Business

This Grassroots Campaign Is Hoppin’: Milwaukee’s Plan to Win PBR Back

Pabst Brewing Co.—which makes Pabst Blue Ribbon, a beer with deep ties to Milwaukee—hasn't had its headquarters in the city for years. But with a long-shot effort, the community hopes to change that for good.

It’s usually the cheapest beer at the bar, and fans of Pabst Blue Ribbon like it that way.

But the brand has had its highs and lows, and despite its long-standing ties to Brew Town, Pabst hasn’t actually been located in Milwaukee since 1996. A lot has happened since then: PBR suddenly became kibble for (then hated by) hipsters, and now the beer is one of the most popular brands on tap.

That’s why the company, currently on the market, is expected to sell for as much as $1 billion—and why city residents are launching a grassroots campaign to win it back. More details:

Not just about the beer: The “Bring PBR Home” campaign, started by Milwaukeean Susie Seidelman, hopes to refocus the beer’s energies on the city, a blue-collar metropolis that has struggled to perk up in recent years. “When I think about Pabst being anywhere else but Milwaukee, it just doesn’t make sense,” Seidelman told the Associated Press. “Milwaukee made this beer what it is. … It’s right on the can.” The idea behind the campaign, as the website notes, is that the city has struggled since a brewery exodus that began around the time that Pabst deserted. But if Milwaukee can raise the money to bring the company back, the logic goes, the jobs may return, too.

Inspiration to the north: A key catalyst for the initiative, according to the campaign, is the Green Bay Packers, the NFL team that has managed to stay in the small-scale Wisconsin market. That’s thanks in part to its community-driven ownership structure, under which the team is run as a nonprofit corporation that pours any profits back into the community. The result is that the Packers have been impossible to move from Green Bay—something Bring PBR Home organizers are clearly hoping will happen for the old-school brew. “This will create a sustainable revenue stream for the city of Milwaukee to use toward solving the city’s most pressing problems and creating opportunity for all the city’s residents,” the campaign’s mission states. “And let’s not forget about the jobs—we want those to come home, too.”

Could it work? The campaign has gained some support from the local community (the current owner of the former Pabst administrative building says he’ll be on board if the effort can get the backing it needs) and beyond (Bridget Byrnes, the Montana-based designer of the campaign’s website is a distant relative of company namesake Capt. Frederick Pabst). But city officials say it’s complicated. “The complexity of the brewing industry is often underestimated by people whose primary contact with it is across a bar,” Milwaukee Department of City Development spokesman Jeff Fleming told the Milwaukee Business Journal. “We’ve had some great names in our Milwaukee brewing history. But marketing in that industry is extremely sophisticated and the level of competition is extraordinarily high and the knowledge of people in the brewing industry runs very deep.” Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza, in comments to the AP, was slightly more optimistic, noting the “PR value in selling [the company] to a group of Milwaukee fans.”

This isn’t the first time a group has relied on mass support to influence a Pabst sale. A 2009 crowdfunding effort called “BuyABeerCompany.com” was shut down in 2011 by the Securities and Exchange Commission—not long after current owner C. Dean Metropoulos swooped in.

(Charles Roberts/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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