Summer Beers From Campy to Classy

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The Fourth of July means a lot of things: cookouts, burgers, beer, freedom, family, beer, fireworks … Did we mention beer?

As the nation gears up for a weekend of barbecues, there's a whole range of brews, from campy to classy, that are alternatives to Bud or Miller.

You may have missed the media blitz over the latest beer du jour — because there wasn't one. An old Milwaukee mainstay, Pabst Blue Ribbon (search) (PBR to its fans), has made a comeback without the usual marketing mêlée.

Alan Willner, vice president of Pabst marketing, said the company opted out of the usual glitz, glamour and bikini-clad models typical of beer ads and focused instead on racking up grassroots support with hipsters.

"Young consumers are getting disillusioned with the false promises of advertisers and they don't buy into the marketing anymore," Willner said. "They want a good beer at a reasonable price."

Instead of dropping millions on Super Bowl (search) spots or sponsoring a sleek, flashy national concert series, Pabst has sponsored low-key events like bike messenger races and art openings. The company's disaffected marketing savvy has paid off, boosting its distribution over 25 percent in the past few months.

At the end of the 19th century, Pabst was both the best-selling and most widely distributed beer in the country. Today, it's brewed under contract by Miller and represents only a little over 4 percent of the beer market. Anheuser-Busch controls more than 50 percent of the domestic beer market, but Pabst is hoping it can marshal its newfound "working-class chic" image into market share.

Willner said PBR's renewed appeal is due to Gen-Yers coming of age in a languid economy. Ironically, its no-frills marketing has promoted PBR's cult status as a populist icon.

"I think the economy certainly has something to do with it," Willner said. "There's a percentage of the population that are 21-year-olds that is the largest part of the population since the baby boom, and they're just getting in to their careers, they don't have a lot of money and they're media-savvy."

The beer-of-Americana image is also having a nostalgic revival effect in New York City with Rheingold. The century-old brew was ultra hip in the Big Apple during the late 1950s and early 1960s, but succumbed to pressure from national brewery conglomerates in the 1970s. Today, Rheingold has been revamped with a retro look, has brought back its Miss Rheingold competition and sponsored up-and-coming bands in the city.

"People don't like advertising so in-your-face, it's more about becoming part of a community," said Sara Ribbler, Rheingold marketing director.

But if PBR and Rheingold are too hip or too hip replacement for your tastes, a new breed of swanky imported brews has infiltrated the scene this summer. Hefeweizen, a Bavarian wheat beer with a yeasty taste, is leading the way for the growing niche market.

Brian Yost, vice president of beverages and restaurants at Marriot, said his company has added a hefeweizen, Ayinger Brau Weisse, to its summer lineup of beers in 2,000 bars and restaurants.

"They just happen to be a great summer beverage," he said. "They're full-flavored, but they also happen to be refreshing and easy-drinking."

Yost said that hefeweizens appeals to a growing demographic of beer drinkers: women. Industry studies by companies like Anheuser-Busch found that women have warmed up to beer led by the appeal of malt beverages like Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade.

The studies also reveal women don't want "chick beers," but do prefer something more colorful than the average American lager, and up-market imports fit the bill.

Dave Pollack, a sales manager for beer importer B. United International, said that beer aficionados, male and female, are looking for the newest thing.

"We've seen a constant demand for something new, something interesting," he said.

Pollack added that American tastes in beers have been expanding to include more unorthodox flavors. Among this summer's up-and-coming imports is Reissdorf Koelsch, a German ale with a mild vanilla flavor and a dry finish more typical of lagers, he said.

"The Koelsch lets people try something a little more interesting," he said. "It's lighter but still has a lot of character to it."

Pollack suggested beer drinkers looking for adventure might like the Japanese white ale Hitachino Nest (search), which is flavored with orange juice, coriander and nutmeg. Hitachino is light on the palette and surprisingly refreshing — and if the taste doesn't hook you, the cute cartoon owl on the label will.

Whether your tastes lean toward exotic imports or retro-chic staples, the summer standard for cool is still cracking a cold one with friends.

"There's just something about a martini that doesn't go well with a hamburger," Ribbler said.