Pabst Blue Ribbon has been enjoying a renaissance thanks to its retro chic appeal, but will the beer soon undergo another makeover?
Businessman C. Dean Metropoulos – who built Chef Boyardee, Birds Eye, and Vlasic Pickles into billon-dollar brands – has bought Pabst Brewing Company for $250 million from the nonprofit Kalmanovitz Charitable Foundation. (ConAgra bought International Home Foods, owner of Chef Boyardee and others, in 2000 for $2.9 billion. In 2007, Blackstone bought Pinnacle Foods, owner of Birds Eye, for $2.2 billion.)
The 165-year-old Pabst Brewing Company – which owns 32 brands, including Schlitz, Colt 45, Lone Star and Old Style – actually is a misnomer, since it no longer owns its own brewery. (It contracts with others, including MillerCoors.) Pabst was established in Milwaukee in 1844, earned its "blue ribbon" status at the World's Fair in 1893 – but shut down its last Milwaukee brewery in 1996.
The company was bought in 1985 by beer tycoon Paul Kalmanovitz, who died in 1987. Pabst was left to the charitable foundation following the death of his widow. The IRS has repeatedly declared since 1996 that the foundation couldn't own a for-profit business and set a 2010 deadline for the sale, according to Beer Business Daily.
According to Ad Age, Pabst Blue Ribbon posted gains in the four weeks that ended May 16 – while Bud Light, Coors and Miller Lite all declined. (Just four of the top 30 beer brands showed upticks at the beginning of their crucial selling season.) It's good news for the brand that once was one of America's most popular beers – sales peaked in 1977 with sales of 18 million barrels per year, and bottomed out in 2001 with just 1 million barrels sold.
Sales began climbing again in 2002 as hipsters discovered the beer. But there are concerns that Pabst – perhaps better known for its ultra-cheap price tag than its great taste – won't be able to hold its ground against the booming craft beers industry. (Is craft beer recession-proof? Read Inc.'s take.)
Look for Metropoulos's sons Evan, 29, and Daren, 26, to mastermind any Pabst makeover. Among the twentysomething tycoons' hits include a relationship between Chef Boyardee and the WWF, and getting Bumble Bee tuna fan Howard Stern to promote the brand, according to Daily Finance. Evan also parlayed a Greek holiday chance meeting with Jennifer Aniston's cousin into a product placement for another Metropoulos brand, Gulden mustard, in Aniston's film "Picture Perfect." And the brothers were instrumental in turning Perrier Jouet into the rappers' fizz of choice, donating cases to their music industry pals and getting the brand featured in videos and at Limp Bizkit concerts.
Will aggressive marketing ruin Pabst's street cred? Stay tuned.