Beer and college tend to go together. Those of us who attended an institution of higher learning, in all likelihood, consumed huge volumes of beer while pursuing our studies. I know I did. But then again I was in college for ten years straight while amassing an undergraduate and two graduate degrees. So between 1981 and 1991 I had plenty of time to drink beer. And like most college students on a tight budget it was all about getting the most beer for your buck. Cheap beer reigned supreme. And, as I think back to my beer drinking days in college, it is my four years in Tempe, AZ that resonate most strongly. I think the reason for this is that my doctoral studies at Arizona State University were fueled by one beer in particular. In contrast, while pursuing my undergraduate and M.A. degrees at the University of Glasgow and Miami University respectively, I was more of a generalist beer drinker – a little bit of everything.
My relationship with Old Milwaukee started quite serendipitously. Shortly after the start of my first semester at ASU in August of 1987 I went for a beer with one of my fellow graduate students, Don Zappola. Don ordered an Old Milwaukee and I followed his lead. From that day forward Old Milwaukee was my beer of choice during my four years in Tempe. During my first year in particular I seemed to drink an inordinately large amount of Old Milwaukee – maybe the heat of the desert made me especially thirsty. While Don Zapolla started me down this particular path it was another graduate student, Dave Nelson, in whose company I drank the greatest volume of Old Milwaukee. Dave, who was from Aberdeen, SD, was in the first year of his M.A. program. He was married; his wife Laurie was a nurse. In the evening when she was working I often ended up at Dave’s place and sat and drank and chatted. I am not sure how many cases of Old Milwaukee Dave and I got through but I do know that we never bought anything less than a case at a time – no point in messing around with a six- or twelve-pack. And we always bought cans. I am not sure why – maybe it was because they were lighter to carry, cheaper, or simply more readily available.
The year that I graduated from ASU coincided with the launch of one of the beer industry’s most famous (or should I say infamous) television commercials. In 1991 Old Milwaukee co-starred in a television commercial with five bikini-clad “Swedish” platinum-blondes – aka The Swedish Bikini Team. I could describe the commercial but, as a picture paints a thousand words, you can view it for yourself here. The commercial was an attempt by the Stroh Brewing Company (who owned the Old Milwaukee brand at this time) to rejuvenate the beer’s appeal with younger male beer drinkers. Previous Old Milwaukee commercials had used the slogan that “it just doesn’t get any better than this”. The arrival of the Swedish Bikini Team was designed to show beer drinkers that it could indeed get better. Patrick Scullin who worked for Hal Riney & Partners, the advertising agency responsible for the commercial, described it as Monty Pythoneqsue. The commercial was short lived however, gracing America’s television screens for only seven months. It fell victim to political correctness when the Stroh Brewing Company was sued by some of its own employees for a commercial that the plaintiff’s said created “an atmosphere that encouraged sexual harassment”. In its short life, however, the commercial received considerable notoriety – the Swedish Bikini Team were mentioned in Letterman and Leno monologues, showed up in the situation comedy Married With Children, and appeared in Playboy.
If the Swedish Bikini Team commercials were Monty Pythonesque then the most recent Old Milwaukee commercials are perhaps best described as somewhat bizarre. They all star the actor Will Ferrell and appeared on television in smaller markets. Some even aired during recent Super Bowls. However, unless you were watching the 2013 Super Bowl in Sherman, TX, Ardmore, OK or Glendive, MT, you would have missed this gem (warning, once seen this cannot be unseen). And this commercial ran in North Platte, NE during the 2012 Super Bowl. Ferrell has also done commercials (not connected to the Super Bowl) that appeared on local television in cities such as Terre Haute IN, and Davenport, IA. Ferrell apparently is a big fan of Old Milwaukee and did these commercials for free. In 2012 Ferrell took his love for the beer international when he filmed a number of commercials in Sweden, including this one.
I left Tempe in the late summer of 1991 to take up a position at The University of Toledo. I rarely drank Old Milwaukee again. This was primarily due to the fact that I had more money and could afford better beer, or at least what I perceived to be better beer. Old Milwaukee is still brewed and, if I see it in a bar (especially if it is available in a can), I often have one for old time’s sake. Old Milwaukee was first brewed in 1890 by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company in Milwaukee, WI. Today it is one of twenty-three classic American beers that are part of the Pabst Brewing Company portfolio – others include Schlitz, Colt 45, and Old Style. And there are lots of folks like me, it appears, who have stopped purchasing Old Milwaukee. In a 2013 article in USA Today Thomas Frohlich and Michael Sauter listed nine beers that Americans no longer drink. Number five on the list was Old Milwaukee. Between 2007 and 2012 sales of Old Milwaukee declined by 54%, with only 400,000 barrels being sold in 2012.
Dave Nelson left ASU after his first year, never completing his degree. He got a job offer in St. Louis, MO. He and Laurie are now back in their home state of South Dakota, living in Sioux Falls. We still keep in touch, exchanging Christmas cards every year. And when I open up his card I think back to my days in Tempe, AZ and drinking a cold, refreshing, Old Milwaukee.