Milwaukee history: III

By Gregg Smith

All brewers claim to be the best, but in 1853 one Milwaukee brewer could say with certainty that his brewery's middle name was best. From the brewhouse established by his father Jacob in 1844, Philip Best Brewing had a reputation for quality lager beer in the growing beer market of Wisconsin. As German immigrants poured into the area Best's brewery grew stronger. Increasing profits and a bright future were just around the corner - and an ocean away.

Brewing Heritage and Germany rolls off the tongue as nearly one word, and the land of Beer would send Best's brewery the final ingredient for success. Born in Saxony of 1836, Fredrick Pabst emigrated to the United States with his family at age twelve. Spending the next several years in Chicago, his early life was much like any immigrant youth of that period, but everything changed with the death of his mother in 1853. A pivotal moment, at age eighteen Fredrick was left to find his own way through life. It wasn't brewing's call he answered, but his choice of work and fate drew along an unavoidable path to Milwaukee.

Pabst's journey to brewer began with an unrelated entry level position on the lake steamer "Huron." Finding excitement in plying the waters of Lake Michigan, his thrill with the water seemed a sure sign he was destined for a career afloat. Quickly learning nearly every aspect of operating the ship, Fredrick rose to the position of captain in only four years. He may have thought there was nothing more desirable or satisfying. By all indications Pabst appeared content to never again settle on land, but as with most sailors, there was one thing that could draw him ashore - a woman.

On a stop in Milwaukee, Pabst met Maria Best. A classic romance bloomed and culminated in an 1862 wedding. In the beginning Fredrick resisted the invitation to enter his in-law's business; he had his own career and intended to follow it, but fate intervened. In December,1863 a terrifying lake storm ran the "Huron" aground and put her captain ashore for good. Finally, in early 1864, Fredrick Pabst accepted an offer from Phillip Best and the son-in-law sailor became a brewer.

A drastic career change slows some people down, not Fredrick, once again he grasped the intricacies of a business. His quick mastery so impressed Phillip Best that he was made a partner in less than a year, and when his father in-law retired in 1866 it was Pabst and another son-in-law, Emil Schandein, who took control of brewery operations. Over the next six years, by means of quiet but steady expansion, the brewery became the second largest in the United States and in 1872 was incorporated as the Phillip Best Brewing Company. Finally, in 1874 the brewery took over the coveted spot as the nation's largest brewer.

Of all the years of brewing none was more important to the company than 1876. America was celebrating its 100th birthday and the centerpiece of festivities was the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. By that time brewing had become big business in the United States and nowhere was it more evident than at the Brewers Hall. One of the most popular exhibits, it captured the public's attention with displays of equipment, an operating brewery, and beer. Day after day an enthusiastic public flooded the hall, but for the brewers the highlight was the competitive beer judging. When all was done Pabst's 'Select' brand was judged best and the brewery lay claim to the title 'best' beer in the country. Workers at the brewery could not have been more proud. In 1882 one of them suggested placing a piece of Blue Ribbon on each bottle in acknowledgement of the award. From then on the beer would be known by its nickname of "Blue Ribbon" and more than 300,000 yards of blue silk were used to decorate bottles.

The immediate popularity of the Blue Ribbon was all the encouragement Frederick needed to continue a strategy of purchasing other Milwaukee breweries, expansion of a sales agent system, and development of a rail transportation network. In 1888 his partner Emil Schandein passed away; Pabst assumed complete control, and the following year later renamed the company Pabst Brewing. Then, in 1893 Pabst's beer won a hotly contested competition at Chicago's Columbian Exposition and the name Pabst Blue Ribbon became firmly entrenched in American beer vocabulary. If that weren't enough, the year 1895 brought additional honors when Pabst became the first US brewer to hit the million barrel a year mark.

When Fredrick Pabst died on New Year's day of 1904 he left control of the business to his sons Fred Jr. and Gustav. They successfully guided the company through the discouraging years of prohibition by switching to malt syrup, tonic, cheese and near beer. Although falling from the number one spot, the brewery continued into the 1960's as one of the country's top producers. In 1983 it purchased another famous name in US brewing, Olympia. Then in 1985 Pabst itself became a takeover target when it was absorbed by General Brewing. By the 1990's Pabst was once again positioning itself to regain former glory as it became one of the first foreign brewers to set up operations on the Chinese mainland.

In 1997 one of the saddest chapters in Pabst's proud history was written. Facing the cold reality of bleak financial performance at its flagship brewery, it closed the long obsolete Milwaukee facility. A century and a half after its birth the last barrel rolled out its fabled doors.

To this day bartenders around the world serve foamy glasses of Pabst to eager fans. Some have vague memories of its history and the symbol of the blue ribbon continues to imply it was "Best", but in the same way a ribbon of silk yielded to a printed label, the link between Pabst and Milwaukee has become only a faded shadow of the past.

Gregg Smith


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