Thirsty Portlanders save a lucky lager from the graveyard
Weekend!Nightlife: On the Rocks
The Pabst Blue Ribbon Art Tour party, held at the bar Plan B (1305 S.E. Eighth Ave.) on a recent Monday night, is a low-key event. Scattered guests wander the floor or sit in the red vinyl booths, looking at a small collection of Pabst-related art. Everyone is drinking Pabst.
Born in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1844, the beer was first bedecked with a blue silk ribbon around its neck in the 1880s. Much more recently - approximately 10 years ago - Pabst began an affair with Portland.
Back then, Pabst was on the skids. The company had given up advertising the brand, and it was headed for retirement. Then PBR management, now located in San Antonio, noticed a blip on the radar, a tiny spike in sales in Portland.
What it did next has been heralded as marketing genius. Basically, it did nothing. And sales continued to climb.
'Portland's sort of the epicenter of national growth,' says Jamie Walker, Pabst's area manager for Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Walker, a longtime Portlander, worked at the distribution company Mt. Hood Beverage from 1999 to 2006, where he witnessed firsthand the unpredicted rebirth of the venerable lager.
'I was here when Pabst was just getting going, when we had maybe four or five select accounts and it was this underground thing,' he says. 'It just kind of grew, literally neighborhood by neighborhood by neighborhood, and now it's pretty much engulfed the whole city. … After that it started catching on in Seattle and San Francisco, and so it's kind of grown, it's flourishing, it's amazing.'
I was there, too, I tell him - on the drinker's side of the bar. I think Pabst got an edge over the other cheap beers as early as 1986, when it was endorsed by Dennis Hopper in a famous, unprintable line from the movie 'Blue Velvet.'
In Portland, I theorize, the demise of Blitz created a vacuum.
Walker agrees. 'I think they were looking for a beer to call their own,' he says of the new generation of Pabst loyalists.
Currently, about 500 Portland bars and restaurants serve Pabst on draft. Another 190 or so sell the beer in cans, he says. Portland is the single largest market in the world for Pabst.
Monkeys also fall under spell
Tonight's art show is an example of the company's style of reverse mass-marketing. People from across the United States answered the call for submissions; West Coast winners and runners-up are displayed here.
In framed oil portraits, single cans of Pabst stand alone. In one rendering, a can of Pabst rides a hobbyhorse with a firecracker strapped to its butt. Another can shoots down the lane of a bowling alley, trailing flames as it collides with the pins.
Diana Paris sits in the booth directly below her winning entry, which, of course, sports a blue ribbon. Her painting, titled 'One Smart Monkey,' shows a scientist taking notes as a monkey reaches toward a can of beer, rejecting a nearby bunch of bananas.
Paris, 23, heard about the contest through a friend of a friend, and has come here from Corvallis with Jon Dodge, also 23, the friend who helped her brainstorm the idea. He also posed for the monkey, she says.
Winning entries will be used - warily - in advertising. It's a fine line, Walker says, when you get into billboards.
The company does no radio or TV ads, favoring small sponsorships of local punk bands, kickball leagues, pinball teams. This, the theory goes, gives Pabst an aura of authenticity that goes with its classic red, white and blue label and the fact that many young beer drinkers identify it as their grandfather's beer.
Besides, why buy airtime when, according to one Pabst rep, there are at least 15 people in Portland walking around with Pabst tattoos?
The problem with this kind of credibility, though, is too much popularity becomes a liability.
Backlash may be brewing
The red, white and blue tap handle is prominent behind the bar of the three-week-old Gold Dust Meridian (3267 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.).
Marcus Archanbeault, who runs the place with co-owner Warren Boothey, says they wanted to offer a range of beers. For the low end, he says, Pabst was 'a no-brainer.'
'It's a working-class beer,' he says. Its fans are middle-class suburban kids who moved to the city and got bar jobs, he adds, laughing.
'It's such a throwback beer,' says Han Hwang, Meridian's head chef. He's a little wary of Pabst fans: 'I don't even think they know what the blue ribbon means or where the blue ribbon came from, but it's kind of a cool, hip thing. But I'm noticing now that people are kind of boycotting Pabst.'
'Is it a backlash?' I ask him.
'A little bit,' he says, 'I think people now are more about the Olys or the Hamm's or the Rainiers.'
All three, unlike Pabst, have historic ties to the Northwest. But the Olympia and Rainier labels now are owned by Pabst Brewing Co., while Hamm's is the property of Miller Brewing Co.
What it all means is perhaps best left to the endless eddies of bar talk, where, I've noticed, one important issue rarely surfaces: What about the taste?
Compared with its competitors in the 'watery, domestic' category, I have to say, just poured and icy cold, Pabst is a winner.
To see paintings and enter the 2008 art contest, which includes sculpture and photography, go to www.pbrart.com .