Tapping a retro market

  • Article by: TOM DAYKIN , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Updated: April 18, 2008 - 9:37 PM

Pabst Brewing Co. is reviving bottled Schlitz nationally, marketing it with the same 'gusto' that made Milwaukee famous three decades ago.

Pabst is hoping older beer drinkers buy into its nostalgia.

MILWAUKEE - The beer that made Milwaukee famous hopes to stage a comeback by returning to a brewing formula discarded more than 30 years ago.

Schlitz had been available only in cans for several years until the brand's owner, Pabst Brewing Co., began selling it in bottles last year in the Twin Cities and Tampa, Fla.

That bottled version of Schlitz, which uses a traditional recipe last used in the early '70s, is aimed at older baby boomers who remember the beer from its glory days, before Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. cheapened the formula.

This month, 10 Chicago taverns and liquor stores began carrying the bottled version.

The "new" brew, dubbed Schlitz "Classic 1960s Formula," carries a more "full-bodied taste," with a bit more flavoring from hops than Schlitz in cans, which remains unchanged, said Kyle Wortham, a brand manager at Pabst, based in suburban Chicago.

"It tastes like a real beer," Wortham said about classic Schlitz.

In the Twin Cities, a highly unscientific survey Friday found that out of three liquor stores surveyed, one carried bottled Schlitz: the Cellars in Roseville.

So far, sales have been disappointing, said Rod Olson, manager of the store. Olson began carrying the beer last summer, and in the first two months, despite prominent in-store displays, he sold only a case and a half -- three 12-packs.

Part of the problem, he said, is Pabst's pricing. At $9.99 for a 12-pack and $5.99 for a six-pack, it's more expensive than Budweiser, about the same as Michelob and almost as expensive as more upscale brews such as Samuel Adams. "It's just overpriced," he said.

Unlike most beers, classic Schlitz isn't being marketed to people ages 21 to 35, who buy more than half the beer sold nationwide.

Instead, Pabst is selling bottled Schlitz as a sudsy comfort food for men in their 50s and early 60s. Those drinkers mostly came of age in the 1960s, when Schlitz was advertised as the beer with "gusto."

A series of Web-based ads, which can be viewed at schlitzgusto.com, feature a man in his 50s. Each spot provides a definition of gusto.

One ad shows a bar scene with a 20-something looking at his cell phone, as the narrator says gusto is "instant messaging -- face to face." The young man then moves aside to show two baby boomers yukking it up at the bar over a couple of beers.

The tag line for the ads: "Go for the gusto. Your Schlitz is back."

Can enough older drinkers be lured back to Schlitz to make the brand's relaunch worth the investment?

Pabst Brewing, which counts Old Style, Old Milwaukee and Pabst Blue Ribbon among its lineup of inexpensive beer brands, has seen sales volume erode for several years.

Last year, Pabst Brewing sold 6.1 million barrels, down 6.2 percent from 6.5 million barrels in 2006, according to trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights. In 2000, Pabst sold 10.8 million barrels.

Separate sales figures for Schlitz were not available, but the trends for most mainstream, full-calorie beers are not promising. The cheaper versions of those full-calorie beers -- brands such as Schlitz, Milwaukee's Best and Busch -- have seen sales drop a combined 18.9 percent over the past five years, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

But Schlitz has its devotees who appreciate the traditional recipe, said Jerry Glunz, general manager of Louis Glunz Beer Inc., a Chicago-area wholesale distributor. Glunz Beer used a horse-drawn wagon Monday -- the 75th anniversary of the end of prohibition on beer in America -- to deliver classic Schlitz to bars and liquor stores in the city's Lakeview neighborhood and found 20 people waiting at the first stop.

People in their 50s and 60s still drink a lot of mainstream beer, he said.

"They're not looking for microbrews, they're not looking for imports," said Glunz, who plans to expand sales of classic Schlitz throughout Chicago.

Pabst's approach is a good idea, said Harry Schumacher, who operates Beer Business Daily, an Internet-based trade report.

"They have nothing to lose," Schumacher said. "It's not a big financial outlay. If it works, there could be a huge upside. If it doesn't work, they'll likely sell some beer anyway."

Staff writer Casey Common contributed to this report.

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