When I first ventured into the rock clubs of Portland in the mid ’80s, the beer selection was minimal. Folks were drinking whatever was at hand: Budweiser, Rolling Rock or Black Label. They all cost more or less the same and the only things anyone really cared about was that it was beer and it was cheap. Then, beginning in 1986, something interesting happened. If you looked around at what the cool band members were drinking, you started to see a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
This new beer of choice coincided with the popularity of the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet. Some of you are now nodding and know what I’m leading up to: the quote that saved Pabst Brewing from its spiral into bankruptcy.
In Blue Velvet, Dennis Hopper’s character, Frank Booth, while in the process of abducting Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), facetiously asks him what kind of beer he likes. Jeffrey’s response prompts Booth to deliver that famous line — “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” — thus launching an underdog brand while voicing a sentiment most of us tacitly understood about that tasteless Dutch brew in the green bottles. Frank Booth’s anti-establishment proclamation became a battle cry. From then on, holding a 16 oz. can of PBR at any punk, rockabilly or garage-band show was de rigueur.
Besides the fashion statement, you also knew you were ordering the cheapest beer on the menu. This was its own form of rebellion. And since Pabst was, at that time, an also-ran in the Big Beer race between Budweiser, Miller and Coors, going cheap gave a symbolic middle finger to corporate culture.
PBR sustained its symbolic power through the rise of craft brewing. The higher price of craft beers carried more than a whiff of elitism. Portland rock clubs paid lip service to the craft movement, offering a handful of selections that typically cost about twice as much as the cheapies, and that’s still the case at most venues today. If you’re out for the night, for three or four hours, would you rather spend $3 or $4 per beer or $7 or $8? Personally, I’m at the show to have a good time and listen to the music, not to savor bold new brews. I just want something drinkable and affordable.
PBR is still on the beer list at many local rock spots, but patrons have strayed from this icon, which like any fashion reference point is showing its shelf life. Another tick against Pabst Brewing is its status as the slumlord of the corporate beer world. The company unabashedly pumps out oceans of other bottom-shelf brands, including Old Milwaukee, Colt 45 and Schlitz. But the final straw may simply be that most folks have woken up to the fact that PBR tastes like wet cardboard.
Enter — or rather, re-enter —Miller High Life. In my research, I have not found any definitive explanation as to why or how this competitor stole the throne to become the next go-to cheap beer. But it’s risen over the past four or five years, and now out-sells PBR in some Portland clubs and bars. I have two theories.
For one, High Life is not Bud. Budweiser is still regarded as the Great American Beer, despite the fact it’s now made by a multinational corporation based in Belgium, so if you want to display your rebel street-cred, you will disdain the entire Anheuser-Busch InBev family of beers. And yes, MillerCoors is the number two corporate beer company, but this is tolerated in the same way we pick presidential candidates — by choosing the lesser of two evils.
Heritage-chic also plays a role. High Life’s iconic clear glass bottles, classic tagline (“The Champagne of Beers”), and the old-school design of the label all appeal to the young’s sense of fauxstalgia: nostalgia for things that were popular before you were born. Other brands, like Narragansett, have also adopted this marketing strategy.
Where will the next counter-culture catalyst come from, and what musty brand will it resurrect? I look forward to the resurgence of Knickerbocker and Black Label. Less likely, but worth considering, is one of my dad’s favorites from the late ’70s, Piels. I suspect he only drank Piels because its terrible taste kept us teenagers from sneaking off with a bottle. But he probably drank it because it was the cheapest beer in the aisle.
Special thanks to JR, at Geno’s, who backed up my memories of Portland rock-club beers of the ’80s.