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Schlitz beer returns to Madison
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Brown bottles of the revived Schlitz will soon be available around Madison.
Brown bottles of the revived Schlitz will soon be available around Madison.
Credit:Robin Shepard

The beer that made Milwaukee famous is returning around Wisconsin for another shot at glory. The original version of Schlitz beer hasn't been around since the 1960s, but the once familiar maroon and gold six-pack carton of brown bottles will soon be back in Madison, complete with that slogan and the exhortation to "Go For the Gusto."

Appropriately enough, the Schlitz brand is owned by Pabst Brewing of Woodridge, Illinois. Seeking to duplicate the retro reembrace and burgeoning sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon over this decade, the brewery is hoping beer drinkers with a similar sense of nostalgia will gravitate back to the brew that once made Schlitz the largest brewery in the world.

Pabst resurrected the original recipe for Schlitz based on notes and interviews with former Schlitz workers, and is marketing it as the "Classic 1960s Formula" of the beer. This retro version is brewed under a contract with MillerCoors at its operations in Eden, North Carolina, and was originally distributed in Florida and Minnesota before returning in limited quantities to its ancestral haunts along Lake Michigan back in June. In Milwaukee, the anticipated news created waiting lists at the handful of liquor stores that carried it. Now, within the next few weeks Frank Distributing of Middleton is planning to introduce the beer back to Madison.

Schlitz is a Pilsner, a beer in the lager family, and a style known for its clear pale to deep golden color and crisp hoppiness. American renditions of the Pilsner are grainier than that of traditional German versions, and feature dryer flavor profiles. It is the kind of beer that those who like the style can appreciate for its light body, effervesce and clean taste. The famous brown bottles, meanwhile, were first used by the brewery in 1912, and were touted as an innovation to keep light from spoiling the beer. They're now ubiquitous in beer cases of all makes today for the same reason.

This retro version of Schlitz pours golden and bubbly, and has a soft texture with a mild bitter hoppiness. Overall, it is what mass produced lagers are well-known for, light-bodied and clean-tasting. It tastes very much like the old Schlitz in the can, except the texture of this retro Schlitz seems softer and more rounded, with an earthiness that grows over the course of a bottle.

The recipe has its origins more than a century-and-a-half ago, when August Krug started a brewery in Milwaukee back in 1849, hiring one Joseph Schlitz as a bookkeeper in 1850. It subsequently grew to become the world's biggest beer through the early 1900s, with Schlitz emerging alongside Miller, Budweiser, and Pabst as the giants of American breweries. Competition drove them to distinguish each from one another through advertising and holding down production costs.

Schlitz ultimately tinkered a little too much with its recipe and brewing process, and by the early '70s beer drinkers didn't like the result. Dropping consumer confidence in the beer combined with labor disagreements resulted in the brewery halting its Milwaukee-based production in 1981. The Schlitz brand was sold to Stroh's of Detroit in 1982, and was purchased by Pabst in 1999. Through these transitions, Schlitz continued to be available in cans, but dwindled in availability and reputation along with the broader Milwaukee brewing industry.

John Sonnemann of Waukesha worked for Schlitz beginning in 1964, and remained there until the Milwaukee operations ceased seventeen years later. He lead tasting panels for the brewery and remembers the flavors and aromas very well. "In the 1960s you could expect more flavor, especially bitterness in Schlitz," he says, "its flavor made it a good beer."

Sonnemann contrasts his recollections of Schlitz's original recipe as big breweries became more conscious about the costs of raw products. "As they grew in size, they trimmed their uses of malt and hops to save costs," he explains. The former brewery taster admitted he hasn't tried the retro Schlitz yet, but says he is looking forward to getting over a recent illness so he can. "I've tasted a lot of that beer, and I'd like to see if they can really make it like I remember it," he notes. "I have my doubts they can really make it taste like it used to."

On a recent drive through Chicago, cases of classic retro Schlitz could be found at Binny's Beverage Depot priced at $6.49/six pack and $24/case. There seemed to be a bit of déjà vu in seeing cases of Schlitz stacked up next to Point Special and sitting in the cooler side-by-side with bottles of Miller and Bud.

Officials at Frank Distributing say they been receiving several calls a week from those wanting to know where they can find it in Madison. But the local distributor is tight lipped about exactly when and where it will be sold, with managers merely confirming a shipment of about 2,000 cases should be available around town as early as next week.

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