Cheap beer not as cheap anymore

Is Pabst Blue Ribbon the reason cheap beer isn't cheap anymore?

A PBR tattoo on the ankle of a bartender.

Independence Day is all about patriotism and celebrating America. But let’s be honest -- for a lot of us, it’s also about grilling out and cracking open a couple of beers. If you’re trying to economize by throwing back a cheaper brew, you might not be saving as much as you think. Pabst Blue Ribbon for example, has been popular with hipsters for several years.  But now, that trendiness seems to be showing up in the price.

PBR is popular choice at the Gas Lamp in Des Moines, Iowa, where co-owner James Wilson is also a bar tender. He says his customers go through about 150 PBR tallboy cans each week, at $3.50 each except during happy hour.

“I think people like to hold onto the can,” he says. “It’s like an accessory.”

Wilson says he hasn’t raised his prices since he opened two years ago. But nationwide, PBR drinkers are paying more at many restaurants, bars and nightclubs. A recent survey by research firm Restaurant Sciences found double-digit price increases for Pabst. Compare that to growth of less than 2 percent for craft beers.

But how much can the price of cheap beer go up before you might as well switch to a high-end micro-brew?

Eric Shepard is Executive Editor at Beer Marketer’s Insights.  He says the upper limit depends on a lot of factors.

“Can they go 50 cents, can they go 75 cents, can they go a buck?” he says. “I think it probably depends on what they’re doing with their other brands.”

At The Lift in downtown Des Moines, a PBR sign hangs on the wall. Customer Liz DeCleene, 27, of Ankeny, Iowa, says she usually pays no more than $4 per beer. She says her limit for PBR is probably no more than $5, which she calls “pretty steep.” After that, DeCleene says she’d look for a cheaper option.

Sitting at the same bar with a tall can of PBR, David Huckleberry, 31, says he recently saw the brand for $8 at an airport bar. He says that was too much, but he’d probably pay $4 or $5.

“I would, definitely, even if it was the same price as, say, a Budweiser or Bud Light,” Huckleberry says. 

By the way, this week Deadspin ranked PBR “5th-least-worst” among 36 cheap American beers.

A PBR tattoo on the ankle of a bartender.

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