Will a Public Pabst Blue Ribbon Still Be Hip?

It will be ironic if blue-collar beer's owners cause sales to fall by going public.

Mar 3, 2014 at 6:20PM

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Brooklyn hipsters, who lately have taken to getting beard implants to attain that ironic look, previously adopted Pabst Blue Ribbon beer -- PBR, to those in the know -- allowing the brewer to grow from more than $500 million in annual sales in 2010 as volumes regularly rose by double-digit percentages, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

In addition to PBR, the brewer sells more than two dozen brands of so-called sub-premium beer and malt liquor, including another hipster favorite, Schlitz, along with Old Milwaukee, St. Ides, and Colt 45. It's in decided contrast to the overall trend in beer, which has favored the premium craft brews over the cheaper mass-produced beers by Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD) and Molson Coors (NYSE:TAP). How ironic.

But now its private equity owner may be looking to shed the brewer, which actually contracts out its brewing to MillerCoors, the joint venture of Molson and SABMiller (NASDAQOTH:SBMRY). According to a weekend report by Reuters, food industry investor Metropoulos is seeking to either sell or even IPO the brewer in a transaction that could ultimately be worth anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.

As Pabst is the fifth-largest brewer behind Bud, MillerCoors, Crown, and Heineken, it's right to wonder whether hipsters will find a more corporate Pabst that has to answer to both Wall Street and investors still a hip beer to drink.

U.S. beer shipments reverted to the same downward trend they've been experiencing for the past few years, with the lone exception of 2012, when they barely inched higher. Craft beer production soared 9.6% last year, compared to a 1.4% decline in the overall beer market, say the market analysts at Technomic, which means mass brewers suffered a more significant fall-off than the totals suggest, since they're buoyed by the craft segment. 

Anheuser-Busch saw total volume drop 2% and MillerCoors' domestic sales to retailers fell 1.9% in the fourth quarter while domestic sales to wholesalers were down 2.2%. On the other hand, craft brew leader Boston Beer witnessed a 23% hike in depletions, or sales made by distributors to retailers. The mass brewers themselves have been acquiring craft brewers hand over fist, and just last month Bud picked up another one in Blue Point Brewing, a 15-year-old East Coast craft brewer. The Brewers Association expects industry growth to hit low double-digit rates again in 2014.

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Yet Bud has also kept its eye on the success Pabst has enjoyed as it recently unveiled Busch Signature Copper Lager, once again tapping into the sub-premium market currently occupied by its own Busch Light and Natural Light. MillerCoors will similarly be going downmarket with Keystone Light while also trying to steal some hipster flair with Hamm's. But that's largely been a losing proposition, as market research firm IRI says domestic sub-premium brews lost more than 15 million cases in 2013 while dollar sales dropped 3.7%.

Pabst has had enviable success because not only do hipsters drink it, but so does the blue-collar crowd, as summed up by one of my favorite old songs, "Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer." Ironically, one can well imagine that long after the facial-hair-implant crowd moves on to a different brew, Pabst Blue Ribbon will still command a popular presence at the local dive bar. If there's an IPO, that might be a beer investors would want to tap into.

I'll drink to that
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