If there was ever a city that could be called an incubator for craft beers, it would be Portland, Oregon. When I was with Coast Distributors in the late 80s, crafts were at a one percent share. Now crafts are over 30% share in volume, and over 40% share in dollars. More than ten years ago while visiting Portland, my son, a budding musician at the time, took me to an old converted warehouse where rock bands rented space to practice their music. The building had been converted into small rooms enabling the bands the ability to practice and not disturb others. When we walked into my son’s room, I was surprised by the empty beer cans, all of which were Pabst Blue Ribbon! My son informed me that he and his friends all drank Pabst, then considered an anti-establishment and cheap beer!
PBR today is the personification of a retro brand. In 1980, Pabst Brewing Co., after a number of acquisitions, sold over fifteen million bbls. of beer. By 2000, PBR was virtually nonexistent, but due to the resurrection of PBR and its success, Pabst has been the reason more retro brands are being marketed.
There are a number of brands similar to PBR that, while they did not totally die, did come close. Many are now experiencing some rebirth. Brands like Schlitz, which has not gotten any traction even though there has been some money behind it; Pabst, which owns Schlitz, targeted south Florida some years ago with billboards, than went to Chicago and Milwaukee, with limited success; and Coors has done a great job and experiencing steady growth once they quit blending the liquid and went back to the original beer and retro label. Then there are some regionals, like Lone Star which is selling better.
Investment companies have also been involved in the retro reboot; North American Breweries with Genesee and High Falls used a major influx of cash and did well. The owners recently divested their ownership and moved on. Iron City in Pittsburgh, also owned by an investment group, and with new management, is once again attempting to pump-up sales with the possible intent of selling the brewery and moving on.
Then there are those brands like Henry’s, owned by MC, who have reinvented themselves into more of a craft beer and have seen success. Stevens Point is another of the breweries that have quite a history across the upper Midwest has plans to expand in 2014.
Outside of PBR, Narragansett has been very successful in coming back, reporting sales near 1 million cases. Likewise, Henry’s has developed flavors with their name attached to the beer. More retro brands are coming as Pabst has plans to re-introduce Jax, a former big brand from Jackson Brewing Co. of New Orleans. Another now in some markets is Drewrys. Once a 1.3 million barrel brand out of Indiana, Drewrys was bought out by Heileman and closed down in 1972. Drewrys is now planning to expand into the Midwest states this year.
Retro brands are different from crafts as they have a history and a story to tell. Distributors should take a hard look at these brands and what is behind them. With the right team and the right support, a brand like Drewrys could be a nice addition to the portfolio. For retros to be successful in today’s market, they need to be different, better or cheaper.