Call it what you want: the end of an era, a testament to our global economy, or proof that it's truly the end of days. However you view it, the iconic true-blue American brewer, Pabst Brewing, has been sold to a Russian beverage company.
Oasis Beverages is buying Pabst for an undisclosed sum, but estimates run from roughly $700 million to $750 million.
Isn't it ironic?
Pabst Blue Ribbon is a longtime favorite of many, primarily because it was the king of cheap beer. More recently it has been taken up by hipsters, with their forced irony, who latched onto its retro-chic appeal (and the fact that it was satirically endorsed in The Hipsters Handbook, where it was identified as "the one cool beer to drink out of a can").
Indeed, Pabst even eschewed mainstream avenues for pushing its beer, seeking out instead "hip" events to sponsor, including "bike messenger polo" and skateboard meets.
When Kid Rock sought out an endorsement, Pabst loudly and proudly turned him down, and so was born a new guerilla marketing tactic that resonated with the hip crowd, just as it was designed to. It was important to be seen as not doing much of anything, or slacker marketing for the slacker generation.
Success with a shrug
And it succeeded. Pabst, which was founded in 1844 and almost went bankrupt in the 1990s due to faltering sales, was catapulted into the top ranks of brewers. Today it is the fifth-largest brewer, behind Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD), MillerCoors, Crown, and Heineken (OTC:HEINY).
Sales, which dipped below 1 million barrels in 2001, suddenly hit a growth spurt, and by 2009 were growing 25% annually. They widened another 18% in 2010 and were up 14% in 2011.
Yet that is all now in danger of coming undone as its private equity owner, C. Dean Metropoulos & Co., a food industry investor perhaps best known for its investment in Twinkies maker Hostess, sells out to Oasis Beverages. Is it still hip to drink Russian beer?
Don't mess with Texas
Further, PBR isn't Pabst's only beer. It also brews Colt 45, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, and Lone Star beer, which bills itself as the "National Beer of Texas." Will such a decidedly independent, yet American, sensibility be able to swallow Russian brew? (It should be noted that MillerCoors actually brews Pabst beers, and will continue to do so after the sale, according to the Milwaukee Business Journal.)
Its new owners seem to recognize the challenge, as Oasis' CEO was quoted as saying PBR is the "quintessential American brand -- it represents individualism, egalitarianism and freedom of expression -- all the things that make this country great."
Still, can such nationalistic fervor in a line of beer survive the loss of cultural identity, particularly as broad economic sanctions are imposed on Russian companies because of their country's forays into the Ukraine?
Despite its ascendance up the ladder, Pabst only accounts for about 3% of the U.S. beer market. Mass-produced beer shipments continue to trend lower as imports and craft beers rise and the industry sees the influx of hard ciders, teas, spirits, and wine.
Sales by the gallon
Even so, Beer Marketer's Insights estimates PBR has larger volume than Coors (which it overtook in 2006) and Boston Beer's (NYSE:SAM) Sam Adams (which it surpassed in 2010). Euromonitor International estimates 92 million gallons of PBR were consumed in 2012.
Anheuser-Busch commands a near-50% share of the U.S. beer market, well ahead of second place MillerCoors, the joint venture of SABMiller (OTC:SBMRY) and Molson Coors (NYSE:TAP), which has just over a quarter share. But beer volumes have fallen 6% over the last five years, and a survey by the market researchers at Technomic suggests the trend will continue if not accelerate as consumers seek out more flavorful and unique tastes.
Calling it a "perfect storm scenario," Technomic said the smaller brands will grow even as mass brewers lose volume.
Even though Pabst can wedge itself into some of these still-growing niches -- maybe it can market itself as an import! -- it will face some tough challenges regardless.
You're Putin me on
Questions, such as has the hipster movement peaked, still linger. More important, how will global geopolitical events affect Pabst?. At a time when McDonald's is facing a politically motivated health inspection crackdown and ExxonMobil has stopped drilling off Russia's shores because of sanctions imposed by the West, international tensions could still make Pabst a pariah even if its beer isn't covered by sanctions.
That might be the most ironic outcome of all, that Russia gains control over an otherwise nondescript beer just as the market for its blandness evaporates.