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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!


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