By Brian Click
Last year, the tide of pastel-colored urban gentrification that’s risen throughout the first decades of the twenty-first century may finally have turned. With telecommuters fleeing the city for cheaper real estate, the pandemic suppressing most of what makes urban life exciting, and municipal politics taking on a fiery edge not seen since the 1960s, the stereotype of cities as a playground for brunch-eating yuppies may be on its way out.
The rise and fall of the “hipster enclave” (now there’s a dated phrase) can be explained through deterministic economic trends. Looking at it through an alternate historian’s eyes, though, there are always inflection points. Avoiding the gentrification and housing crises of the past decades would’ve required some serious political action, but there are lots of smaller historical moments that could have changed the look and feel of the modern urban environment.
Consider the modern street with a poetic eye and follow the chains of consequence. Those boxy LEED apartment blocks crowding your neighborhood, the minimalist goat yoga studio next door, and maybe even the music you’re listening to right now – all of it springs from a Hail Mary business deal done over forty years ago in Detroit. Your hip urban lifestyle might owe its texture to corporate machinations in the deeply square world of postwar macro beer.
It all began, of course, in Germany, where Johann Peter Stroh started brewing beer for his Pfalz inn in 1775. By the time his grandson Bernhard came to the United States with the great wave of German immigrants in 1848, he’d grown up steeped in the family tradition. In 1850, Bernard started the Stroh brewery in downtown Detroit, which grew over the years into an empire. Stroh remained in family hands as it gradually consolidated the local and regional beer market, surviving Prohibition through the unique expedient of selling ice cream instead.
The company’s gradual rise came to a halt in the 1970s. In the wake of Prohibition, the American beer market had become dominated by a few giant conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch, and smaller firms like Stroh were finding themselves squeezed out. At the time, domestic beer meant light lagers, all of which would taste relatively similar to a modern palate. Discerning drinkers, therefore, were becoming interested in imports, while the less discerning were mostly interested in the bang for their buck they could get with the big producers. Stroh, being neither an import nor especially cheap, was in a tight spot. So in 1977, Peter Stroh, Bernhard’s great-grandson, took a gamble. Borrowing five times the entire worth of the company, he launched a buyout of rival brewers Schlitz.
As people said at the time, it was a minnow swallowing a whale. Schlitz was an enormous multistate concern; the purchase tripled Stroh’s annual beer production and instantly made them the third largest brewer in the market. It was Morning in America and the cash came rolling in. The Strohs became some of the richest people in the country; this led to the expected 1980s corporate hedonism, and one Forbes profile of the family alludes to cocaine-fueled Thanksgiving dinners. But the purchase had been a temporary cocaine high, too. Stroh quickly began to sink below its immense debts as the other big beer companies pushed back against it. By the 1990s, with the rise of microbreweries and declining interest in their product, Stroh was doomed. They tried to stave off the inevitable with more and more mergers and acquisitions, even branching out from beer to biotech. It didn’t work. In 1999, the company simply fell apart, its components sold off to pay its debts. It was an ignoble fate for Bernhard Stroh’s basement brewery.
But the story is just beginning. One of Stroh’s desperate last-minute purchases was Blitz-Weinhard, a smaller regional brand from Portland, Oregon. Another German immigrant, Henry Weinhard, had arrived in downtown Portland in the 1860s, and his company and its big brick brewery complex had been a local institution ever since. He’s at the center of one of the city’s most beloved tall tales. When Portland built its first public fountain in 1877, Weinhard offered to celebrate the occasion by borrowing fire hoses to run beer straight from his tanks into the basin. The city refused – not out of any sanitary concerns, but because the fire bureau was afraid that hoodlums would poke holes in the hoses to suck out a free drink.
By the 1970s, Blitz-Weinhard (as the product was now known) had deliberately associated itself with local pride. Playing on Oregonians’ distrust for tourists and transplants, Blitz put out satirical ads featuring “Schludwiller,” an odious swill supposedly pushed on unsuspecting drinkers by the “California-Eastern Brewing Company.” Typical copy: “We would never for a moment think of brewing Schludwiller with paint, aluminum foil, or most gasoline additives. It’s just the way we do business.” One TV spot had a pair of Schludwiller truck drivers being turned around at the border by a state trooper who tells them we have plenty of good beer in Oregon, thank you very much.
In short, Blitz was, as their tagline said, “the beer here.” Nowhere was that truer than at the Lutz Tavern. Located in a sleepy strip of Southeast Portland, the Lutz was a familial spot loved equally by the city’s tradesmen and contractors and by bohemian students from nearby Reed College. Its four taps poured Blitz, Blitz, Blitz, and Blitz. This humble neighborhood beer joint was Blitz-Weinhard’s single largest account from the 1960s onwards; when they sold their 250,000th keg of the stuff, the company sent them a plaque.
Then historical destiny struck. When Stroh’s holdings were scattered to the four winds in 1999, the Blitz-Weinhard brewery ended up in the hands of Miller. The corporate giant, not particularly needing a regional brand in Oregon, simply and abruptly closed it down.
Time was suddenly ticking at the Lutz Tavern. “My customers had been holding cans of Blitz since they were 16,” owner Lilias Barisich later recalled. “Their fathers drank Blitz, their grandfathers drank Blitz.” She needed to find a replacement – and quick. There were just a few criteria. It had to be cheap, affordable on a Social Security check or union pension. It had to be American-made. And it had to come in a can that would remind loyal Blitz drinkers of their old brand.
As it turned out, the Lutz’s distributor could get them a good deal on an unfashionable lager called Pabst Blue Ribbon.
PBR, yet another venerable old product of German immigrants, had been one of America’s leading beer brands back in the mid-twentieth century but had been enduring a sustained slump in sales for two decades. It was seen as an old man’s beer, unattractive to younger sophisticates intrigued by the rise of microbrews. (Its memetic appearance in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet did not help sales.) So PBR was cheap. Its red-white-and-blue can also happened to look like a Blitz to the unfocused eye. It was the perfect replacement. The Lutz put it on the menu and set the price at a dollar a drink. Pretty soon their regulars were hooked.
It wasn’t only the electricians and concrete workers that liked the deal, though. Students, line cooks, outlaw bicyclists and all other stripes of grungy Portlander also frequented the Lutz, and after becoming regular Pabst drinkers, began to ask for their new beer elsewhere. The Lutz was soon moving more PBR than any bar west of the Mississippi, and other Portland dives and strip clubs were starting to sell it too. Before long, the brewers took notice. Entirely by circumstance, their old man’s beer had acquired a new image as the redneck-chic suds of the urban precariat.
Eager to capitalize but anxious to avoid ruining the moment with pushy advertising, Pabst hit upon the strategy of simply sponsoring cultural events, ensuring its branding was always subliminally hanging around at concerts and skate parks. This low-key strategy, explicitly inspired by a cynical reading of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, was a success. Sales of PBR doubled in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and before long the brand was shorthand for “the hipster”: a potent cultural trope of the time, perhaps best defined by the cheesy comedy sketch show Portlandia. By the 2010s, Pabst was running its own music festival series. Several of today’s stars played Project Pabst on their way up, and it is perhaps the ultimate success of the brand’s marketing that I can say I saw Lizzo at a Pabst show before she was famous.
Meanwhile, a different ripple of the Stroh collapse was having consequences almost as heady. The picturesque shell of Henry Weinhard’s brewery, abandoned by Miller, was targeted for a new brand of urban renewal. In 2000, the building was purchased by local investors who proceeded to convert it into a branded mixed-use development called the Brewery Blocks: a LEED-certified, adaptively-reused complex of offices, condos, and high-end retail stores.
The northwestern quadrant of Portland where the brewery stood had already been undergoing a shift from its industrial past: art collectives taking over abandoned warehouses, et cetera. But the Brewery Blocks development signaled a different kind of money moving in. Today, the Pearl District, as the area has been rebranded, is chic, expensive, and dominated by brand-new condominium towers. The transformation of the Blitz-Weinhard brewery was a harbinger of what would happen to much of central Portland as the Portlandia image took hold in the national consciousness. Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the show’s creators, are often reviled by locals who blame them for attracting yuppies to the city. But Portlandia only echoed and amplified an existing migration of people attracted by the nightlife, the food, and (at the time) the lowest big-city rents on the West Coast. Portland was a byword for a certain kind of cool, which meant trends there were copied elsewhere. It also meant steadily rising housing costs and knock-on inequality.
The Brewery Blocks didn’t cause any of this directly. But they did codify the architectural language of that gentrification. Portland was, historically, an industrial, working-class city, and much of the redevelopment that’s happened in recent decades references, or retains elements from, that recent past: bare brick, wooden beams, concrete slab floors. Similar design choices were made in other post-industrial cities as they redeveloped, and the trend has now grown to the point where airport terminals around the planet include industrial-style brewpubs with faux brick bolted onto the drywall. In fact, the industrial design trend is a little like the PBR trend. The beer became popular because it was cheap, free of tacky marketing, and associated with dive bars and blue-collar workers: it seemed authentic and unpretentious. Once it acquired cultural cachet, it started cropping up in places less suited to that (deliberately created) image.
Peter Stroh’s big gamble in 1977 might have set the butterfly effect flapping in more than just the corporate world. Without the untimely demise of Blitz-Weinhard, would blue-collar and industrial chic ever take off? Perhaps today we’d see fewer bare-brick brewpubs and fewer people wearing Carhartt work duds as a fashion statement. Without PBR and Portlandia, would there be less of a codified “hipster” stereotype? Maybe there would be more recognition of the socioeconomic divides between young urbanites – precarious food service workers on the one hand, and yuppies on the other. What would the knock-on effects be to music and the arts without PBR sponsorship dollars?
The broad socioeconomic strokes of today’s urban life would probably be the same without the chain of consequences described here, but the cosmetic details would be very different. Of course, this is all in the very recent and very murky past, and our hindsight might not be clear yet. At the very least, though, it’s a great topic to discuss over a couple of beers.