OnMilwaukee.com Marketplace: Milwaukee making Schlitz famous again

The classic-formula Schlitz returned to Milwaukee last summer.

By 1890, Schlitz was quickly becoming one of the best-selling beers in the country. (Photo/Leonard Jurgenson)

The sprawling Schlitz complex in the 1960s. (Photo/Leonard Jurgenson)

Published June 18, 2009 at 4:12 p.m.

Though not quite at the dizzying rates that once made it the best-selling beer in the country, the “beer that made Milwaukee famous” is quickly becoming a favorite again.

It’s been a little over a year since the reformulated “classic” Schlitz returned to the market and its popularity thus far has exceeded expectations.

“The response has been overwhelming,” says Kyle Wortham, senior brand manager for Schlitz.

Bringing back the iconic brew was a risky venture, especially in a marketplace dominated by heavyweights Miller and Budweiser and the ever-growing demand for microbrews. Still, the company felt that it was a risk worth taking.

“We would get letters and calls all the time from people who loved the brand,” Worthington says. “A lot of people talked about remembering a more simple time and how the big brews don’t taste like they used to.

“Schlitz was the No. 1 beer in the world. That was the inspiration behind it, in a market void of flavor in a mass-brewed beer, we wanted to find the formula and give it back.”

With that, research began. And it was no easy task. The recipe wasn’t stored in a long-forgotten filing cabinet and the team set out to track down old brewery workers, brewmasters and others familiar with the product.

Brewmaster Bob Newman put together a number of sample batches, based on the gathered information and, finally came up with a finished product. When he did, it won the approval of the old-timers.

“They validated it and gave it their seal of approval,” Worthman says. “It was as close as we could get without the written formula.”

With the recipe perfected, it was time to launch. The company focused on the Midwest, where Schlitz established its roots during the early part of the 20th century; Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis were among the first. When the beer came to Milwaukee, shopkeepers couldn’t keep it on the shelves.

Some stores had waiting lists for the beer and sold out before inventory would arrive. Eventually, production was transferred to Milwaukee — it had been being brewed at a Miller facility in North Carolina — and supply is plentiful, and the beer is still selling strong.

“We never expected that,” Wortham says. “We wanted to run before we walked. We’re very happy. It was a good problem to have.”

There was an advertising campaign, but — at least by industry standards — it was subdued. Instead of the non-stop advertising campaigns employed by the major brewers, Schlitz instead chose to employ a strategic marketing plan that played heavily on nostalgia.

“We don’t need a special label that turns blue when the beer is cold or a special mouth for a wider pour,” Wortham says. “This beer has a real identity. With 100 percent accuracy in this industry, you can predict a flash in the pan. Companies spend millions and flood the marketplace. We took the reverse approach; we started small and meaning full. Schlitz has very deep roots.”

Schlitz was once the mightiest of Milwaukee’s breweries and an innovator in the brewing industry.

But for the last three decades, until last summer’s re-introduction, Schlitz was a “discount beer;” the kind that frat brothers picked up for a cheap night of binge-drinking. When it came back, the new-old beer was sold at a premium price point, comparable to big-label offerings like Miller Lite and Budweiser.

“This is a beer that shared shelf space with the brands from St. Louis and Milwaukee,” Wortham says. “Unfortunately, it dropped in price. This beer and the way its brewed warrant the premium price.”

The new-old Schlitz was released in its famous brown bottle; which the company originally introduced in 1912 in order to prevent light from spoiling the beer. With the exception of Miller High Life, most brewers now sell beer in brown bottles. Bringing back the familiar packaging, Worthman says, was a key component of the plan.

The formula recreates a flavor that was once one of the best-selling beers in the United States and the trademark of one of the city’s biggest corporate legacies.

Joseph Schlitz was just 20 years old when he came to Milwaukee from Mainz, Germany. He got his start by working as a bookkeeper in August Krug’s brewery and took over the company following Krug’s death in 1856. Just two years later, Schlitz married Krug’s wife, and changed the name of the brewery to the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.

Schlitz was one of a handful of breweries in Milwaukee during the early years, but expanded its market after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. Schlitz quickly sent thousands of barrels across the state line to Chicago, which lost most of its own breweries in the blaze. As the city rebuilt, Schlitz opened a distributorship in the city, and the brand grew quickly thereafter.

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