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Milwaukee’s Proud Tradition Fades

August 18, 1995 GMT

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ Schlitz, the ``beer that made Milwaukee famous,″ is long gone.

So are any traces of Blatz beer, other than the nostalgic signs outside scores of neighborhood pubs and groceries.

And now Pabst, which opened its first brewery before this famous brew city was even a city, may add another blow to this city’s heritage as the nation’s beer capital.

Pabst Brewing Co., whose famous red, white and blue sign still towers over the northern edge of downtown, says it may contract with G. Heileman in La Crosse to brew its beer.

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The company _ the nation’s sixth-largest beer producer _ is battling a rising aluminum prices coupled with the high cost of running an aging brewery.

To some, the decline in the city’s beer industry is personal.

``Beer means to Milwaukee what casinos mean to Las Vegas,″ said Jeff Beauchene, who has worked for more than 20 years at Pabst in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. ``Milwaukee has always been known as the beer city of the United States.

``If they took away beer, I just don’t know what else Milwaukee would be famous for.″

Robert S. Weinberg, a beer analyst in St. Louis, said changes in the brewing industry have occurred all over the country as the business becomes more competitive.

``They’re more acute in Milwaukee or Wisconsin, because there were more brewers there,″ he said.

Beer production has grown up with Milwaukee, which became a city in 1846. Pabst is the oldest of the major Milwaukee breweries, opening in 1844. The Miller Brewing Co. opened in 1848. Schlitz Brewing Co. opened in 1849. Blatz Brewing Co. was founded in 1851.

In 1947, Schlitz was the world’s top beer producer. But in 1981 it closed its Milwaukee brewery and in 1982, shareholders voted to sell the company to the Stroh Brewery Co. of Detroit. Stroh still produces Schlitz brands.

Former Milwaukee Mayor Frank P. Zeidler remembers when the company left town.

``It was like the sinking of the Titanic,″ said Zeidler, who was mayor from 1948 to 1960. ``How could that big business go under so fast?″

Blatz had a similar fate. The first Milwaukee brewery to bottle beer closed in 1959 and production shifted to Pabst. Pabst eventually sold the Blatz name to G. Heileman, which brews the beer at it’s La Crosse facilities.

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``Some of the major national players that were centered in Milwaukee have declined a great deal from their peak,″ said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketers Insights.

For example, the peak year for Pabst was in 1976, when it produced 17 million barrels of beer, Steinman said. In 1994, he said, Pabst produced 6.6 million barrels.

The industry has gone through a major consolidation, Steinman said.

In 1975, he said, the top three national brewers _ Anheuser-Busch Inc. of St. Louis and Milwaukee’s Schlitz and Pabst _ made up less than 50 percent of the brewing industry.

Today, the nation’s top three brewers _ Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors Brewing Co. _ make up more than three-quarters of the industry.

Weinberg said changes in the industry include the rise of smaller brewing operations like microbreweries and the rise of contract brewing that allow people to enter the industry without building a brewery. In addition, he said demographics and a new health consciousness have been less favorable to beer consumption.

Zeidler remembers when Schlitz in 1952 set a record to become the first brewery to produce six million barrels of beer in a year. In fact he drank the first glass of beer from that barrel on a day when 2,000 employees and more than 1,000 guests drank beer and ate brats and hamburgers to the tune of ``Roll Out the Barrel.″

In the mid-1970s Schlitz hosted thousands of people _ in town for a Fraternal Order of Eagles national convention _ at a giant block party. A reporter told a Schlitz executive, ``They’re drinking it faster than you can brew it.″

The Schlitz executive looked at the crowd and said: ``No they’re not.″

A Pabst promotion from the 1930s said: ``Today, after 93 years, `Pabst’ has come to be a word that is spoken in half the languages of the world _ and that fact, in an age of titanic competition, is sufficient testimony that Pabst has kept pace in the march of time.″

The brewery, which began in 1844 with the production of 300 barrels of beer, was the third largest brewer in the nation as recently as 1975.

Beauchene remembers those days as busy and fruitful.

``We were booming in the 70s,″ he said. ``It was our righteous years. Years that we really prospered.″

But while the future of Pabst is up in the air, Steinman, of Beer Marketers Insights, reminds Milwaukee that ``Miller’s the No. 2 brewer and they’re located in Milwaukee and they’re doing fine.″