Skip to main content

Holiday Q&A, Volume 3: How did Pabst Blue Ribbon become cool?

Question from the audience: How did Pabst Blue Ribbon turn into a high class beer from a high school [headache] maker? 


Thanks, L., for another excellent question. The simple answer is: the hipsters got a hold of it.

First off, I think the PBR thing is over, having peaked right alongside the peak of the "hipster" movement, in 2010. It may have some leftover appeal, but only because, like a lot of cultural trends, it takes a while to fully cycle through the hinterlands.

It's not an outstanding beer. It's not even a "good" beer. It's a crisp, easy-drinking American lager that is light enough so you can drink 16 of them on a hot summer day and still be sober enough to call your lawyer from jail. You could stack it against beers like Stroh's, Miller High Life, Schlitz, Blatz, Carling, Rolling Rock, Iron City, Lone Star, Dixie, and probably only an expert would be able to tell the difference. Don't get me wrong, these beers have earned and should have a place in American life, but that place is in the hands of broke high school and college kids, underpaid blue-collar workers, and your chain-smoking grandfather. So how did the overly-educated, under-employed, over-grown children with carefully manicured, chest-length beards, tattoo sleeves, in skinny jeans and flannels riding fixed-gear bicycles get a hold of it?

You have to remember, hipsterism was all about irony. Taking what was once old and dorky and making it new and cool again, precisely because it was not new and cool. At a time when people were listening to music on Mp3s, they were listening to music on vinyl LPs. When people were wearing flared jeans, they came back with the skinny jeans. The 2000s were a mostly clean-shaven decade, but the hipsters opted for the beard. At first, in the late 90s and mid-2000s it was all very organic and original, but by the late 2000s, by the time the word "hipster" had reached the mainstream, it was really all over. Our generation's counter-culture had become a commodity, much like there were really no honest to god "hippies" left by the time the 1970s hit. It was all well-over by then.

Irony can be defined as "a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result." Applying the hipster love of irony to beer would mean that, while one would expect a trendy person to eschew a mainstream, macro-brew of middling quality, up to that point drank by mostly by working-class men in bars with no windows and those attending minor league baseball games in dilapidated stadiums, the hipster goes contrary to what is expected and adopts PBR precisely because it's not cool. 

Why PBR specifically, and not, say, Stroh's? That, I'm not sure about. Other than the simple fact of PBR having a great name and logo, and perhaps an existing market share that gave it wide distribution in places like New York where hipsterism bloomed, I can't think of a reason other than: that's just the way it shook out. 

However, just like skinny jeans, vinyl record collecting, fixed-gear bicycles, and handle-bar moustaches, America's PBR fetish is, I believe, headed for the dustbin of early 21st century culture if it's not there already. But PBR will likely survive and thrive, if for no other reason than: a.) People like me who will always still order it for its kitsch value, b.) It's existing history and market share make it a permanent fixture on the American beer landscape. Stroh's or Blatz could fade away and few people would notice. But an America without PBR? Now that would be weird. 

Keep the questions coming!


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Holiday Q&A, Volume 1

These questions come to us from Grace. Thanks for sending your questions!! Answers below:
What is the most thrilling mystery you have read and/or watched?
The Eiger Sanction (book and film) by Trevanian is what's coming to mind. International espionage. Mountain-climbing assassins. Evil albino masterminds. Sex. Not a bad combination. Warning, this is completely a "guy" movie, and the film (feat. Clint Eastwood) is priceless 70s action movie cheese. But in case that's your thing...
What's the deal with Narcos?
Narcos is a Netflix show about the rise and fall (but mostly the fall) of Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Thus far there are two seasons of 10 episodes each. RIYL: The film Blow, starring Johnny Depp; the book Zombie City, by Thomas Katz; the movie Goodfellas; true crime; anything involving the drug trade. My brief review: Season 1 started out a bit slow and I know a bunch of people who never made it past the first few episodes. Some of the acting is a…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…