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redeyechicago.com

PBR avoids the hipster backlash

By Ryan Smith, @RyanSmithWriter,

For RedEye

11:15 AM CST, February 27, 2013

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Out of the half-dozen brews on draft at Goldie's, there's only one tap handle that bartender Jason Grigsby kept pulling on a recent Tuesday night, and it belonged to Pabst Blue Ribbon.

"Tonight it's been nothing been PBR; I'll definitely go through a keg tonight," said Grigsby as he filled another pint glass with the pale-gold lager.

So much for the long-awaited PBR backlash.

Despite some feelings that it's lost its cool appeal and compares poorly taste-wise to the hundreds of exotic and flavorful microbrews eating into the U.S. beer market, PBR, the beer most often associated with working-class stiffs and work-deprived twentysomething hipsters, still attracts a devoted following at many Chicago bars.

The most cited reason for its continued success? Economics. Pabst Blue Ribbon once earned its famous blue ribbon at the Chicago's World Fair because of its taste, but in 2013 it's sipped, chugged and shotgunned by college students and recession-weary young people because of its bargain-basement price.

"I drink it four or five times a week, and it's the price that does it for me," said Simon Willums, 36, of Bucktown.

Goldie's, a laid-back, single-room saloon in North Center, has become something of a mecca for thrifty drinkers since it started serving $1-for-a-pint PBRs in 2007. A sandwich board sign that sits outside the bar often bears cheeky handmade slogans like "Hollar, Holler, PBR's for a dollar!" or "Let's Make Bad Decisions Together--PBR" to promote the daily special.

"The neighborhood was changing, and we were losing a lot of business," Grigsby said. "(The owners) decided to go to $1 PBRs to try to bring people in."

Now, PBR makes up about half of the beverages sold at Goldie's, and Grisby estimates they fly through 9 to 12 kegs of it a week.

The same is true at Green Eye Lounge in Logan Square, a bar that goes through about eight kegs a week of its PBR--which it sells at $2.50 a pint. Their next biggest seller, hoppy craft brew Lagunitas IPA ($5.50 a glass), empties only about three kegs a week.

"I have some regulars that start out drinking something like Stella (Artois), but they end up eventually changing to PBR because of the low cost," Green Eye bartender Eric Houser said.

The $3 PBR tallboys also are a main attraction for twentysomethings at the Windy City Inn, a cozy neighborhood bar in North Center.

"Seems to be more popular than ever here," owner Andrea Kardaras said. "It's one of our top three beers consistently."

PBR's continued success flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says the same trendiness that associated it with irony-drenched hipsters attracted to its downscale, retro-chic in the early 2000s would make it passé by now.

"To me it's a hipster/'Portandia' thing and it's getting a little old," said Angie Chen, 43, of Lakeview.

The brand also took a hit to its street cred when it sold out for $250 million to food investor C. Dean Metropoulos in 2010 and bolted from its headquarters in a Chicago suburb to L.A. in 2011.

But rumors of PBRs demise have been greatly exaggerated, Houser said.

"I've been hearing about this backlash thing for five years now, and it hasn't really happened," he said. "It's not a fad, it's just cheap. People here don't drink it to be cool, because there's no one to be cool too."

Clark Fowler, co-owner of craft-beer-friendly Lakeview bar The Long Room, which serves $1 PBR cans on Tuesdays, agreed.

"People joke about it, but I don't see any sign of a backlash or people going away from it," he said. "We get a lot of people that come in just for our special."

Of course, there's also the matter of its taste, which occasional PBR drinker Eva Fleming describes as "flat, boring and generic."

"It's especially bad when it gets warm, gross," said Fleming, 23, of Lakeshore East.

Even Grigsby said he doesn't drink PBR because of the poor taste compared to his favorite IPAs and porters, but understands why so many Chicagoans come to Goldie's for it.

"I mean honestly, people can get drunk for much cheaper."

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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