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How humble Hamm’s beer became cool

Emily Utne

Emily Utne

Erik Coglianese has a lot of fond Hamm’s-related memories—you’re bound to, when you start drinking it in college and polish off a keg of it at your wedding.

But his favorite involves a golf trip to northern Wisconsin, where he and his friends had smuggled in a few cans of the St. Paul-born budget beer—a beer that (not unsurprisingly) wasn’t offered among the course’s concessions.

Coglianese’s group was one of maybe three out that day. It quickly became clear who was responsible for all the empties filling the trash, and management started shooting some glares their way. So when they returned to hit the links again later that weekend, they were a known entity to the owner, a crone-like character who muttered, upon seeing them: “Oh, it’s the Hamm’s boys.”

“We just loved it,” Coglianese says, cracking himself up even though this has to be his hundredth retelling of the tale. “We made shirts. We have shirts with the Hamm’s bear on them, and underneath it says, ‘Hamm’s Boys.’ We wear those things around like a badge of honor.”

Maybe guys killing an afternoon at the country club—guys like Coglianese, a 30-year-old who works in real estate—don’t sound to you like the stereotypical Hamm’s drinkers. For the majority of its 150-year existence, the beer has been most commonly associated with two groups of people: dads and granddads. (A third might be teenagers surreptitiously drinking in basements.) “What do you do with a brand like Hamm’s?” the Chicago Tribune asked MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley in 2016 of the long-underperforming brand his company purchased in 1999. “It seems like such an old-guy beer.”

At the time, Hattersley issued a pretty perfunctory response about how millennials are suckers for old heritage brands and how he was excited about updates to the packaging. He didn’t know then what we know now—that taking Hamm’s national in 2017 would lead to explosive sales, making it one of MillerCoors’ strongest labels. That the beer from the land of sky blue waters would finish out 2017 as the eighth-fastest-growing brand in the country. And that its success would continue well into 2018—so far, MillerCoors associate brand manager Amber Smith says they’ve seen 96 percent year-to-date growth, bumping Hamm’s into the number-four spot.

Dan Ryan, Marissa Bonnie, and Fletcher Barnhill enjoy drinking Hamm’s.

Dan Ryan, Marissa Bonnie, and Fletcher Barnhill enjoy drinking Hamm’s. City Pages

Smith largely attributes that booming popularity to the sense of nostalgia surrounding Hamm’s. It practically markets itself—there’s the “beer refreshing” jingle that soundtracked those old-timey cartoon commercials from the ’50s and ’60s, and, of course, it has that lovable, potbellied bear mascot.

Ask the millennials who love it, and they’ll tell you it’s not just nostalgia. “It’s still just a good beer,” Coglianese says. “I still like it. I enjoy, literally, just sipping and enjoying a Hamm’s beer.”

“It’s all about the hometown flavor and hometown artwork. Even if it got bought out it still originated here, so that’s cool,” says bassist Fletcher Barnhill of the Minneapolis band IN // VIA.

“The thing I like about Hamm’s is it’s unsuspecting,” adds Dave Saladin. “It’s a simple beer, a mowing-the-lawn beer, a just-take-it-easy beer.” (To clarify, “It’s not a shit beer, it’s a simple beer. There’s shit beer out there.”)

Saladin is the GM at Taco Cat, Midtown Global Market’s bike-delivery taco joint. He’s also a cyclist and a musician. It’s a trifecta that suggests Pabst Blue Ribbon should be his brew of choice—and for most of the cycling community, he’ll tell you, it still is.

But on this afternoon, we’ve plunked ourselves into a booth at the new-ish Blue Door Pub in Uptown, which he’s picked because it has Hamm’s on tap. “Hamm’s on tap tastes great. I used to go to Blue Door out in St. Paul—any tap, two bucks—and I’m like, ‘Hamm’s.’ And they’re like... ‘Really?’”

Really. And he’s definitely not the only one. When Bull’s Horn opened in the old Sunrise Inn space last October, general manager Justin Peterson decided to put Hamm’s tallboys on the drink list. It turned out to be a good call: “It is our most popular bottle or can that we sell. It outpaces everything else almost two to one.”

It’s not just that Bull’s Horn is a reborn dive, either, a place where ordering a Hamm’s is part and parcel to the experience. Peterson’s also the GM over at Sandcastle, and bargain beer-wise, the seasonal Lake Nokomis restaurant has traditionally sold PBR. Last season, sensing that there was a Hamm’s resurgence happening, he added it to the menu just to see how the two would do against each other. They went ounce for ounce, selling at almost the same rate.

“I think that for sure, Hamm’s is starting to replace that whole PBR thing from the last decade,” Peterson says. He reasons that it’s becoming the go-to adjunct lager thanks to a winning combination of nostalgia, taste, and price, and he notes that other tallboys are edging into a market share that PBR had almost exclusively—you tend to see more of Grain Belt’s Big Friendlies now, for example. “I think that, too, PBR was getting a little played-out.”

You certainly could compare Hamm’s success to the semi-recent hipster reclamation of PBR, which became a favorite of the flannel set in the mid-2000s. Like the pride of St. Paul, it was a traditionally blue-collar, working-class beer, and it spent decades in decline before suddenly surging back.

Peterson might be right, though; more and more, it’s Hamm’s you’ll see at art shows and fashion events around town. At Honeycomb, the exceedingly stylish south Minneapolis salon where Saladin gets his hair cut, you’re handed a Hamm’s if you prefer beer to coffee or water. And the decidedly not-divey Nightingale at 25th Street and Lyndale Avenue South has for years offered what must be one of the best burger-and-a-beer deals in town—order a burger during happy hour, and you can add a Hamm’s for just a buck.

The difference here is that at least a little of that love for Pabst always seemed somehow... ironic? Detached? Nursing the ribbon-emblazoned tallboys at a basement show or backyard barbecue was a certain kind of cultural signifier; it said that you got it, that you were with it, every bit as much as your skinny jeans and Sonic Youth shirt did.

The affection for Hamm’s just feels a little more genuine. At Bull’s Horn, where barstools and booths fill with a generation-spanning clientele, you’re as likely to find the gold-and-blue bombers clutched in the hands of Askov Finlayson-clad twentysomethings as you are wizened, seventysomething truck drivers—and they’re not a segment of the population known for enjoying things ironically. Plus, you’d be hard-pressed to find another budget beer with a committed fan club, which Hamm’s has. The network of memorabilia collectors has close to 300 members, many of whom meet up at the group’s annual trade shows.

But is Peterson’s prediction on point? Is it only a matter of time before Hamm’s unseats PBR as the cheap lager of choice? Before Urban Outfitters debuts a Land of Sky Blue Waters line?

Maybe! Hamm’s Boy Erik Coglianese puts it in real estate terms. “You can always kind of see where the next big housing boom is gonna go, depending on where the hipsters go. It goes hipster, and then it starts getting built up, and then it goes yuppie. I’m sure the same thing’s gonna happen here with Hamm’s. The hipsters jumped on board, and then it’s gonna gain mass popularity and go through a lot of different segments of America.”

It’s not on the menu, but you can always grab a Hamm’s-tini at Muddy Waters.

It’s not on the menu, but you can always grab a Hamm’s-tini at Muddy Waters.

Back at Blue Door, Saladin isn’t so sure. When he goes out in his Lyn-Lake neighborhood, Pabst is still the ubiquitous brew. It’s the one everyone orders with their shot-and-a-can deal. And he was at Matt’s Bar the other day, where you’ll see Bud, Miller, Michelob, and Grain Belt listed under domestic beers and won’t find Hamm’s, even though Matt’s is exactly the kind of place that seems like it should have it.

“But I had a PBR at Matt’s, and I was like, why was I ever drinking this?” he says. “So maybe they’re doing it right. It’s coming back. Every hipster on every corner is gonna be drinking a Hamm’s. And I’m gonna be the curmudgeon who’s like, ‘Fuck you. You’re not even tasting it.’”