Today, Pabst Brewing Co. has entered into the craft beer landscape with the launch of a new brand. Captain Pabst rolled out its flagship release exclusively in the Midwest with some fanfare. Known as Seabird, the sessionable IPA made with Mosaic, Citra, Magnum, and Cascade hops rests in black-and-gold cans design with a retro nautical design and a portrait of its namesake, Captain Frederick Pabst. History tells us that the beer’s name is a reference to The Seabird, the captain’s ship which was destroyed in a squall in 1863. Devastated by the loss of his ship, Pabst decided to abandon his life on the high seas and get into the beer business.
“We’re lucky enough to be the stewards of so many great, classic American trademarks. But none of those marks really highlight the person or the people that founded the original brands,” said Matt Bruhn, Pabst General Manager, in a public statement. “We thought creating something new, based on someone who played such an integral part in pioneering brewing in this country, was a really romantic and deserving story that consumers would be interested in hearing.”
Pabst Brewing Co. already owns 30 brands, most notably Pabst Blue Ribbon. In 2018, the company shipped out 2,235,000 barrels of the American lager, which were actually brewed by MillerCoors. And while the company can rightfully claim to be one of America’s original breweries, it has changed immensely since the days of the captain. Though its origins may have been in Milwaukee, its current headquarters are in Los Angeles, and in 2014, the company was sold to Blue Ribbon Intermediate Holdings LLC, a partnership between TSG Consumer Partners, a private equity firm, and beer investor Eugene Kashper for $700 million.
"At Pabst we are traditionally known for big domestic lagers, and we are quite proud of our accomplishments in that space," Rob Reilly, brand manager of Captain Pabst, says. "Captain Pabst however, will allow us the opportunity to explore unique craft styles in a smaller footprint, in smaller batches, and with premium ingredients."
Seabird is just the first of the Captain Pabst Signature Series. It’s already available a limited Midwestern release, and as of will be on the menu at Pabst’s Milwaukee taproom when it reopens as the Captain Pabst’s Pilot House on March 28, its namesake’s birthday. The rebranded space will feature plenty of extra merch spotlighting the captain, a spirits program, and additional beers inspired by the era in which Pabst lived and brewed.
"We have a brick and mortar pilot brewery and taproom in Milwaukee that really allows our brewers the space to experiment," Reilly says. "While we are very cognizant that Pabst is a large scale American owned beer company, our Captain Pabst line will really mimic the business model of a traditional small-scale craft brewery."
Yet for all its old-timey branding and stated commitment to smaller, higher-quality batches of beer, Captain Pabst remains the property of one of the largest American-owned beer company. The Brewer’s Association defines a craft brewery as small and independent—meaning its total annual output can’t exceed 6 million barrels and no more than 25 percent of the company can be controlled by a non-craft brewery entity.
Even these lines have become fuzzy over the years. Pabst is far from the first macrobrewery to acquire or launch a craft beer brand. Both Molson Coors and AB InBev (an investor in October) have acquired dozens of craft breweries over the years, leading many people to question what even qualifies as craft beer these days.
Captain Pabst may be a clever marketing ploy, but whether or not it resonates with consumers will come down to something bigger than slick branding. Ultimately, the quality of the beer and not the aesthetic of the can it comes in will determine if this incarnation of Pabst has staying power.