Schlitz returns, drums up nostalgic drinkers

It's the beer that made Milwaukee famous. Now Schlitz is making the city nostalgic.

That beer with the old-time mystique is back on shelves in bottles of its original formula in the city where it was first brewed more than a century and a half ago.

Schlitz was the top-selling beer for much of the first half of the 20th century. But recipe changes and a series of snafus made the beer — in many a drinkers' opinion — undrinkable, turning what was once the world's most popular brew into little more than a joke.

But after decades of dormancy, the beer is back.

Schlitz' owner, Pabst Brewing Co., is recreating the old formula, using notes and interviews with old brew masters to concoct the pilsner again. The maker of another nostalgic favorite, Pabst Blue Ribbon, it hopes baby boomers will reach for the drink of their youth, otherwise known as "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous." They also want to create a following among younger drinkers who want to know what grandma and grandpa drank.

"We believe that Schlitz is if not the, one of most iconic brands of the 20th century," said Kevin Kotecki, president of Pabst Brewing Co., which bought the brand that dates to 1849 from Stroh's in 1999. "And there's still a lot of people who have very positive, residual memories about their experience. For many of them it was the first beer they drank and we wanted to give it back to those consumers."

In Milwaukee, the comeback is creating a buzz. Stores are depleted of their stock within days, they're taking names for waiting lists and limiting customers to just a few six- or 12-packs each.

People like Leonard Jurgensen say the beer reminds them of better days. The 67-year-old, who grew up on the edge of the brewery downtown, said decades ago it seemed that everyone in the city either worked for the brewery or knew someone who did. If there was a special occasion, you drank Schlitz. Jurgensen had it on his wedding day 45 years ago.

"For many years the product was associated with happy times, especially to people my age," said Jurgensen, who's writing a book on Milwaukee's breweries. "As we all know, the world is not the best it can be today. We used to think those were hard times and when we look back on them, those were the good old days."

Schlitz' comeback has been slow, just like its fall from the top. It was tested in a few markets and is available in Minneapolis, Chicago and western Florida, besides Milwaukee.

Its ties to the city are deep. Schlitz began its life at a brewery founded by August Krug in 1849. Joseph Schlitz took over and opened the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. several years later.

Nostalgia could prove a driving factor in sales, Kotecki said. Pabst is certainly using it in its marketing, reusing its '60s-era advertisements urging drinkers to "Go For the Gusto" and simple maroon and gold packaging, marked with fanciful script.

The Woodridge, Ill.-based company wants the brew to go national but is taking a slow approach, reintroducing it first in places like the Midwest where the beer was popular.

Hearing from Schlitz-thirsty consumers prompted Pabst to revive the brand, Kotecki said. A malt-liquor form of Schlitz has been available for years in cans. But fans say it's not the same.

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