MILWAUKEE -- 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.
The brew became a top-seller, Jurgensen said, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out its competitors. It was the world's best-selling beer from 1903 until Prohibition in 1920, and regained the crown in 1934 until the mid-1950s. That's when a strike by Milwaukee brewery workers interrupted production and made way for others, like St. Louis' Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., to eat into Schlitz' market share. That company, which makes Budweiser and Bud Light, has held the top spot to this day.
Before it vanished, the beer changed — for the worse. According to Jurgensen, considered by Pabst to be the foremost "Schlitzstorian": First, brewery control shifted from immediate family members to more distant relatives, who wanted to expand the business. With demand high, the new owners wanted to make more, so they shortened the fermenting process. And they let customers know it through heavy marketing. There were also quality control issues for barley, so the beer went flat quickly. Customers associated the flatness with the quickened brewing time, and they weren't pleased. To fix the flat problem, the brewers added a seaweed extract to give the beer some foam and fizz. But after sitting on the shelf for three or four months, the extract turned into a solid, meaning drinkers got chunky mouthfuls.
And then, the biggest of errors.
"They decided not to pull their product off the shelf," Jurgensen said. "They decided to weather the storm and sell that product. That's the worst possible mistake they could have made."
Floaters? Flat beer? It was all too much for drinkers to swallow.
And by 1981 the Schlitz brewery closed. The owners sold the brand to the Stroh Brewery Co. in Detroit in 1982, which eventually sold some of its lines to Pabst.
The Schlitz revival is bittersweet for the former brewing capital of the U.S., which has seen its heritage slip away.
Beer was once brewed at about 100 places in Milwaukee, Jurgensen said. The city was home to names like Pabst, Blatz and Miller Brewing. Those first two are long gone, their former breweries now an abandoned site awaiting redevelopment and a condo complex.
And Miller is leaving too. This summer it became MillerCoors LLC in a joint venture with Molson Coors Brewing Co. The headquarters will move about 90 miles south to Chicago, though Miller says it'll keep jobs and breweries in Milwaukee.
Miller, coincidentally, brews Schlitz for Pabst under a contract at its east coast facilities. Kotecki said he hopes to eventually have the brand brewed back in Milwaukee, once some changes at breweries in the city are made.
Kotecki wouldn't disclose sales figures for Schlitz but said they are considerably smaller than for the company's top-seller, Pabst Blue Ribbon. In Milwaukee, it's at about 75 locations, including bars and liquor stores, though that'll grow when more is made.
John Thielmann, 55, of Milwaukee, says his first sip of the new Schlitz sent him back decades. He remembered being a teenager — drinking underage, he noted — spending summers with family on Druid Lake, about an hour from Milwaukee.
But when the formula changed, he started getting headaches after two or three sips, so he stopped drinking Schlitz.
Thielmann, who works at a liquor store in suburban Elm Grove, said he was confident the new formula wouldn't fail him. He figured Pabst had put in enough effort that they'd get the old formula back.
"That first sip was like 'I remember this. This is right,"' he said.