Pabst Revises Schlitz

After Blue Ribbon success, company tries for another

Schlitz was the top-selling beer in the United States for much of the first half of the 20th century. Until recipe changes and a series of mistakes turned the brand into a dying name.

Now after being off the market entirely for over a decade, the beer is back.

Pabst Brewing Co., who owns the brand name, is recreating the old formula, using notes and interviews with old brew masters according to the company, to concoct the pilsner again. Pabst is hoping that baby boomers will reach for the drink of their youth, otherwise known as “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous.” It also wants to create a following among younger drinkers who want to know what Grandma and Grandpa drank.

In Milwaukee, the comeback is creating a buzz. Stores are depleted of their stock within days and taking names for waiting lists.

Schlitz’ comeback has been slow, with test markets already under way in Minneapolis, Chicago and western Florida, besides Milwaukee.

The Woodridge, Ill.-based company wants the brew to go national but is taking a slow approach, reintroducing it first in places like the Midwest where the beer was popular.

The brew became a top-seller after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out its competitors. It was the world’s best-selling beer from 1903 until Prohibition in 1920, and regained the crown in 1934 until the mid-1950s. That’s when a strike by Milwaukee brewery workers interrupted production and made way for others, like St. Louis’ Anheuser-Busch Cos., to eat into Schlitz’ market share.

Industry tale has it that the beers downfall started when brewery control shifted from immediate family members to more distant relatives, who wanted to expand the business.

With demand high, the new owners wanted to make more, so they shortened the fermenting process. There also were quality control issues for barley, so the beer went flat quickly. Customers associated the flatness with the quickened brewing time, and they weren’t pleased. To fix the flatness problem, the brewers added a seaweed extract to give the beer some foam and fizz. But after sitting on the shelf for three or four months, the extract turned into a solid, meaning drinkers got chunky mouthfuls.

Floaters and flat beer were a bit too much for drinkers to swallow.

And by 1981 the Schlitz brewery closed. The owners sold the brand to the Stroh Brewery Co. in Detroit in 1982, which eventually sold some of its brands to Pabst.

Comments

  1. jarviw says

    admin wrote:
    Now after being off the market entirely for over a decade, the beer is back.

    I didn’t even realize that the beer is off the market for over a decade… I thought Miller Valley has been contract brewing Schlitz this whole time??

    National market they meant?

  2. tarmadilo says

    I remember very well when Schlitz turned undrinkable in the mid-70s. They went from being the best-selling beer in the US to practically invisible in less than a year!

    Glad to hear Pabst is working on brewing a quality Schlitz again…

    Cheers, Tim

  3. jarviw says

    seriously though, was Schlitz really gone for a while?

    at least in Chicagoland and Wisconsin, I have always seen Schlitz.

    is this news really just saying they are trying to roll out nationally again?

  4. Larry Doyle says

    It never went away. Its been alive and well at Miller Brewing Company along with the rest of Pabst’s brands.

  5. mooneyray says

    To fix the flatness problem, the brewers added a seaweed extract to give the beer some foam and fizz. But after sitting on the shelf for three or four months, the extract turned into a solid, meaning drinkers got chunky mouthfuls.

    Floaters and flat beer were a bit too much for drinkers to swallow[I][/I]

    If I remember correctly the seaweed extract reacted with a can lid lubricant they were using at the time, forming “Schlitz Bits”.

  6. admin says

    Right you are. I did a little research and it has been in some limited markets.

    Looks like the push now is for national distribution.

    Thanks for the good info.

    Admin

  7. toddlintown says

    I hate to brag (Nah, no I don’t), but the best explanation of what happened at Schlitz and how/why the beer went bad is in one of my books, BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago.

    Schlitz was the number one beer in Chicago and the Windy City provided the backdrop for a lot of the behind the scene stories of Schlitz and its problems. I also interviewed some of the Uihlein family members who owned Schlitz and also one of the board members. Since nobody wanted to have problems at the Thanksgiving table when the Uihleins got together, I had to use footnotes with “Not for attribution” notations.

    Nonetheless, The story is fascinating, and NO, there was no interaction with sealers on the can lids.

  8. Moonlight says

    Having made Schlitz many years ago, I’d like to give some perspective. It wasn’t just the snow globe effect that caused the brewery to “tank.” It was the whole accountant’s focus of the company. There was a time when Schlitz used 50% corn syrup as an adjunct to increase profitability. This helps explain why they had to add the heading agent that helped cause the flakes. They sped up fermentation by raising ferm temp to 60F and stirring the fermenters, following with centrifuge. The president of the company, Robert Uihlein was quoted in a Milwaukee newspaper as saying, “It doesn’t matter what I put in the bottle, as long as it says Schlitz on the label, people will buy it.”
    When I joined the company in 1980, no one in Milwaukee drank it because of that attitude. By then, they had dumped that jerk and hired a bona fide brewmaster as CEO. With sales dropping 15% per year, and closing a brewery each year, they were now making some really good beer. (Especially the high gravity stuff before dilution on the late night shift!)
    The lesson to be learned here is that even making great beer once again, sales still just kept plummeting… Once you make crappy beer, your reputation is pretty much shot forever regardless of later making excellent beer. I suspect many readers know of other breweries that have suffered the same fate.
    KEEP ACCOUNTANTS AWAY FROM BEER PRODUCTION!

  9. toddlintown says

    Moonlight wrote: Having made Schlitz many years ago, I’d like to give some perspective. It wasn’t just the snow globe effect that caused the brewery to “tank.” It was the whole accountant’s focus of the company. There was a time when Schlitz used 50% corn syrup as an adjunct to increase profitability. This helps explain why they had to add the heading agent that helped cause the flakes. They sped up fermentation by raising ferm temp to 60F and stirring the fermenters, following with centrifuge. The president of the company, Robert Uihlein was quoted in a Milwaukee newspaper as saying, “It doesn’t matter what I put in the bottle, as long as it says Schlitz on the label, people will buy it.”
    When I joined the company in 1980, no one in Milwaukee drank it because of that attitude. By then, they had dumped that jerk and hired a bona fide brewmaster as CEO. With sales dropping 15% per year, and closing a brewery each year, they were now making some really good beer. (Especially the high gravity stuff before dilution on the late night shift!)
    The lesson to be learned here is that even making great beer once again, sales still just kept plummeting… Once you make crappy beer, your reputation is pretty much shot forever regardless of later making excellent beer. I suspect many readers know of other breweries that have suffered the same fate.
    KEEP ACCOUNTANTS AWAY FROM BEER PRODUCTION!

    Absolutely right. There’s a quote in my book, paraphrasing here “You can’t let bean counters run a brewery.” You’re also right about Schlitz returning to making good beer. They even tried “Taste-Test” commercials to prove their point. Unfortunately, nobody really believes these kinds of commercials and more importantly, once Schlitz lost the loyalty of their core beer drinkers, they could have pumped gold into the bottles, and still nobody woud have bought the brand.

    Bob Uihlein, Jr. was arrogant but the family still talks of him as if he was a god. It was he who helped bring down the brewery. And the board of directors were mostly Uihlein family members who went along wth anything he wanted.

    There was also no plan for succession. When Bob died suddenly of leukemia, the board moved like chickens with their heads cut off. While everybody had an opinion, not one of them were willing to jump into the hot seat.

    Read my version of the story in Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago. It’s a sad story, made more so since we can now pull back and get a more somber perspective. But all the while, a thousand things done differently could have saved everything, but nothing, unfortunately, ever was.

    BTW, I’ve met some of the Uihleins. To say they’re arrogant would be putting it mildly. At one instance I mention something about Joseph Schlitz, “Just a bookkeeper,” he sniffed.

  10. mooneyray says

    Nonetheless, The story is fascinating, and NO, there was no interaction with sealers on the can lids.

    After further research I managed to get my facts in order…..the problem was actually propylene glycol alginate(seaweed extract) reacting with silica gel.