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Everything Old Style Is New Again

G. Heilman’s “Old Style Beer” used to be a very popular regional brand since its introduction in 1902. It was first advertised as being “‘fully kraeusened’ and made with pure artesian well water from ‘God’s country,’ meaning western Wisconsin.” That’s because the G. Heilman Brewery was located in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Today the brewery is known as the City Brewing, having been purchased by new owners after Heilman went out of business in 1999. Stroh’s originally bought the Heilman brands, but when three years later they likewise folded their tent, Pabst Brewing scooped them up. Miller’s been contract brewing Old Style for sale in Great Lakes area since that time, but using the changed brewing process implemented by Stroh’s. Stroh’s stopped kraeusening the beer and Miller’s continued brewing it for Pabst unkraeusened.

Pabst announced last week that they would begin kraeusening it again and marketing it as “authentically kraeusened.” They’re also planning on raising the price and trying to position it as a a more premium brand. That may be a tough sell, as it’s been a bargain brand for a long time. And as for selling it as being kraeusened, that also seems like a concept destined to fall flat with consumers.

Kraeusening, of course, is hardly unique or magical, but a centuries-old German brewing technique. Many breweries still use the process today, including a large number in the U.S. Here’s one explanation of it, from The Brewer’s Handbook by Ted Goldammer:

“Kraeusen” is the German word used to describe the infusion of a strongly fermenting young beer into a larger volume of beer that has undergone primary fermentation. Traditionally, the wort used for kraeusening is obtained from the high ‘kraeusen’ stage of primary fermentation and added in small portions (5-20% by volume) to the green beer to start a secondary fermentation. MacDonald suggests adding a volume of kraeusen equal to 10 to 12% of the “green” beer, containing approximately 2% (w/w) residual extract with a cell count of between 10 and 15 million (29). Usually, higher gravity beers require a larger proportion of kraeusen. Kraeusen may also be made from wort and a yeast culture, or from a sugar solution together with yeast.

Pabst brand manager Keith Hill is spinning it another way. “That process more thoroughly ferments beer to give it additional flavor, along with a smoother finish.” Pabst is also claiming that this “return to its roots will appeal to 20-somethings who would rather drink ‘a high-quality, local beer’ than a beer ‘from one of the big brewers.'” But the beer, of course, will continue to be contract brewed by MillerCoors so I’m not sure I understand the distinction he’s making or how it will be a marketing advantage for Old Style. I have nothing against contract brewing per se, but I’m not sure I understand how simply changing the brewing process makes it a “local beer?”

This new push follows re-launches of Primo and Schlitz by Pabst, hoping to duplicate their success with Pabst as a retro-hip brand. Will it work? You can’t underestimate the power of advertising to convince people of virtually anything, so perhaps it will. Who knows? Maybe Old Style will end up owing the term “Kraeusening.” Stranger things have happened.


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