My Grandfather was so into Pabst beer that he named his dog after it. This supposedly scruffy little mutt had a sharp personality. So he fit well with his originally rough Milwaukee based namesake brew. I think this also explains much of my obsession with all things beer, much to my detriment at times.
I suppose both my Grandfather and his dog would be rather troubled to see what’s become of Pabst now. For you see, the tale of Pabst beer and of Frederick Pabst himself is a winding journey. I think it emphasizes some of the best, worst, and weirdness of modern America. I don’t know why all this fascinates me but please bear with my degenerate mind for this post is going to be a long one.
Pabst was born in 1836 Prussian Germany to a poor local farm couple. When he was 12 they immigrated to the American Midwest during a time where nobody was checking papers at the border. This was still a time where America was a harsh, dangerous, and backward place. Within a year Pabst’s mother died of cholera. Pabst spent his teenage years working menial odd jobs just to survive and eat. Somehow, he ends up with a lucky gig onboard a Great Lakes vessel. Without an education or connections, he works his way up the maritime ladder and by 21 he’s a steamship captain with a name people know. If you want yet another example to understand how American economic mobility is different nowadays, imagine what it would take for a 16 year old high school dropout waiter to become a ship captain within five years.
Pabst remained close to his roots and the German émigré community. He spoke German at home his entire life. He thus meets a fellow German in Phillip Best, marries his daughter, and ultimately uses his equity in the steamship trade to buy half of Best’s brewery. From then on, Pabst is a brewer, though he maintains the title “Captain” Pabst for the rest of his life. Thus proving once again that it’s awesome to be a captain, just ask Patrick Stewart’s ghost. By the end of the Nineteenth Century the brewery is one of the planet’s most successful. Pabst is Milwaukee’s leading citizen, he owns properties, resorts, banks, a theater, and on and on. Though he came from nothing, he’s literally at the peak of American society. He checks out to the next realm in 1904 as one of the more respected men on the planet.
By 1874 thanks largely to Pabst’s genius the brewery was the largest in America. You could likely make the argument that by volume this meant they were the largest in the world. Though I’m sure this is not provable given the dearth of statistics at the time. I’m positive some dude in Bavaria was brewing ten times that amount in his basement closet alone. In the traditional American style Pabst maintained their signature lager which ultimately became known worldwide as Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). Of note, they never won a blue ribbon or anything. Pabst being the businessman he was just put a blue ribbon on the beer bottle as a marketing gimmick to indicate quality. This gimmick has survived over a century and a half so I guess it worked. It is also for this reason that if your local mayor or councilor tells you they’re solving a problem via a “blue ribbon” committee that you should immediately impeach them.
The PBR name and style survived prohibition as well as the post war era. As the light American lager that it was, you can count on all the goods and bads that come with that designation: reliability, consistency, quality, safety (which was a big deal back then), but ultimately a relative lack of taste and variety. In our new modern beer era folks tend to hammer this style of beer. I don’t go that far. It’s good for what it is. It’s my preference for drinking on weeknights. And it’s important to remember in our over-hopped, lunatic beer world of today, that once upon a simpler time folks were just happy to have decent, quality beer before they had to wake up in the morning and clock in at a tire factory.
Eventually though, things began to fall apart for this legendary company. In a timeline of horrors not uncommon to other Midwestern businesses, in 1985 Pabst is bought in a hostile takeover by another self-made man turned beer baron Paul Kalmanovitz. One can imagine that Kalmanovitz would have run the brewery well, but instead he died two years after the sale and it appears his trust made a true hash of it afterwards. Sales plummeted and by 1996 in a nightmare haze Pabst brewing enters the contract brewing stage and the original Milwaukee brewery is closed.
For those unfamiliar with contract brewing, this is where the brand doesn’t actually own the brewery and hires some guy outside their company to actually make their beer (usually under the supervision of the brand’s brewmasters). Lots of companies do contract brewing well, such as Sam Adams or various Japanese brands for their American sales. But it can also be a true descent into frat boy style poor quality. For example, at the recreational football league I play in somebody brought a 30 pack of Kirkland Light Beer (read Costco) as their contribution. This was made for Costco by a contract brewer in Wisconsin and was awful. Though beer being beer, and football being football, we did drink it.
Many will be well familiar with Pabst’s recent return to prominence via the hipster rage of going back to do things which were once cool. This bizarre trend has enabled PBR to become somehow high quality whereas say Budweiser is perceived as not. I don’t entirely understand this way of thinking but acknowledge that it does exist and has a somewhat legitimate feel to it. After all, if my Grandfather loved this beer and named his dog after it, why not me too? But it’s important to remember that Pabst basically isn’t in touch with the roots that the hipsters worship. PBR circa 1968 is not PBR today. What Pabst exists as today is its own independent LLC, headquartered in Los Angeles, financed by a private equity firm, and still only a contract brewer. One wonders what Captain Pabst would think about this arrangement? Where it has essentially no ties to Milwaukee, no basis in the self-made path he walked, and only a facade of the identity it once had. And yet, still immensely popular.
Pabst Mansion Entry.
In 1892 at the pinnacle of his life Pabst decided to build his retirement home. After two years of construction he moved into Pabst Mansion still located at 2000 West Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. In Pabst’s day, Wisconsin Avenue was called Grand Avenue and was home to the dozens of mansions that housed Milwaukee’s elite. The other mansions are gone now and most of this stretch is home to Marquette University. The Pabst Mansion remains intact largely due to its purchase by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee which bought it from Pabst’s children in 1908 and occupied it through 1975. Following that, a bunch of truly dedicated and scrappy historical preservationists put their time, money, and reputation on the line to preserve the mansion. These same people are mostly at it today.
The house itself is not fully renovated and in many ways isn’t quite the pristine piece of history that one wants when visiting such a place. But they do a mostly great job of making it happen given their limited financial resources and the actual state of the house. The Catholic Archbishops made extensive changes during their time including the painting of all walls, bathrooms upgrades, repurposing of rooms, and so on. In order to acquire cash to progressively reconstruct the house back to its original condition, they’re forced to do some weird things like host weddings and receptions on the second floor in the old master bedroom area.
Photography isn’t permitted inside the house. If you want to see what it looks like, the Internets offer you a variety of clean images. I’ll roughly paraphrase here.
The tour begins on the ground floor reception hall with its adjoining parlor and music rooms. There’s also the kitchen (tiny by today’s standards), dining room, and Pabst’s own office. They advertise the mansion as 20K square feet of space. I don’t think this is an accurate number unless you include all the closets, basement, and attic. I think the true amount of livable space is less than half that. My first impression was how relatively small the place is. Don’t get me wrong, this is a massive house, but the dining room would barely seat a dozen folks in tight quarters. The parlor about the same. Pabst’s office is only slightly bigger than my cubicle. I get the idea that this house reflects the style and temperament of Pabst and his family. He came from nothing, so he wanted a tight, intimate existence. Not the massive, airy, aloof nature of say a British country house of this era. The wealth is instead displayed not in the house’s size but in the way it’s decorated. The painting of the walls, the trim, the intricate wood carvings, the touches of silver or gold all give each room an immensely unique character.
The second floor houses the rooms of Pabst’s daughter and granddaughter, the family sitting room, and the Pabsts’ master bedroom. Almost all of this second floor is renovated as well, though because of their renting requirements the master bedroom area is almost entirely empty. In a shocker for the 1890’s, but what we’d mostly take for granted today, the house was unique in having a bathroom assigned to almost every bedroom. Hot water and heating came via natural gas. However air conditioning was a long future invention, the house is designed to funnel heat up and out an intricately designed trap door in the attic. In a uniquely American touch that would appall the British counterparts of the day the servants quarters are toward the back of the house but on the same second floor where the Pabsts slept. The third floor is populated by a series of bedrooms that were meant for the guests and for Pabst’s grown sons who would occasionally stay there. Most of the third floor is not reconstructed and there’s just not much to see up there yet. Though they have a vision for how it’s all going to look. They said it’ll take years if not decades before the house is entirely reconstructed toward its original look.
Pabst Mansion from the back. The backyard (where the coach house once stood) is now a hotel parking lot with satellite dishes from the local ABC station.
What are we to make of Pabst? If a man’s primary purpose in life is to provide for his family’s future Pabst wins that unreservedly. His children, grandchildren, and ancestors never had to struggle the way he and his parents did. There’s not much to read on the current Pabst family. Though if the tour guides were any indication they all seem fairly well off and help maintain the Pabst mansion with occasional support and the return of old artifacts. Even if Pabst’s descendants aren’t at the pinnacle of society anymore, you can surely count it a success that the family rolls on.
The beer company is entirely different. Its legacy is nothing along the lines of what he’d imagined except for the blue ribbon. One of things that capitalism engenders is the idea that nothing is sacred. Companies, brands, names live and die like it’s nothing. It’s why the companies that have been around for centuries are so special and held with such awe. But for the other 99% of brands or ideas, they’re all going to eventually die. Pabst’s beer was a vessel for the success of his family, and then he and his family moved on, and now only its shell remains. Not as a means to perpetuate the Pabst brand or ideas, but as a means for an LLC and private equity to make a ton of money off an identity somebody else created. This is the reasoning that forced me to conclude that if I ever started a business of my own, that I had to have in mind to discard the sucker in a heartbeat without losing my mind. Modern capitalism means you have to essentially not give a damn because you or your neat brand or cool idea will almost always eventually get bought out, you sell out, or it dies or fails.
I wonder, if because of this, a great amount is lost to the American ideal though. The distance of modern capitalism to the ideas of Pabst’s day goes a long way to explain in my mind why we have such a disconnect between the elite and everybody else. Pabst had a global brand, but was a Milwaukee man. He had business and charitable interests throughout the city. He helped improve the town and make it modern. When he died and his brand left the city, a connection was lost. I sincerely doubt the current Pabst LLC gives any damn whatsoever about Milwaukee from their LA headquarters. Corporate tax methods, overseas profits, quarterly earnings, leveraged buy outs, faceless private equity firms & hedge funds, and whatever do not lend themselves to the type of community capitalism that Pabst practiced.
It’s one reason (among many, many) why so many of the Midwest’s businesses have failed in the last fifty years. It explains why Pabst is no longer brewed in Milwaukee. And, I dare say, it also explained (at least in some part) the black lives matter protest that was walking down the street as a exited the Pabst mansion tour. I couldn’t help but think that if Pabst had been alive looking out his own window and seen that? That his reaction would have been to tackle and battle the problems afflicting the city that he lived in, built, and loved. That he would have had the temperament and clout to bring all the sides together, to forge a tough compromise, bang heads, to put his name and effort on the line to move the needle of society a little bit in a better direction. We could do with some more of his kind today. I think we desperately need it.
Pabst Mansion from West Wisconsin Avenue (with the protest behind me).
This is Pabst’s letter to his children, read after his death. It gives you an idea of what I’m talking about. They hand these out on the tour. Well worth it.