Background: The Milwaukee brewery that eventually became Pabst was started by Jacob Best in 1844. Frederick Pabst, for whom the company was later named, married Jacob's granddaughter Maria in 1862 and left his job as captain of a steam ship. Capt. Pabst and a partner, Emil Schandein, actually bought out the brewery in 1865. By the late 1800s, Pabst was the largest brewer in the U.S.
PBR is the historical flagship beer for the company. The name "Blue Ribbon" is a reference to an award it received in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In the early 1900s, bottles actually had a blue ribbon tied around their necks. Following Prohibition, the Pabst brewery continued to grow and remained a leading beer producer during a time when many other breweries closed or were acquired by competitors. It reached its peak production in the late 1970s. But by the 1990s, it too became a victim of industry consolidation, closing its Milwaukee brewing operations in 1996. The company eventually reconfigured itself in San Antonio, Texas. By 2000, Pabst sales were nearly 90% less than 20 years earlier. However, since 2002 Pabst has embarked on a "retro" marketing theme that has brought a resurgence in sales.
The Pabst Brewing Company is currently headquartered in Woodbridge, Ill. While it does not operate its own breweries anymore, it lays claim to being the largest privately held brewing company in America -- since MillerCoors is a subsidiary of SABMiller (South African Breweries) and Anheuser-Busch is part of the European brewer InBev. Pabst Brewing was recently purchased by food investor Dean Metropoulos, the former chairman and chief executive officer of New Jersey-based Pinnacle Foods. Pinnacle is the parent company of Duncan Hines, Armour, Vlasic and Mrs. Paul's.
PBR is produced under contract by MillerCoors operations in Milwaukee. However, the company says it is actually brewed at a handful of different locations around the U.S. in facilities owned by Miller, a few of which were actually Pabst breweries at one time.
PBR is made with six-row barley and corn syrup, along with American and Yugoslavian hops. It won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2006. The Pabst Brewing Company also owns several other famous former Wisconsin brands including Old Milwaukee, Schlitz and Old Style.
PBR sells for around $5/six-pack (one-pint cans), and $17/30-can pack (12-ounce cans).
- Aroma: Light, grainy maltiness.
- Appearance: Clear, light golden color with a medium-soft white head.
- Texture: Light, bubbly, crisp.
- Taste: A grainy malty body with a light crisp hoppiness that adds a cleanness to the flavor.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Not much: a light crisp, sharp, fast-clean hoppiness.
Glassware: Out of respect for the tradition of the style, PBR looks good in a standard bar pilsner glass. But, with a nod to Independence Day, drinkers can also hoist one in its red white and blue can.
Pairs well with: The American lager is a palate-cleansing beer, as opposed to one that blends in complementary ways with food. PBR has a crispness that can be thirst quenching on a hot day. It's good for washing down food from the backyard barbecue.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Pabst Blue Ribbon is not a bad beer, in the context of the classic golden lager produced by the nation's largest brewers. PBR is what it is -- a strong representative of American-style premium lagers. It's also a consistent beer, meaning that when you open a can of PBR, you know exactly what to expect, with its light flavors and bubbly body. I admit it's not a style I enjoy -- and because of that I rarely recommend it to friends. However, PBR can remind us of all the beer choices we have -- and it's good for anyone who likes big-brewery beers with a storied Wisconsin past.