Group Wants to Bring Pabst Blue Ribbon Back to Milwaukee

An illuminated sign for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is seen outside a closed restaurant in New York
Richard Levine/Alamy
By CARRIE ANTLFINGER

MILWAUKEE -- Long before it was known for fine cheddar cheese or the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin was famous for beer, especially the national brands brewed in Milwaukee: Schlitz, Blatz and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The brewing tradition started by Milwaukee's German immigrants in the 1800s endured for more than a century, until industry consolidation in the 1980s and '90s began sending familiar brands to other companies and cities.

Now a small group of Milwaukee residents wants to revive part of that proud history by buying Pabst Brewing Co. from a California executive in hopes of returning the brand to its birthplace, possibly as a city-owned brewery.

The effort appears to be a distant long shot, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the 170-year-old beer best known as PBR. But Milwaukee officials like the idea enough to talk about it, and at least one industry analyst says the plan isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

"When I think about Pabst being anywhere else but Milwaukee, it just doesn't make sense," said Susie Seidelman, an organizer of the "Bring Pabst Blue Ribbon Home" effort. "Milwaukee made this beer what it is. ... It's right on the can."

The beer, with its pale gold color and light, fizzy taste, has become especially popular over the last decade among urban hipsters, in part because it's one of the cheapest on the market.

The company that started in Milwaukee in 1844 is now headquartered in Los Angeles after being bought by food industry executive C. Dean Metropoulos in 2010 for a reported $250 million.

Reports surfaced last month suggesting that Pabst might be looking for buyers. Organizers of the group want Metropoulos to give them first rights of sale so they can begin raising money toward any asking price.

Pabst representatives wouldn't comment on any potential sale or the efforts to bring the brand back to Milwaukee, saying only that they "are considering financial alternatives" that will help Pabst "aggressively pursue its next phase of growth through strategic acquisitions."

Bringing Pabst Home
Carrie Antlfinger/APSusie Seidelman is part of a group wanting to raise money to try to bring the brewery's headquarters back to Milwaukee.
The effort to buy Pabst has a core of seven people with various business and nonprofit backgrounds. It also has a Facebook page titled "Milwaukee Should Own Pabst Blue Ribbon" and a website at bringpbrhome.com, which lets visitors sign a letter to Metropoulos. The letter acknowledges that the purchase proposal might seem "crazy" but asks readers to "humor us for just a moment."

"We want to bring PBR home," reads the letter, expected to be sent next week.

In 1996, Pabst headquarters left and beer production ceased at the company's main complex in downtown Milwaukee, opening a "gaping hole in our city's economy," according to the letter. PBR is now brewed in another part of town as part of a deal with MillerCoors.

Bringing Pabst back is less about the beer and more about "investing in the city of Milwaukee," Seidelman said.

A letter to the Milwaukee mayor and city council asks them to consider the purchase of Pabst using a community ownership model similar to that of the Green Bay Packers, in which the public buys stock that doesn't increase in value and pays no dividends. But, Seidelman said, they are also considering other options, including forming a cooperative.

Another organizer, Erika Wolf, said the group wants to hold town-hall-style meetings and online chats about how to buy and run PBR. The first meeting is scheduled for April 23.

Regardless of the business structure chosen, they want to put the profits back into the city, she said.

The group's website was put together by the great-great granddaughter of brewery founder Frederick Pabst. Bridget Byrnes, a web designer in Missoula, Mont., volunteered after seeing the Facebook (FB) page. The return of Pabst back would hopefully create jobs and "bring Milwaukee back to the beer city it was."

The plan is being floated at a time when some Great Lakes cities are trying to develop a "blue economy" by attracting industries that rely on water.
As growing water scarcity casts a shadow over the economy in warmer states, many northern communities want to use their abundant freshwater to attract businesses, including breweries.

Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for Milwaukee's development department, said city officials know little about the effort so far but look forward to discussing any plan with the organizers.

Paul Gatza, director of the Colorado-based Brewers Association trade group, said he's seen reports the company could go for $700 million to $1 billion. He said Metropoulos' business is acquisitions, not brewing, which might explain the interest in selling.

Raising that sort of money from Milwaukee's 600,000 residents would be tough, but it might be more feasible if a private-equity group stepped in, Gatza said.

Beer is personal to beer drinkers, and Gatza has seen social media backlash when beer drinkers grow unhappy with other companies' changes, he said.

"There might be some PR value in selling it to a group of Milwaukee fans," he said.

The Pabst family sold their controlling interest in the company in 1933, and the last family member, August Pabst Jr., retired from the board of directors in 1983.

One of the city's tourist attractions is the Pabst Mansion, a masterpiece of Gilded Age architecture that was once home to Frederick Pabst. And one of Milwaukee's main music venues is the Pabst Theater, which was run for many years by the family.

Jim Haertel owns Pabst's old administrative building and bar in the company's former brewery complex. He said he would buy into Pabst if given the opportunity and even scrap his plans to put a bed and breakfast in the building with beer taps in the rooms.

Renting offices would make less money than a bed and breakfast. But, he said, "it just seems like the right thing to do."


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18 Comments

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redwingirish

Calling PBR beer is like calling BUSHY-BOY a president!

April 04 2014 at 9:31 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
jwmgrand

but how will the investors get rich ... brew it in China ... ? That seems the most important thing in America !

April 04 2014 at 8:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
felix75231

Will they bring back Red White and Blue? If we were short on cash, RWB would suffice.

April 04 2014 at 5:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
davefromfwb1

For 250 million just create your own beer brewing business and call it Paps Blew Ribbon beer. You'll save millions and I'm sure you'll still be successful.

April 04 2014 at 4:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ronhalpern

As far as I'm concerned, the midwest in general, and Milwakee, Chicago and Minneapolis in particular, represent the best of America. Those are American cities. And the Green Bay Packers, and not those clowns from the country of Texas (which I dearly hope secedes from the U.S.), the Dallas Cowgirls, is truly American's team; it's owned by everyday AMERICAN

April 04 2014 at 4:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fermiuno

What would the "Friday Night Fights" be without Pabst?

Bring it back to Milwaukee.

April 04 2014 at 3:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
krs

When I was young (50's-60's) Sclitz was the Nations biggest selling beer, even
over Budwieser (which gave me a headache after two or three sips), now it is'hardly available now.

April 04 2014 at 3:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to krs's comment
pm0501

When I was growing up in the Chigao burbs in the late 60's it was PBR's ,Schlitz or Hamms. Remember Drewery's, Blatz, Meister Brau, Stroh's and Fallstaff?

April 06 2014 at 12:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
salmo60

Investing hundred of millions for a beer that only has a 2.7% share of the market? Plus the fact that Pabts is brewed under an agreement with Miller/Coors. Brewing and bottling another pilsner style of beer is a bit ambitious. Most big named brews taste similar while the variety and style of craft brews
are a joy to drink

April 04 2014 at 1:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dumbneasy

PBR is actually America's beer.....while Budweiser is Belgium's beer and Miller/Coors is South Africa's beer. I just don't understand why PBR doesn't use it's American heritage and current standing to sell its product. I drink it - not cuz it's the best beer out there( not bad though) , but because it is American owned.

April 04 2014 at 12:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dumbneasy's comment
car4068043

AGREED-It frosts me no end when Budweiser advertises and procaims itself to be "America's Beer" when its no secret that the AB family sold it as fast as they could to In-Bev who promptly walked in and stated firing US emplyees. Personally, I drink Sam Adams but a cold PBR at a BBQ works fine for me-does not get any more American than that!

April 04 2014 at 3:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Snipe714

Brings back lots of memories when stationed at great lakes, just down the street from schlitz.

April 04 2014 at 11:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply