It’s a common sight in the Bay Area: menus that don’t just tell you what you’re going to be eating, but where exactly your food is coming from, the closer to the restaurant the better. The bacon’s from Niman Ranch, the eggplant is from Full Belly Farms, and the bread from Acme. And the the butter you’re slathering on it? Fresh from Spring Hill Creamery, no more than two days from farm to table.
But at a few restaurants in Oakland, there’s a different ingredient being highlighted: the decidedly non-organic, non-local Pabst Blue Ribbon (The beer has a veneer of being a less corporate alternative to Coors or Budweiser despite being brewed by Miller). PBR has not only found a happy home in bars across the city but in its restaurants as well, showing up in chilis, burgers and tomato soups.
How did the fizzy yellow beer became a common menu item in an area obsessed with localness? PBR’s ubiquity can be traced back to a canny marketing strategy the company adopted in the early 2000s, when they made the conscious choice to eschew traditional marketing in favor of more subtle advertising, targeted toward hip twenty somethings turned off by traditional beer advertising. Less billboards, more sponsoring art galleries (The New York Times Magazine article on their efforts opens with a description of a Pabst sponsored bike polo match).
Their efforts paid off. Sales surged, doubling in the last ten years, and PBR became synonymous with the market they were trying to reach: millennials who love cheap beer as much as they like living in large cities like Oakland.
But the Oakland restaurants where Pabst has shown up on the menu swear they're not trying to court the Temescal Alley Barber crowd. They’re using it’s only for the taste it imparts--or the lack thereof.
When Sergio Becerra opened Park Burger in the Lower Hills, he knew he wanted chili on the menu. After settling on a recipe, he decided that beer was a necessary ingredient, so he tested how various beers affected the chili’s taste. He made batches with several local beers--including Linden Street’s Common Lager--but in the end, they all made the chili too bitter. PBR was the victor.
“We made, like, six different versions, and the lighter beer was better tasting,” Becerra said. “We have a whole bunch of local beers that we carry here at Park Burger, but nothing’s the same as PBR.”
The chili is a fairly traditional: not too spicy, filled with chunks of Marin Sun beef and crowned with a lid of shredded cheddar. Between the small amount of PBR used (the current recipe requires just a can and a half of beer for four quarts of chili), and the hours it simmers, the beer is a subtle addition, contributing a barely there malty sweetness. For chili obsessives, the controversial part of the soup will likely be the inclusion of beans, not the PBR. The chili’s available as a side or as a topping for their chili cheese fries, and Becerra said the demand for both was such that they’ve run out almost every day recently.
While Becerra tried several beers before settling on Pabst, Temescal’s Sacred Wheel cheese shop knew immediately that PBR was the right choice for their tomato soup. While developing the menu, owner Jena Davidson Hood experimented with a wine reduction, but didn’t like the flavor it left in the soup. But when she tried cooking down Pabst, she found she loved how it made the soup taste.
“The PBR went in [and] gave it this almost nutty flavor,” said BJ Hanson, the Sacred Wheel’s self-proclaimed “cheese dork,” who adds that new customers are often confused when they see “PBR Tomato soup” on the menu. “[They’ll ask] ‘Peanut butter and what?’ It takes a few minutes to realize that oh, we’re doing beer in our soup. We say it puts a little bit of class into our tomato soup.”
Their vegan soup is simple, a standard mix of tomatoes, garlic and onions, and the beer works. Instead of masking the tomatoes’ sweetness like cream would, the beer (they add a twelve pack for five gallons of soup) complements it, adding a tangy sweetness. The soup is also pleasantly spicy, creating a nice contrast to their grilled cheese, made with a rotating mix of three cheeses. And with a half combo available for just six dollars, it’s one of the best deals in the area.
Similar to how the Sacred Wheel swapped PBR for a wine reduction, Jack London Square's Annex Burger uses the beer in lieu of wine for their caramelized onions. Those onions are featured in the Blue Ribbon burger, where the Pabst brings out the sweetness of the onions while the blue cheese added a welcome tang. Owner Rebecca Boyles knew she wanted to cook the onions in beer to add more flavor, and settled on Pabst.
“This was a VERY recognizable beer, reliably obtainable, and a relatively easy flavor-profile to match with cooked onions. The other beers we had on tap at the time were not as good a match as PBR for caramelizing onions,” Annex Burger manager Thomas Hopkins wrote in an email.
And similar to a high end restaurant that serves duck three ways, Annex Burger offers the rare opportunity to experience a Pabst Blue Ribbon three ways: “That particular [burger] has blue cheese and the PBR onions as toppings, giving a dual value to the ‘blue.’ The natural trifecta would be for customers to enjoy a PBR on draft to compliment their Blue Ribbon burger,” Hopkins added.
The burger’s a good fit for the restaurant. While they offer a small, thoughtful collection of craft beers on tap, they’re loyal to the cheap beers. In addition to the PBR on tap, they sell bottles of Mickey's, and feature a large painting of a mohawked women guzzling a 40 in the dining room. Unfortunately the restaurant's currently out of Pabst, but they’re promising a new keg in a a few weeks.
While he doesn’t have it on tap like Annex Burger does, Sergio Becerra also offers PBR outside of his food menu. The beer’s place on his counter, surrounded by the wide variety of craft beers he offers (Drake’s and Line 51 on tap, Racer 5 and Trumer Pils in bottle) echoes the attitude toward Pabst in Oakland. We may love our local beers, but don’t take away corporate-owned Pabst, whether as part of a $5 beer and a shot combination at a dive bar, a cheaper option at places like cocktail bar Make Westing, or even as a seemingly bizarre soup ingredient.
Becerra understands this. While he’s passionate about the local beers he offers--he talks excitedly about Linden St and Line 51--he knew he would serve Pabst even before he opened the restaurant. A few years ago, when he worked at Cuban restaurant Caña, he started talking to the owner of Heart And Dagger, the always-packed dive next door. The owner told him the bar’s two biggest sellers were Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Pabst.
“That’s what put PBR in the back of my head. Some people really like the hoppy, handcrafted stuff, Some people just want to stick to traditional PBR,” he said. “We try to please everybody. When I opened up this place, we could have gone with Corona, Budweiser--but people love their PBR.”