A couple of months ago, Business Wire reported that Pabst was on the verge of being sold to a Russian beverage company. My initial reaction was, "There's gotta be a good Putin-hipster-gulag joke in here somewhere," followed by apathy when I realized that you can't make a good joke about a society you only know as a caricature, and, furthermore who gives a shit who owns PBR?
But then I was reminded that Pabst Brewing represents much more than the Blue Ribbon. The company—which is mostly concerned with marketing, trademark-holding, and deal-making; they leave the actual beer production to a rotating cast of contractors—owns more than 20 of our most storied beer brands, including Schlitz, Old Style, Schmidt's, Rainier, Schaefer, Stroh's, and Olympia. And as if Russian aggression in Crimea and Ukraine weren't bad enough (note: It was), the bastards were on the verge of controlling both St. Ides and Colt .45!
Well, it turned out to be a false alarm. Pabst was sold instead to another American conglomerate. But regardless, anytime a company is sold, there's a potential for change at the consumer level, and we still don't know what our new bad-brew overlords intend to do with these labels, which are all, to varying degrees, mere husks of their former selves.
Worst-case scenario is probably a slight thinning of the herd if they determine it's not worth the extra overhead to print cans that say both "Blatz" and "Old Milwaukee" (for example). A lot of these beers are essentially the same damn thing anyway—and I don't mean that in the dismissive "adjunct lagers are all the same" way: It's widely speculated that, after decades of industry consolidation, many of them now have nearly identical recipes and brewing processes.
But there's also a best-case scenario! What if there's some kind of big sell-off/reorganization deal wherein the brands revert back to local ownership groups hell-bent on revitalizing the proud tradition of, say, National Bohemian? Couldn't some civic-minded crab-cake mogul bring Natty Bo back home to Baltimore? It has happened before. Fruit-juice tycoon Mark Hellendrung headed a group of Rhode Island investors who rescued Narragansett from Pabst purgatory in 2005, and after a rocky start, the pride of Cranston is now going strong.
Narragansett was once the most popular beer in New England, but then the company started changing hands willy-nilly, beginning with its 1965 sale to Falstaff. One dumb thing led to another until production moved out of Rhode Island in 1982, and everything basically fell to shit for a couple dozen years until Hellendrung (who'd made his beer money running Nantucket Nectars) swooped in and began to restore order.
I must confess that I wasn't impressed with the first few batches of the flagship Narragansett Lager I tried in 2006, but either the beer or my tastes have changed since then, because it's now among my favorite discount beers (in Massachusetts, its price is more or less pegged to PBR's).
Gansett's trying to raise money to build a brewery in Providence, but for now the Lager is brewed by Genesee in Rochester, while most of the other, better beers—the seasonals, the Bohemian Pilsner, the Private Stock series of limited-edition bombers—are made by various New England outfits. The idea is supposed to be that it's fine to contract-brew out of state as long as local ownership is committed to quality control, and I pretty much buy that. All Gansett beers are decent these days, and some of them are excellent. Narragansett Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout leans somewhere toward the better end of that spectrum.
I was skeptical, because it has "townie nostalgia stunt" written all over it: Coffee milk, which is milk with coffee syrup, is Rhode Island's official state drink (weirdoes). Autocrat is a leading local purveyor of said syrup, which I've never had, but I gather to be Hershey's chocolate goo with a bit of caffeine. I'm not opposed to the idea of a sweet-milk stout, but I wasn't that into Narragansett Del's Shandy, which was this summer's version of the same deal, except with beloved local lemonade playing the part of beloved local coffee splooge. Two very different beers, to be sure, but I feared we were starting down a slide that was going to end with a Quahog Pale Ale or a Chorizo Hefeweizen.
Nope. Autocrat Milk Stout is the good stuff. It's a nice, frothy number with a big tan head. The predominant aromas are of sweetened coffee and lightly roasted malt. At first sip, it tastes like melted coffee ice cream, which is pleasant, but would quickly grow tiresome if not for the bitter dark chocolate and raisin notes that emerge in short order.
A light pine edge joins on the finish to provide an extra dose of mild but definitive bitterness, as the hops trick your mouth into thinking you're drinking a beer brewed with properly bitter coffee (rather than childish syrupy bullshit), making Autocrat Milk Stout a successful mash-up of two Rhode Island institutions.
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain. Image by Jim Cooke.
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