With the addition of Pabst Blue Ribbon to the roster of beers offered at Ray Winder Field, Little Rock appears to be sharing in a hip national trend that filtered down from the big cities of the East and West Coasts, although it is possible that the new local phenomenon is more coincidence than cool.
PBR, as it is fondly referred to by its intimates, celebrates its 160th birthday this year. While it surely has endured ups and downs during that long history, the last 50 years have been humbling, to say the least. Believe it or not, PBR was once associated with high-class elegance, and in the mid-20th century one of its marketing campaigns featured Milton Berle being served PBR on a silver tray while he lounged at a swimming pool. This was before advertising was self-consciously ironic.
Shortly thereafter, PBR enjoyed some popularity as a working-class beer, but its fortune began to falter in the late 1970s. After a steady 23-year decline, sales of PBR increased by 5.3% throughout the U.S. in 2002, and then surged by 15% in 2003.
Neal Stewart, the senior brand manager for Pabst Brewing Company, says that he first noticed the skyrocketing sales figures in Portland and Seattle in 2001. Then he saw it spread to East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia before it reached the major Midwestern populations centers of Chicago, St. Louis, and Minneapolis.
If this chronology is correct, then Little Rock may be able to stake a claim to trendsetter status itself. In December 2001, the Hillcrest pizzeria Damgoode Pies received its liquor license and immediately made PBR the centerpiece of its marketing strategy, according to Jeff Trine, a co-owner of the restaurant. Since that time, Damgoode has become the highest-volume on-premise seller of PBR in Arkansas.
"I don't have a clue how it all came about," Trine said. When pressed, Trine admits that he was in Midtown Billiards one evening before he opened the restaurant, and was discussing what beers to carry. One person told him, "Dude, you should have PBR."
Midtown is a classic working-class tavern that has been selling PBR in cans ($1.50) for 14 years, and in acknowledgement of the beer's growing popularity, it started carrying PBR on draft (75 cents) about nine months ago. Owner Maggie Hinson says that her motivation was to "offer someone on a budget the ability to have a few beers," and she emphasizes that her clientele are mostly "after-work people, older folks, and working class."
However, Midtown attracts a much younger crowd in the late evenings (it stays open until 5am), and PBR found a following among the "alternative and punk rock kids," according to bartender Ashley Collie.
This also corresponds to the national trends, as Stewart described them. For most of its recent history, PBR was carried by very few bars, and those tended to be old-time pubs. When Pabst noticed the West Coast sales surge, it was careful not to engage in a typical beer marketing strategy.
"Our success was not what we did, but what we didn't do," Stewart recalls. "We don't do TV advertising, and hardly any radio. A certain group adopted us, told their friends, and took ownership."
Pabst budgeted $427,000 for traditional advertising in 2002, as opposed to the $419 million spent by Anheuser-Busch during the same year. PBR started partnering with its subculture customers through music, especially punk, indie rock, bluegrass, and country. It sponsored bike messenger races, because participants were identified as avid fans of the beer.
The Little Rock ascendancy of PBR crystallized with its introduction at Ray Winder Field for this season of Arkansas Travelers baseball. Beer sales had dropped 22% two years ago, and Travelers General Manager Bill Valentine wanted to make a change. He knew that 70% of his beer customers are ages 21-28, so he brought in his staff for a meeting last fall and asked for their opinions.
"I didn't know what young people were doing," Valentine said. "My staff is young, and they said PBR was the hottest thing in their group."
Valentine can only sell seven different brands of beer, so he had to get rid of one to make room for PBR. He chose Budweiser. So far, sales have been good, and he says the switch was a "good move."
Trine attributes PBR's success to a "comedic nostalgia," but whatever the appeal, he won't argue with the result. A second Damgoode location opened on Cantrell Road recently, and it includes a mural featuring a PBR can.