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For Pabst, home may be too far

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

MILWAUKEE — Long before it was known for fine cheddar cheese or the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin was famous for beer, especially the national brands brewed in Milwaukee: Schlitz, Blatz and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The brewing tradition started by Milwaukee's German immigrants in the 1800s endured for more than a century, until industry consolidation in the 1980s and '90s began sending familiar brands to other companies and cities.

Now a small group of Milwaukee residents wants to revive part of that proud history by buying Pabst Brewing Co. from a California executive in hopes of returning the brand to its birthplace, possibly as a city-owned brewery.

The effort appears to be a distant long shot, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the 170-year-old beer best known as PBR. But Milwaukee officials like the idea enough to talk about it, and at least one industry analyst says the plan is not beyond the realm of possibility.

“When I think about Pabst being anywhere else but Milwaukee, it just doesn't make sense,” said Susie Seidelman, an organizer of the “Bring Pabst Blue Ribbon Home” effort. “Milwaukee made this beer what it is. ... It's right on the can.”

The beer, with its pale gold color and light, fizzy taste, has become especially popular over the last decade among urban hipsters, in part because it's one of the cheapest on the market.

The company that started in Milwaukee in 1844 is headquartered in Los Angeles, after being bought by food industry executive C. Dean Metropoulos in 2010 for a reported $250 million.

Reports surfaced last month suggesting that Pabst might be looking for buyers. Organizers of the group want Metropoulos to give them first rights of sale so they can begin raising money toward any asking price.

Pabst representatives would not comment on any potential sale or efforts to bring the brand back to Milwaukee, saying only that they “are considering financial alternatives” that will help Pabst “aggressively pursue its next phase of growth through strategic acquisitions.”

The effort to buy Pabst has a core of seven people with various business and nonprofit backgrounds. It has a Facebook page titled “Milwaukee Should Own Pabst Blue Ribbon” and a website at bringpbrhome.com, which lets visitors sign a letter to Metropoulos. The letter acknowledges that the purchase proposal might seem “crazy” but asks readers to “humor us for just a moment.”

“We want to bring PBR home,” reads the letter, expected to be sent next week.

In 1996, Pabst headquarters left and beer production ceased at the company's main complex in downtown Milwaukee, opening a “gaping hole in our city's economy,” according to the letter. PBR is brewed in another part of town as part of a deal with MillerCoors.

Bringing Pabst back is less about the beer and more about “investing in the city of Milwaukee,” Seidelman said.

A letter to the Milwaukee mayor and city council asks them to consider the purchase of Pabst using a community ownership model similar to that of the Green Bay Packers, in which the public buys stock that does not increase in value and pays no dividends. But, Seidelman said, they are considering other options, including forming a cooperative.

Regardless of the business structure chosen, they want to put the profits back into the city, she said.

Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for Milwaukee's development department, said city officials know little about the effort so far but look forward to discussing any plan with the organizers.

Paul Gatza, director of the Colorado-based Brewers Association trade group, said he's seen reports the company could sell for $700 million to $1 billion.

Raising that sort of money from Milwaukee's 600,000 residents would be tough, but it might be more feasible if a private-equity group stepped in, Gatza said.

Beer is personal to beer drinkers, Gatza said.

“There might be some PR value in selling it to a group of Milwaukee fans,” he said.

The Pabst family sold their controlling interest in the company in 1933, and the last family member, August Pabst. Jr., retired from the board of directors in 1983.

One of the city's tourist attractions is the Pabst Mansion, a masterpiece of Gilded Age architecture that was once home to Frederick Pabst.

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