In Defense of Blue Ribbon

There was a time when Velveeta cheese was promoted as the ultimate meltable cheese, its value coming not from its quality and taste, but from its ability to be incorporated into a perfect nacho dip or grilled cheese sandwich. It’s not an artisan cheese. It’s not going to sit alongside the handmade charcuterie and aged cheddar on a $23 cheese plate - instead, it’s going to sit on a shelf at room temperature and survive a nuclear holocaust.

That’s all fine and well. There’s a need for function in the food world. But Velveeta has an added caveat that one might not expect: it is the finest example of its niche, and it actually tastes good in the right situations. There are cheaper, oilier and more horrible cheeses, and there are much better smoked and hand-crafted cheeses, and all of them are different. There is a place for Velveeta, and it deserves to be defended.

Which brings me to Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Pabst Blue Ribbon - or to use the shorthand vernacular, “PBR” - is both an intensely loved and much maligned beer. It is respected by its fans and reviled by its detractors. It’s both the finest example of its style and another frustrating example of coolness gone wild.

It’s hipster. It’s old school. It’s mass market swill. It’s cheap.

And that’s the thing. Love it or hate it, Pabst is exactly what you want it to be. And it doesn’t give a damn.

My defense of Pabst Blue Ribbon in three short arguments:

Argument #1 - Pabst is a hipster beer.

Nope. Actually, Pabst started as a punk rock beer. More specifically, PBR has always been a cheap bar beer. There is a careful distinction here that gets confused, as pop culture has mined and raided punk and underground culture for years in order to find the best and brightest of ironic statements. PBR fans weren’t born out of irony - they were born out of cheapness.

Ten years ago, PBR was dying in all but rural bars and small pubs that catered to those with no money. Young indie bands filtered into bars that would hold no more than 80 people and played shows to no more than 10. There was little money in these events - just the promise of exposure and the chance to play a little music.

Among these dives, one cheap beer stood out. It wasn’t Miller Lite, and it sure wasn’t Coors. It was Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Pabst has continued to give back, supporting independent music and sponsoring rock culture. And, as stores like Urban Outfitter searched for the next ironic old-timey thing to love, it latched onto PBR. There’s nothing wrong with that - its sales have gone up thanks to the added exposure - but it’s worth noting the next time someone calls PBR “that hipster beer.”

Argument #2 - Pabst is a crappy adjunct lager owned by Miller.

Yup. You’re right. Kind of. (Pabst contract brews with Miller-owned breweries, but is not a holding of the MillerCoors conglomerate.)

Who cares, though.

Yeah, I know what Charlie Papazian just said about craft beer and its specific definition, urging all of us to drop the major adjuncts in favor of smaller craft beers. I’d say that’s a good idea, but to drop all adjuncts and major brewery holdings is to lose track of the reason we drink beer - because we love variety, and even big beers can contribute some variety.

The simple fact is that, while it’s an adjunct lager brewed by Miller, it’s also one of the best of its style: the cheap American football beer, tailor made for drinking after a hot day in the yard or a cold day watching whatever sport you happen to watch.

It’s sweet and grainy. It’s full bodied, like Old Style or Yuengling. It’s not thin and watery like Bud Light or Miller Lite. It even won Gold Medal at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival (.PDF) for its style! It’s good. If you’re in the mood, that is.

Don’t take it from me, though. Despite its origins and background, Papazian himself approves, calling it in his tasting notes a “satisfying American classic.”

Argument #3 - Pabst is a fad, a product of internet culture, and it’s a tired meme.

Again, you’re right. And this is why I often find myself defending the virtues of Pabst Blue Ribbon - and, honestly, the entirety of my “adjunct big three:” PBR, Old Style and Grain Belt Premium.

Pabst Blue Ribbon isn’t just a fad. It’s a 168 year old brand that began in Wisconsin, where cheap beer and good beer are often interchangeable. That it’s popular with the cool kids isn’t a reason to deride - it’s, in fact, a reason to celebrate. PBR is a brand that has grown despite a lack of major marketing. While Budweiser and MillerCoors are spending millions on Super Bowl commercials, you can toast their excess with a can of Pabst. It’ll taste better, at least.

Monk’s House of Ale Repute now has Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap. Maybe it’s a nod to its clientele. Maybe enough people asked for it that they were forced into it. I won’t begin to assume the reasoning behind putting PBR in an upscale beer bar, except to say that Jerry Hauck himself said when I interviewed him last month:

"If I’m going to go for one of the American lagers, it’s probably going to be Blue Ribbon."

Not a hipster. Not a fan of cheap beer. Not someone trying to prove himself by being ironic. Just a man who knows what he likes and understands the place of a can of PBR. (And maybe a vat of melted cheese.)