New Book Answers the Question of Where the Beers Are That Grandpa Used to Drink

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Beer historian explores what happened to famous brews like Schlitz, Rainier, Schmidt and National.

Using Chicago as a backdrop, leading beer historian Bob Skilnik delves into the reasons why once favorite national and regional beer brands have faded in popularity, some banished to obscurity. BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago ($24.95, Hardcover, 416 pages, Barricade Books, ISBN 1569803129), proves to be more than a regional history book as it also details the downfall of national breweries like Schlitz and Pabst, to once powerhouse regionals with their flagship brands such as Seattle’s Rainier, Detroit’s Stroh, Baltimore’s National Bohemian and G. Heileman’s Old Style, once anointed as “Chicago’s Beer.”

“When it came to gaining favor with the Windy City’s thirsty beer drinkers after the local industry went flat in the 1970s,” notes Skilnik, “a lot of out-of-town brands tried -- and a lot of brands died. Chicago’s stature as a financial center, as a hub of advertising agencies, and as a convention and hotel stronghold, however, made it the stage for a number of behind-the-scene maneuverings of brewery takeovers and consolidations which also affected the national beer market, and still does.”

“Interestingly, from stalwart brewing giant Anheuser-Busch to young regional craft breweries like the Anchor Brewing Company or the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, breweries today are often hanging their hats on the marketing hook of history,” notes Skilnik. “In the case of ‘virtual brewer’ Pabst, it’s all about nostalgia. Beer -- or good beer marketing -- seems today to make brand nostalgia flow like warm honey.”

As the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have reported on several recent occasions, when it comes to beer, retro is in, whether the beer served is Miller High Life, “The Champagne of Bottled Beers,” Schlitz as “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous,” or young Pabst Blue Ribbon drinkers telling bartenders to “PBR Me!” While there’s a bit of serendipity to this reacquaintance of beer drinkers in their 20s and 30s to the beers that “grandpa used to drink,” some of this is deliberate. The Pabst Brewing Company has recently relocated its headquarters from San Antonio, TX to Woodridge, IL, putting them in a better position to nurture the growing trend for old time brands like Old Style, Pabst and Schlitz in the Midwest, especially in Illinois where beer sales for retro brews are on the rise. Illinois now accounts for about 10 percent of all beer sales for the Pabst Brewing Company, much of this coming from the demanding Chicago beer market.

Long after the men behind the old-time breweries have left the brewing industry, as described in BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago, retro brands are back and thriving in Chicago. “Call it great marketing or simply beer karma,” says Bob Skilnik, “but nostalgia makes for one more interesting chapter in Chicago’s love affair with the golden nectar.”

About the Author

Bob Skilnik is an alumnus of Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology -- the oldest school of brewing technology in the U.S. -- where he earned a degree in brewing technology. He is the former associate editor for the American Breweriana Journal, a contributor to the Chicago Tribune's Good Eating food section, trade journals, magazines and newspapers. He has appeared on ABC's "The View," the Fox News Channel, ESPN2, and Chicago's WTTW. “BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago” is his fifth book.

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