Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mama Said ... Knock You Out

As LL Cool J once proudly barked "Don't call it a come-back, I've been here for years."

Schlitz is returning to bottles, eliminating the accelerated fermentation, dropping the corn from the grain bill and adding some hops. Don't believe me? Maybe you'll believe the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. According to the article, the "new" recipe is actually an "old" recipe used by Schlitz before it made some changes in the late 1960s.
[Accelerated fermentation, adopted by Schlitz in 1967, is a process] where every yeast cell is held in active suspension in the fermenter until it has converted the sugars to the desired amount of alcohol. ABF was devised as a control over beer quality and uniformity. It hastened fermentation by 10 days and allowed a 25% increase in the brewery's production capacity (this process was widely adopted by other brewers). But the word was out among beer drinkers that Schlitz had changed the taste of its beer. The rumor was that the beer was still 'green', not properly aged. While some thought the taste change came from the new process, others thought that it was due to the kind of barley available in the mid-1970's (some believed that Schlitz had switched from barley to corn).

Initially, the altered Schlitz beer was thought to possess several advantages. A lighter beer, one which the public had begun to demand, resulted from the new recipe. An aftertaste was eliminated, encouraging beer drinkers to consume more. Also production costs were trimmed by as much as fifty cents per barrel. Yet, as it appeared to the public, Schlitz was cutting on quality in order to increase profits-and was ruining the taste of the beer in the process. From Michael Reilly's History of Schlitz.
While some question exactly which change caused the downfall of Schlitz, the fact is in the 50s it was America's #1 beer and by the early 80s it was a second-rate has-been not even good enough for consumption by drunk fraternity boys. At some point Schlitz was purchased by Stroh's and then later by Pabst who owns it now.

Psi Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity - 1965-1966Schlitz is returning to the recipe that was good enough to almost single-handedly decimate the Wisconsin brewing industry. By the early 1900s Wisconsin was home to over 200 individual breweries, by 1972 there were only 7. In the 1950s, while the vast majority of Wisconsin's breweries were closing, Schlitz became the nation's largest brewery and by the 70s it was still riding that wave of popularity.

Interestingly, this new bottling allows us to take a virtual trip back to the mid-60s. Fauerbach's new recipe is its old recipe, revived from a recipe sold in the mid-60s; and Schlitz's new recipe is its old recipe, revived from a recipe sold in the mid-60s. So, grab the golf clubs, the skateboard, and the guitar, put on that groovy sweater set and get a case of the Schlitz and Fauerbach and we'll have ourselves a safari party.

What place do these "new" beers serve in today's market though? It seems hard to believe that Schlitz or even Fauerbach could be marketed as a "premium" beer. Yet, one would think there would be some premium attached to the "authenticity" angle. The conventional wisdom is that there are two types of beer drinkers out there - those that care what they are drinking (you and I) and those that don't (drunk college kids and the vast majority of the indifferent masses). But, it appears that there may be a third category now, comprised primarily of wistful baby boomers recalling the fraternity days of yore and yearning for that Schlitz and Fauerbach (is Hamm's due for a make-over?!).

So, more generally, the premium derives from the age-old marketing of nostalgia - the idea of linking people and events to products and then later using marketing efforts to recall those events and people and thus invoke desire for the product. We see this here in Wisconsin with Leinenkugel's and their evocation of the Northwoods and its rustic beauty and the fact that Leinie's is so entrenched there that all of our positive associations with the Northwoods invariably revolve around the drinking of a Leinenkugel's. Thus, by merely showing the Northwoods, perhaps via an image of a dock and a sunset along a small wooded lake with a folding chair set on a handmade pier, Miller successfully draws the link between the viewer's recollection of that experience with the beer present during that experience - Leinenkugel's.

Why do I have this gnawing fear that in 30 years Milwaukee's Best Ice is going to be making a comeback? And pictures of young 20-somethings doing kegstands, wearing Umbros or flannel, to a soundtrack of Mudhoney and Soundgarden.


  1. Mmmm. Hamm's. I can almost taste it.

  2. You know, most of my friends and I have that one cheap non-micro that they keep around for the memories, or for when you just want a can of suds or whatever. One guy, a masterful home brewer even, loves Hamms - it's what he switches to after having a few of his potent homebrews. Another likes to have a 12'er of Budweiser in the back reaches of the fridge. He also gets occasional cravings for Olympia, since that's what his dad used to drink. I used to keep a few cans of Pabst around back in college, but now I've switched to Grain Belt.

  3. In the hot summertime, there's nothing better sometimes than an ice-cold can of Pabst. Lots of these "low end" beers actually taste decent for their genre. The nice thing is they're thirst quenching because they're light.

    Can you imagine cracking open a coffee/chocolate/burnt dog hair porter after a sweaty bike ride? Yeeech!

  4. Eh? So what? Yet another retro-brew hoping to cash in on a nostalgia bonanza.

    It won't happen.

    Craft beer drinkers are not big drinkers of bland regional lagers. The real hard-core original Schlitz drinkers are well past their prime swilling years by now.

    I just don't see where the market is. Craft beer drinkers won't drink a lot of it because, if it is true to the original, it won't have much taste and the loaders have plenty of Minhas product to keep them sedated inexpensively.

    The only hope is some sort of kiddie-kraze like Huber had a few years ago and Pabst and the "Beast" have had more recently.

  5. I would think that Schlitz may have a huge hit, but if they do or don't, it will be nearly entirely independent of the quality of their beer and mostly dependent on the strength of their marketing. I agree with the April 11th post that 96% of the beer sold in the US is pure marketing, sad but true. That being said, I will be drinking at least one of these to see what the #1 beer used to be like, but I don't think that it will undermine Blatz as my beer of secret, shameful choice when I just want suds.

  6. Youngsters don't be fooled. This tastes nothing like old time Schlitz. I was very disappointed in the lack of flavor in this latest version. They did a great job with the label and cap art, but the beer is bland tastes like any other light beer. I heard this was the 60's version, and maybe it is, if that is the case they should have used the 70's version, which is when it had flavor. PBR and Schlitz are not your fathers beer.

  7. For a mass produced is very good. Much better than Bud or Miller.

    If they improve the marketing they could actually be unlocking a gold mine.

    Blind taste testing seems like a logical thing to do.


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