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Pabst Blue Ribbon Seeks Buzz With Hard Coffee

Jul 25, 2019
Originally published on July 25, 2019 5:30 pm

Americans are buying less beer from the country's largest breweries, and that has companies looking for new ways to attract customers.

You can see evidence in the beer aisle, where products like spiked seltzers and hemp-infused ales are aimed at the next generation of drinkers.

Now, 175-year-old Pabst Blue Ribbon is trying hard coffee.

At Jerzee's Sports Bar & Pizzaria in Glenside, Penn., a case of PBR's hard coffee arrived and a week later, only four cans were left.

"It kind of tastes like Starbucks' Frappuccino, honestly, that's what it reminds me of," said patron Kris Beattie.

There is no beer taste. That's because Pabst says its hard coffee is made with "malt beverage," which is related to beer. The company uses malted barley that's fermented. The malt flavor and color is removed, leaving a neutral alcohol that Pabst combines with coffee, sugar, milk and vanilla to make hard coffee.

The drink is a hit with Jerzee's patron Beth Mancini, who jokes, "I could probably take it to work and no one would know!"

Smaller breweries have experimented with coffee for a while now, says Nicole Schmid, who orders craft beers for Jerzee's. She points out a beer called Java Head Stout from Tröegs Independent Brewing, which says on the label that it's "brewed with coffee beans." And for nearly five years, 8th Wonder Brewery in Houston has sold what its website describes as "Porter infused with cold brew coffee and milk sugar."

Schmid says Pabst's hard coffee is "not a new idea, but it's PBR and everybody wants to try it."

Well, not everybody.

One Jerzee's patron who was nursing a bottle of Budweiser didn't want to give his name, but he declined to sample the hard coffee, saying, "Beer should taste like beer."

But tastes are changing, and Pabst Brand Director John Newhouse says his company is trying to respond by being be nimble and diversifying the kinds of beverages it sells.

"So for a while people are going to say, 'Well this isn't a beer — I'm confused.' And that's alright," says Newhouse.

As part of this effort, next month Pabst plans to introduce a whiskey, too.

For now, the hard coffee is being test marketed in five states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maine, Georgia and Florida. The company says sales are strong, but it hasn't yet announced plans yet to expand nationwide.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Americans are buying less beer from the country's largest breweries, and that has companies looking for new ways to attract customers. Walk down your beer aisle these days, and you will find products such as spiked seltzers and hemp-infused ales. And the 175-year-old Pabst Blue Ribbon brand is trying hard coffee, which sounded intriguing. So we sent NPR's Jeff Brady to a bar outside Philadelphia to try it.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: At Jerzee's Sports Bar, a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon hard coffee arrived last week. There are only four cans left.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAN OPENING)

DAWN JOHANSSON: Oh, my.

BRADY: And the drink is a hit with Beth Mancini and Dawn Johansson.

BETH MANCINI: That was actually pretty good. It just tastes like coffee. I don't even taste any kind of hard...

: That is really good.

MANCINI: And I could probably take it to work, and no one would know (laughter).

: Yes.

BRADY: If front of the beer cooler, employee Nicole Schmid looks over the craft brews. She says smaller breweries have experimented with coffee for a while now.

NICOLE SCHMID: So, like, your java head stout - and that's from Troegs. That's from Pennsylvania.

BRADY: And that says, brewed with coffee bean.

SCHMID: Yes.

BRADY: So not a totally new idea that PBR has come up with.

SCHMID: Yeah, but it's PBR, and everyone wants to try it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAN OPENING)

BRADY: So let's try it here.

SCHMID: All right.

BRADY: Cheers. So definitely get the coffee - it's creamy. It's pretty sweet. And then right there at the end, there's some sort of alcohol, but it's not beer. What kind of alcohol is it?

SCHMID: You know, I really don't know much about what's in the product.

BRADY: Pabst calls it a malt beverage, which is related to beer. It's malted barley that's fermented. Then the flavor and color is removed, leaving a neutral alcohol. That's combined with coffee, sugar, milk and vanilla to create hard coffee.

As beer sales decline for big breweries, John Newhouse of Pabst says his company is trying to change perceptions about its brand by expanding into different beverages.

JOHN NEWHOUSE: Into different beverage types because, you know, we want to be a little more nimble and diversified in what we make. So for a while, people are going to say, well, this isn't a beer; I'm confused. And that's all right. We're trying to change that.

BRADY: Next month, Pabst plans to introduce a whiskey. For now, the hard coffee is being test-marketed in five states - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maine, Georgia and Florida. The company says sales are strong, but it hasn't yet announced plans to expand nationwide.

Back at Jerzee's, not everyone is a fan of the concept. One guy sitting at the bar said his name is Hank Williams. I don't know about his heart, but I suspect he's cheating on the name. Still, he's more forthcoming about his opinion of PBR's hard coffee. For him, it's not big fun on the bayou or anywhere else.

HANK WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. That wouldn't be my thing, man.

BRADY: Yeah. How come?

WILLIAMS: Because I've been drinking Budweiser for 40-some years.

BRADY: You don't really want coffee in your beer?

WILLIAMS: No, man. Beer should taste like beer, dude.

BRADY: Do you want to try it?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely not.

BRADY: Well, you can't please everyone.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.