Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pabst Blue Ribbon/The Hold Steady

If PBR were a movie, it would take place in 1975 and star Harvey Keitel. The same goes for The Hold Steady. These two Midwestern throwbacks are rife with blue collar imagery and subject to working-class fetishism, and both could replace your timing belt in less than a minute. But before we pair, a quick background on everyone’s favorite drinkable badge of low-brow authenticity:

In 1893, Pabst Blue Ribbon – then Pabst Select – was supposedly named America’s best beer at the Chicago World’s Fair. This point is contested, but regardless, at the turn of the 20th Century the Pabst Brewing Company’s signature beer was seriously popular. One prohibition and four major wars later, sales finally started falling and by the by the 1980s PBR was left in the cold-battered hands of a few hard-drinking fat guys in Wisconsin.

Then came the beer’s re-rise, which was far more calculated than it might seem: In 2000 Pabst hired Neal Stewart, a 27 year old marketing manager from Portland, OR who recognized that “alternative people” were beginning to drink PBR. (According to the irrefutably reputable site, Wikipedia, this may have been partly due to avant director David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, which featured Dennis Hopper’s character Frank Booth proselytizing the superiority of PBR over Euro import Heineken). Throwing around brainstorms like - I'm speculating here - “Chuck Taylors,” “vintage T’s," and "did you see Ashton Kutcher in that John Deere hat?," Stewart realized that the best sales strategy was none at all, claiming these “alternative people” were averse to overt consumerism and big budget ad campaigns. Which was true - they preferred covertly supporting massive corporate breweries that didn’t spend money on ads. Before long PBR was the beer of choice among a certain scruffy, retro-chic set in boho enclaves like Brooklyn and Portland.

Like PBR, The Hold Steady evoke a hard-working, all-American honesty. And both have - in the last decade - made their way from places where I naively envision everyone in woolen plaid with pockets full of sausage – PBR from Milwaukee; most of THS from Minneapolis – to Brooklyn at the height of the borough’s disaffected appreciation of all things vintage. To the ear, The Hold Steady are PBR set to music; the band's raucous bar-band appeal, gratuitous drinking references and more than a little E Street influence sound best with a blue ribbon chaser. The hard drinking, the bars, the rusty geography. It’s all there.

If there's an obvious critique of The Hold Steady, it's singer Craig Finn’s speak-scream delivery and literary verbosity which annoys the hell out of a significant percentage of my friends and, at times, might seem too complex and grating for PBR. But I'm a fan, and find Finn's one-trick singing style PBR-perfect. Like the singer, the beer has a steady taste throughout: carbonated bread water. But carbonated bread water tied to immigrant achievement, honest laboring and counter culture trend, which is more than most full-flavored beers can claim.

It's embarrassingly cliched, but that first aluminum tingle has me dodging potholes in a brown Ford Pinto, Separation Sunday blaring from an 8-track, trying to find the closest minor league hockey game.

Beer Info:

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Pabst Brewing Company/G. Heileman Brewing Company
Woodbrige Illinois (current headquarters)
Style: American Adjunct Lager
ABV: 4.74%

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