Before it was called PBR, the official beer of hipsters, old blue collar Wisconsinites, and Frank Booth was brewed under the name Best Select. It was named for the founder of the brewery, Jacob Best, who had since retired and left the running of the company to his sons. Best’s son-in-law, a former steamship captain named Johann Gottlieb Friedrich Pabst, also owned a share of the business, and he eventually became its president and changed the name to the Pabst Brewing Company.
According to the company’s own history, Best Select had won numerous awards at beer competitions at home and abroad. A shrewd marketer, Pabst had blue silk ribbon tied around the neck of each bottle, to identify it as the winner it was, starting in 1882. Within a decade, the brewery was going through one million feet of ribbon a year.
For all the awards, Best Select had never won a literal blue ribbon up to that point. The first, according to the company, came at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The attention and sales that followed inspired the company to change Best Select to Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Other accounts of the Columbian Exposition contradict Pabst’s claim, though. Like other fairs of the day, the 1893 exposition lured exhibitors with promises of awards. But according to a few modern and historical sources, its organizers went about the prizes a little differently. Instead of competing directly against each other, the exhibitors in different categories were judged against a list of criteria that represented a standard of excellence for that category. “Every entrant who met the standard would leave Chicago with a commemorative bronze medal and a parchment certificate,” Maureen Ogle says in Ambitious Brew. “The White City’s purity would thus remain unsullied by undignified brawls for prizes and grubby scrimmages over medals and ribbons.”
For the beer exhibitions, the judges were told to score each brew on purity, color, and flavor and assign a score between 0 and 100. Any beer that scored 80 or higher would then get a medal and certificate. Things didn’t exactly work out that way once the exposition got rolling, and the beer judges decided to come up with their own scoring system, with ranked prizes awarded based on numerical scores in categories of their own creation. The brewers were left to assume that whoever ended the fair with the highest score “won,” never mind that there was, officially, no grand prize and that each medal looked the same as all the others.
King of Brewers
Leading Pabst by two points near the end of judging, Anheuser-Busch began celebrating early, ordering an award placard for their exhibit and taking out ads in the local papers announcing they had won the nonexistent grand prize and were the “King of Brewers.” After the final category had been scored, the judges’ table devolved into deadlock and in-fighting, and a special supervisory committee had to be formed to sort things out. In the end, Pabst ended up ahead of Busch by just a fraction of a point.
Pabst quickly announced himself as the “grand prize winner,” even though his medal and certificate were exactly the same as those won by other brewers. To celebrate, he had the entire brewery in Milwaukee draped in blue ribbon and gave all his workers a day off. Despite what seems to be a gross misunderstanding of the prize system by both the judges and the contestants, Pabst continues to boast that their beer was picked as “America’s Best in 1893” on each and every can of PBR.