- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2005

ALBANY, N.Y. - A line of taps pouring elegant brews from Bass to Blue Moon beckon twentysomethings packed into Bomber’s bar. But 21-year-old Elliot Cunniff orders something homier for himself and a friend.

“Two Yuenglings,” he tells the bartender, explaining the attraction after a sip from his pint glass.

“Price. Color. Flavor,” he says. “And the name alone, ‘ying-ling.’”

Mr. Cunniff doesn’t come out and say it, but it becomes apparent as other Yuengling orders roll in: Old-school brews are cool.

Just as young consumers might wear 1970s-look sneakers, sip ‘50s cocktails or download ‘80s hair-band tunes, many are bellying up to the bar for the beers Grandpa drank — maybe a Rheingold, a Leinenkugel’s or a Utica Club.

They’re sometimes called “retro beers,” brands that might bring to mind old men in ribbed undershirts, and which are now finding a new audience with the young. It worked for Pabst Blue Ribbon, and now others are playing the same nostalgic chords.

Getting new life from an old brand is a great deal for brewers because they avoid the cost of introducing a new product. The trick is doing it right. Heavy-handed advertising can backfire. Word of mouth seems to work. Commercials with the Swedish bikini team are a big no-no.

“That’s the whole point of the retro thing, I think,” said Eric Shepard of Beer Marketer’s Insights. “The harder you try to push it, the more skeptical people are going to get.”

These are not the happiest days for brewers. Sales are growing slowly and beer is losing ground to spirits as consumers turn more to mixed drinks. Beer’s market share dropped from 56 percent in 1999 to 52.9 percent last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Among the recent bright spots was the quirky story of Pabst, which caught on early this decade with young hipsters in Portland, Ore., and its popularity spread out. Without initial prompting, “PBR” became a symbol of authenticity. It has been enjoying double-digit growth every year since 2003, said Pabst brand manager Neal Stewart.

Consumers like these beers in part because they cost less than fancy imports or craft brews. They also can play on happy memories of simpler days — maybe of Granddad swigging a beer while barbecuing, said Darrell Jursa, managing partner with Liquid Intelligence, a Chicago marketing agency that has Pabst as a client.

Mr. Jursa also mentions that you are what you drink. Just like a club hopper ordering Grey Goose vodka could be signaling she’s like the urban sophisticates of “Sex in the City,” a Pabst drinker could be showing he is beyond the mainstream.

The challenge for brewers is to tap into that anti-establishment streak without seeming too establishment. Pabst managed by tailoring marketing to its young drinkers. It sponsored skateboarding film premieres, Vespa scooter rallies and art gallery openings.

“I had guys get in my face and tell me if we ever advertised on TV, they’d beat me up,” Mr. Stewart said.

While Mr. Stewart doesn’t think the Pabst playbook will work for every brand, other brewers are at least trying to see if they can capitalize on their own venerable names. Pabst’s stable of brands also includes Seattle-based Rainier, which is running the nostalgia-soaked “Remember Rainier” campaign (the Web site suggests enjoying a retro can to the sounds of Led Zeppelin). Leinenkugel’s, a Wisconsin subsidiary of Miller Brewing Co., introduced retro packaging this year.

One brand that hopes that lightning can strike again is Utica Club in upstate New York.

Once a big seller in the Northeast, the brand was down to selling 100,000 cases annually just a few years ago. Most Utica Club drinkers were 55-plus. Then, Pabst-like, it picked up with younger people. Sales are up 9 percent from last year, said Fred Matt, vice president of the Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, N.Y.

Mr. Matt said the company is contemplating a modest ad campaign that could resurrect old jingles in bars and a cable-TV commercial. Nothing too much, though: The company doesn’t want to kill the positive buzz.

“More than anything,” Mr. Matt said, “we’re just letting it go by word of mouth.”

Rheingold, a resurrected New York City brand, brought back the Miss Rheingold competition, a popular promotion from the 1940s through the 1960s, as it tried to win over “culture drivers” — i.e., cool people — in trendy city neighborhoods.

“You look at what the big beers are doing, and you don’t want to fall into that sort of same theme, where you don’t really stand out,” said Norm Snyder, chief operating officer of Rheingold Brewing Co.

Mr. Snyder said making Rheingold retro is not the company’s main goal, rather it’s making the name synonymous with New York City.

Similarly, while Pennsylvania-based Yuengling (“America’s Oldest Brewery”) might advertise on progressive rock stations in one market, its commercials might be broadcast between Frank Sinatra songs elsewhere, said Chief Operating Officer David Casinelli.

Neither brand is betting the house on something as fickle as retro.

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