We’ve long believed that three of the happiest words you can holler on this earth are “Old Style, here!” when seated at a particular ballpark on a warm sunny afternoon. Sadly, you can’t do that anymore, but it’s still Chicago dogma that if you see an Old Style sign hanging outside of a drinking establishment, it’s probably an all right place to grab a beer (macro tho it may be, and it likely will be).
Having established our pro-High Life bonafides long ago, it’s a little overdue for us to check in on Old Style like this. That might be due to the fact that despite a decades-long run as “Chicago’s beer”, that star has been fading in recent years. The signs still hang outside dives, the tallboys are still on special all over town, but the Old Style luster seems to have dimmed.
Even though it was brewed in Wisconsin, Old Style held a firm grip on being “Chicago’s Beer” for the longest time mostly by default — for decades, they seemed to be the only “brewery” to want the title in the first place. And besides, who else even existed that would compete? The early years of Goose Island? The original incarnation of Baderbrau? Schoenhofen? Not likely. No, we were Old Style territory, through and through.
It isn’t a bad thing, either — as contracted macrobrews go, it’s a solid beer. It’s fullbodied but easy drinking, not as flavorful or broadly appealing as a PBR but certainly better than being associated with say, Old Milwaukee or Milwaukee’s Best, for example. One could make the case that it represented the people of the city – equal parts rough but refined (adjunct but krausened), harsh but consistent, not the best tasting but full of character.
It’s a beer that has stood the test of time — it took Gold in this year’s World Beer Cup for the best American-Style Cream Ale. (If you learn nothing else from this, now you know that Old Style is still an award-winning beer.)
All of this is to say that I like Old Style. Always have. If they don’t go changing it again, probably always will.
So when I got an email from the Old Style team informing me of some promotions and plans for the brand, especially in the wake of the post-Wrigley decision, I thought it might be a good time to talk to the folks over there. Naturally, I asked for a brewer first, but with these nationwide contract brands, you get a marketing person first. That’s fine — as with so much of what we drink, we intake through our eyes and perception, labels and reputation first. As such, a person in charge of a brand like Old Style actually has more control over the family of beers than the guy that pours in a grain bill according to a recipe that’s years old that he didn’t come up with.
Brandon Carr is that person, the man tasked with the job of managing the Old Style and Old Style Light brands in a world also full of Schlitz, Pabst, Colt 45 and St. Ides (and those are just the other PBR family beers also owned by the Metropolous family). What was with that Wrigley thing? How did Old Style get that Mad Men placement? And why update your can in a “retro-everything” kind of world?
All good questions! And not so coincidentally, all questions I asked.
Guys Drinking Beer: All sorts of other brands are doing the “retro thing” and are getting a lot of attention for it, whereas Old Style updated a couple years ago to a bit of a sleeker look. What prompted that decision, and would you ever go back to something more heritage?
Brandon Carr: It’s one of those things we talked about quite a bit. Obviously with a lot of the brands here at Pabst – the biggest thing that is great about us is there’s so much history in all the brands. A lot of [them] don’t even need to be” retro-ed.” The’ye always been the way they are and there aren’t a lot of changes that need to be done.
As far as Chicago and Old Style, the brand runs extremely deep and it’s been a round for a long time. The old [logo] said “Heileman” on it and we were no longer wanting to use that, and we wanted to put more of a flag in the ground as far as Chicago is concerned. And it’s been around since 1902, so there was no better way to do that than introducing the new can with “Chicago’s Beer since 1902.” The main reason behind that was to … become more of a Chicago-centric staple.
So, you’re right — it’s only been a bout a year since we’ve done that; moving forward, especially as the brand manager of it, I’ve wanted to come back with a retro can at some point. It probably won’t be for another year or two, but I do love the style of those cans and the way the old ones looked and even the logo…I don’t know if you’re a big Mad Men fan but the final episode actually featured Old Style in it. They were drinking that from the old 1950s or 60s cans.
It’s very recognizable, it’s a great look as far as the brand and moving forward, we wanted to focus more around Chicago’s Beer and that’s why we went that direction. The answer is yes – I definitely want to bring back a retro can at some point. By the time we do it, hopefully the whole…I guess…”spectacle” of going retro will fade out, because that’s not why we want to do it. We’d want to do it moreso for the heritage of the can than just as the fad of what everyone else is doing.
GDB: Talk to me a little more about the Mad Men placement. How did that happen?
BC: We have a gentleman here in our office that works pretty closely with some propmasters and different storylines. From what I understand, and I could be wrong, but more times than not it’s just whenever it’s written into the script, it’s…because those brands have been around for so long and they are such an iconic, heritage brand that things like Mad Men and other shows out there that date back into the 40s, 50s, 60s, and even the 70s, those brands were very popular at those times. It kind of just works its way into scripts.
Especially if they’re looking into their history and when they’re writing those scripts, [they’re] looking at the times and wanting to be as spot-on as possible. [In] the Mad Men one — I know a lot of our brands, Schlitz is in there. There are a few other brands that are being featured, moreso for the historic element and the alignment of those shows and the historic element together. I believe [in]the Mad Men episode they were actually in Indiana, so it’s kinda fun to see that. I know even know our distribution is more Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana, so to see that featured even around there in the Indiana market was kinda fun to see.
GDB: You mentioned adding the line about being “Chicago’s Beer Since 1902.” For decades, the brand really had a stranglehold on that identity. There was no “Chicago” beer that was associated just with the city for a really long time. More recently (loosely defined) you’ve had Goose Island since ’88 and in the last 3-4 years you have dozens and dozens of true Chicago and Chicago area breweries.
Do you think with all these new different places in the landscape, that the message of being “Chicago’s Beer” has been lessened a little bit?
BC: I don’t think so. I think a lot of it…obviously the way that craft has taken over not just Chicago’s market but really every market is something that definitely won’t go away any time soon. I mean, they’re all starting to find their identity and try to grow their brand within the market. As far as Old Style, I don’t think that it’s gotten lost as far as its brand, its identity. I think the biggest thing is that crafts are “the new thing.” And it’s the new trend. And people are starting to venture out as far as away from their normal everyday lager. That’s one of the things that we are trying to focus around branding a little bit more.
I think it’s always been “Chicago’s beer,” I think it’ll always be “Chicago’s beer,” and it’s definitely a proud staple for that market. So I think we play really nice, I think we align really well with a lot of the crafts. You go to a bar and you drink a $6, $7, $8 craft, you have two or three of them…everyone’s different but I seem to get full off the higher [ABV] IPAs. I think the traditional lagers are definitely ones that will always stay around and will always be the staple of where they’re at. Old Style’ s kind of always been there, and will always be.
GDB: There’s a story from 2009 that talked about going back to the original recipe that included krausening. In that piece they did mention that kind of extra fermentation makes things a little bit lighter and a little easier to drink. Has that process changed at all in the last 5 years? Have there been any updates, or are we still enjoying the same revived recipe? I think that took place a year after the Schlitz reintroduction.
BC: Right — that would be more of one of our brewmaster’s questions, but for me to speak to it — yeah, its definitely that we wanted to get back to more of the orginal recipe. As you said, more of that lighter, crisper finish and taste. So that’s what we wanted to do…I’ve heard a lot of good things on the market as far as talking to people, even with them not knowing I work for Old Style. Just picking their brain — consumers, customers at bars, seeing what they thought. I know that they definitely noticed a difference. As far as the actual recipe and how it’s brewed, like I said, that would be more of a brewmaster question.
It’s funny you say that — it’s gotten so many rave reiews just from consumers and from customers that even just this year alone, 2014 Old Style took home the World Beer Cup Gold Medal. So it’s definitely getting recognized not just from the consumer in the Chicago market but as far as a nationwide and worldwide honor.
GDB: Would Old Style ever jump on the bandwagon of the IPA or the Radler and come up with something similar, or is it strictly lager for you guys?
BC: It’ll probably always be strictly lager. As far as ownership is concerned and our brewmasters — those are always things that people have talked about, and I can’t say down the road if there isn’t a …you know, signature or a line extension. But as far as the here and now, our main focus is just on the Old Style and the old Style light. Like I said, with the Chicago market and even into Wisconsin and Indiana becoming more of that staple, traditional lager for you in that market.
But, that’s not to say that it can’t ever be done, or that it won’t be done. But that would definitely be something that is down the road.
GDB: Let’s talk a little about that Cubs “breakup.” How have you guys adjusted to the reduction of that presence, those eyeballs? Those vendors aren’t out in front of anyone and hollering your name any more.
BC: The best thing that happened was that when we first initially heard of what was happening, we launched the Decision 2014 campaign that gave our fans and consumers a voice as far as wanting to keep Old Style in Wrigley. We reached about 10,000 signatures on that and had some great media outlets that picked us up, regarding what we were trying to do and how we were trying to do it.
Fortunately, we still are in Wrigley. You can still grab your Old Style at the game. You might have to actually get up and go get one, but other than that, we’re definitely still in draft towers, featured in cans and bottles, and in the clubhouses and suites. That’s always good. I mean, it’s been a staple of Wrigley and with the Cubs for 63 years, so it’s great that we’re still there.
But as far as not being the main sponsor, it definitely opened up a window of opportunity for us as a brand to focus more on Chicago as a whole. To give back more to the city, and focus on the consumers. One of the main things that we did in conjunction with that as far as giving back to the city was the neighborhood pub crawl that was running from May and goes through the end of July. Every Thursday we have a double-decker wrapped tour bus that up to 50 people can jump on and we’d take you from neighborhood to neighborhood and you can venture out and enjoy your favorite bars in all your favorite neighborhoods, so to speak.
It’s been a great campaign and a great program that we’re trying to do. You can actually go online and still sign up for that. We pick a couple winners each week to jump on and take part in our weekly pub crawl. We’ve heard nothing but good things from that, I know a lot of consumers have loved the fact that we’re able to give back to them and just open up and bring out the loyalty and the fan base of our consumers a little bit more. It’s fun. It’s been a great opportunity to just basically put our footprint into Chicago and into Illinois and Wisconsin and Indiana as a whole – it opens up more opportunities to give back.
GDB: Your beer is contract brewed under MillerCoors. Considering the constant growth of local Chicago breweries, and seeing as how the big Lagunitas production facility is, do you think there’d ever be a chance that Old Style’s actual brewing could ever come home to a Chicago address?
BC: This is kind of outside my realm; it’s moreso to do with ownership [than] brand strategy and things like that, but with all of our brands it’s one of those things that’s always discussed. I don’t want to say no, there’s never an opportunity, because there always is. It’s just a matter of the right time and if everything can align the right way.
As far as now, we’re under contract and so that’s one of those things that’ll stay for a little bit, but you never know. There’s always room to discuss that and hopefully down the road we can. At this moment, I can’t promise anything.
GDB: Another business question — the Metropolous families has put the Pabst brands up for sale and are shopping them for buyers. Do you think that if someone…say, some incredibly rich Chicagoan wrote a check they’d be able to split off Old Style and bring it home?
BC: Well, I mean you can pretty much do whatever you want with something that you own! If that person was out there and wanted to buy the Pabst portfolio and split Old Style off and keep us in Chicago, to each his own. I commend that person. [laughs]
Hypothetically speaking, unless someone comes out and does that, we’ll never know. It’s one of those things that whoever ends up buying them and whoever they sell to can basically do what they want, to answer your question. Here and now, as far as Pabst and the way it’s going, I couldn’t be more happy with everything that we’re doing as far as a brand, as far as marketing and not just with Old Style but all brands across the board.
So I’m not sure where we’re at with the whole sale aspect, and I’m not sure what the Metropolous family plans on doing, but either way Old Style is definitely not going anywhere. It’s been around for a long time and I hope to continue to be the brand manager for them for a while to come.
GDB: Final question: how many times a day or week do people ask you what krausening exactly is?
BC: You know what? It used to be quite a bit! It’s definitely, with the changing of the logo and the changing of the brand strategy and trying to be more focused around Chicago, it’s definitely becoming less and less. I usually make it to Chicago at least once a month and moreso you still hear that…I’ll jump in a taxicab and someone will talk to me about it but moreso than not, it’s starting to just become “Chicago’s Beer.”
For the last year, you hear it every once in a while, I couldn’t put a number on it. But I haven’t heard it as much as I used to, that is for sure.
Old Style’s “Golden Can” promotion is ongoing; more info is here. This interview has been edited and condensed.