MILWAUKEE (TheStreet) — In VFW posts, Elks lodges and Shriner temples across America, there are signs for bygone beers that some brewers want to light again.
Before there was Anheuser-Busch InBeV (Stock Quote: BUD), Molson Coors (Stock Quote: TAP) or SABMiller (Stock Quote: SAB), there were regional brewers, whose beer flowed directly into the local conscience. While Pittsburgh stuck with Iron City, Chicago kept Old Style and Texas is still tied to Lone Star, decades of profit padding and cost-cutting let labels like Narragansett, Rheingold and Schlitz fade to pale imposters prior to recent revivals.
"It was death to beer flavor by 1,000 cuts," says Kyle Wortham, senior brand manager for Milwaukee-based Schlitz. "It wasn't something you could recognize yearly, but over decades there's a hell of a difference from what you were drinking back then to now."
Last year, the folks at Schlitz pulled cans of fetid swill out of coolers across the Midwest and replaced it with a bottled, maltier mix more in line with the recipe that "made Milwaukee famous" when it was a top-two brand in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Schlitz brewmaster Bob Newman culled the confidential, unwritten recipe from the memories of former brewmasters and employees before the company distributed it to "men's social clubs" and cranked up a promotional effort that included retro merchandise like lawn chairs, bottle-opening belt buckles and nudie pens featuring Playboy's Miss December 1968 Cynthia Myers. Schlitz gunned for older men who remembered the beer's glory days, had been contacting the company about such a change for years and felt disenfranchised by the big brewers' youth movement and craft brewers' mature prices.
"People are just ready for a regular beer that has equity in a world that has all these boutique beers with citrus flavors, blueberry flavors and cans that turn blue when they get cold," Wortham says.
Despite that assertion, the top beer brands comprised 79% of the market last year, with Bud Light grabbing more than 19% alone, according to industry publication Beer Insights. Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light and Miller Light accounted for nearly half of beer shipments in the U.S. Pabst Blue Ribbon, whose rise from has-been to throwback-hipster favorite seems like a blueprint for Schlitz and its ilk, made up less than 1% of total market share.