Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer
In an earlier post, I wrote about the oddness of Pabst Blue Ribbon including this blurb on their cans – ‘‘Selected as America’s Best in 1893’’.
Seemed weird to me because it essentially states that they’ve achieved nothing of note since. Just as weird is the story behind how they got to be America’s best that year, which is laid out in Maureen Ogle’s excellent book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.
In that year the World’s Columbian Exposition was held, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ encounter with the new world. As part of the expo was a beer competition where the beers would be judged, not against each other, but a set of criteria. Any beer that met that criteria would get a certificate and a bronze medal.
The bigger brewers like Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch (of Budweiser fame) didn’t like that at all – they didn’t want to take home the same medal as some two-bit brewer from Podunk, Arkansas. And so the judges,
with connections to Pabst or Busch changed the rules and created their own scoring system which included 20 points awarded for ‘‘commercial importance’’ (a phrase none of the judges could actually explain).
Even though the bronze medals would still be awarded to all who met the criteria, the point system meant that brewers figured the highest scorer would be ‘‘the best’’. And both Pabst and Busch wanted that to be their beer. Newspapers reported seeing Busch shouting the judges dinner and other brewers were alleged to offer them bribes as well.
Going into the last round Busch had a two-point lead over Pabst, which led him to proclaim his beer the winner. But Us chief chemist Harvey Wiley, who oddly had to analyse each beer against a sample he had brewed (even though he had no brewing ability), hadn’t handed in his results yet.
When he did, three of the judges didn’t like them and so changed the figures, giving the lead to Pabst. But the other two objected and, after much argy bargy, Pabst was pronounced the winner by a score of 94.6 to Busch’s 94.3.
Needless to say, Busch was pissed off. He objected to dodgy test results that saw him lose the points. An appeal failed and then the executive committee handed the matter to one of the judges to make a final decision. So Busch went looking for the judge in Europe and wined and dined him and got the judge’s approval in writing.
Not that it mattered – while he was gone, the executive committee changed their minds and closed the matter. Pabst then concluded that he was the winner – and presumably not long afterwards, added the slogan to PBR that is still there today.
This and other fascinating tales are in Ogle’s American Brew. If you’re a beer fan and you haven’t read it yet, you really should fix that up quick-smart.