Pabst Revises Schlitz

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.