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With end to lawsuit that threatened PBR, the Citywide Special is safe

A court battle that could have ended production of PBR is over. That's good news to fans of Philly's citywide special, that dirt-cheap shot-and-beer combo that has been getting dive bar patrons drunk for decades.

A citywide special at Bonnie's Capistrano bar.
A citywide special at Bonnie's Capistrano bar.Read more--- Charles Fox / CHARLES FOX

At Bob & Barbara’s Lounge on South Street, the birthplace of the dirt-cheap shot-and-beer combo now known as the Citywide Special, it’s hard to quantify exactly how many cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon are served daily alongside shot glasses of whiskey. But to start with, bartender Bob Dix said, the bar gets 100 30-packs delivered every week.

So, when news recently circulated of a court battle that threatened to end production of the light, low-alcohol beer that over the generations has cultivated a following ranging from retirees to construction workers to hipsters, Dix and the bar’s owner took notice. For an hour or so, at least.

“We all know PBR isn’t going anywhere,” Dix said this week as he dispensed rounds of $3 Specials to patrons at the bar. “If anything, anyone who hears about this just kind of laughs as they’re drinking one.”

Citywide fans can indeed drink easy. On Wednesday, the dispute between Pabst and MillerCoors came to an end with an undisclosed settlement that will keep PBR on the shelves.

The case that went to trial in Milwaukee this month stemmed from a lawsuit over the production of Pabst, which has been brewed by MillerCoors since 1999. In 2016, after MillerCoors said it no longer had the capacity to brew Pabst and would not extend the contract past 2020, Pabst sued, accusing MillerCoors of trying to drive a smaller competitor out of business.

First brewed in 1844 in Milwaukee, Pabst was once the best-selling beer in the country. It fell on hard times in the 1990s, leading to the closure of the Pabst brewery and the decision to outsource brewing. In the early 2000s, bolstered by a following among bicycle messengers and young dive-bar patrons, PBR suddenly became trendy and sales unexpectedly skyrocketed. Pabst was fifth in overall beer sales nationwide in 2017, according to the Brewers Association.

Christopher Mullins Jr., co-owner of McGillin’s Old Ale House at 1310 Drury St., said sales of PBR and Citywides grew in recent years as PBR acquired a hipster cachet. The bar’s $4 Specials (they recently raised the price by a dollar) remain big sellers with younger patrons.

“We sell more pitchers and pints of PBR with people in their 30s,” he said. Overall, he said, the customers run the gamut, from construction workers who stop in for a pint to hipsters slamming Specials. The bar also gets a lot of out-of-towners from the nearby Convention Center, some of whom see PBR as a novelty.

“You’ll get someone who might say, ‘Wow, I haven’t had Pabst since 1982,’” he said.

To him, explaining PBR’s enduring popularity is easy when you think about the character of the city.

“That’s Philly," he said. "We’re working-class, and price is important, and I think we value something that’s a little grittier. It’s knowing that if I have eight quarters in my pocket, I can get a beer.”

At the El Bar on Front Street under the Market-Frankford Line, bartender Ariel Godel said 16-ounce PBR cans sell steadily throughout the day, to anyone from construction workers on lunch breaks to older neighborhood residents to local restaurant workers who stop by on their way to work. Plenty of regulars get Citywides — some so frequently that Godel knows to put them on the bar as soon as they walk in.

“It’s just the cheapest way to get drunk,” he said. “It’s an economic decision.”

At Kensington’s Atlantis, the Lost Bar, PBR is the biggest seller along with pints of local Kenzinger from the Philadelphia Brewing Co., bartender Mary Burke said. The Citywide costs $3, but many regulars also take advantage of the bar’s to-go special: $8 for eight cans of PBR.

“We really couldn’t do that with any other beer,” she said.

But when asked to imagine a future without PBR, or a Citywide Special missing half its components, bartenders said most customers wouldn’t blink. After all, riffs on the Citywide already exist, like a can of Tecate with a shot of tequila, or the “Kensington special” at Atlantis, a Kenzinger and shot of local whiskey. Some upscale restaurants have gotten on board with classy versions.

“It’s a decent beer," said Dix, of Bob & Barbara’s, “but I think we’d be able to find something else to sell.”

Mullins, too, said drinkers would adapt. “In a way, it’s a product whose popularity has been created,” he said. "It is a little bit of a price decision, but there’s other beers out there. People will always find a new go-to.”

Burke said that when it comes to Citywides, it’s not the PBR that matters. It’s the price, the potency, and also the fact that technically, people can count one as “a drink.”

“I do have a lot of people who say, ‘I’ve only had three drinks,’” Burke said. “I do feel I can correct them. I say, ‘Actually, you’ve had six.’”