City Paper is not for tourists
6:10 p.m. Rock & Roll Hotel on H Street NE
VanHoozer delivers box of plastic cups, emblazoned with PBR logos. “These are like gold,” he says.
In the corporate parlance of the Pabst Brewing Co., Dan VanHoozer is a “creative.”
VanHoozer, of course, hates that term. The way he sees it, he and his 20 or so analogues across the country are folks “who want to make shit happen in their cities.” It’s just that they happen to work for a firm that understands the marketing upside to making shit happen—a strategy that’s still going strong seven years after cultural thinkers started dissecting it.
Pivoting off the unlikely discovery that PBR had a following among bike messengers and indie rockers, the beer’s brand managers opted for an approach that eschewed television ads and big-ticket sponsorships in favor of potlucks and art shows. In the process, people like VanHoozer may have become unlikely patrons of their local arts scenes.
A theater type when he’s not working for PBR, VanHoozer maintains a professional calendar that regularly crisscrosses the District’s youngish, smallish creative class. With beer, cash, swag, or all of the above, he links arms with local names like The Pink Line Project, Hillyer Artspace, DC Rollergirls, Worn magazine, and the photographer Adam de Boer. In April, he supplied Andrew Wodzianski’s live-in art stunt on U Street NW with beer and PBR stickers. When area coffeehouses battle in Thursday Night Throwdowns—latte-art competitions, basically—VanHoozer’s there to lend a brewsky. Next weekend, he’ll help artist Kelly Towles drape Strathmore Mansion’s façade in parachutes, Christo and Jeanne-Claude style.
And on this beautiful early-October weekend, VanHoozer’s agenda contains a handful of D.C. bars that include hipster haunts and rooms full of Hill staffers. But the main event is the grand opening of Arlington County’s new Artisphere in Rosslyn. The space will be blanketed with PBR cans and PBR balloons for a fête thrown by The Pink Line Project, Philippa Hughes’ art calendar and social incubator, and the art-scenester megasite Brightest Young Things.
To go by BYT editor Svetlana Legetic, VanHoozer won’t have to do much convincing to woo her savvy crowd. “The best thing about PBR is that you know exactly what PBR is,” Legetic says. “PBR is not trying to persuade you that they’re some microbrewery that will change your life. It’s a great brand for a certain audience—a badge of honor for certain things.”
6:41 p.m. Hamilton’s Bar & Grill on Capitol Hill
VanHoozer hands a bucket of PBRs to table of drinkers. “Are you shitting me?” yells oafish beneficiary. Revelers have stacked the empty cans in pyramid; VanHoozer snaps a picture.
Officially, PBR hates the word “hipster.” VanHoozer’s boss, PBR Vice President for Brand Building Bryan Clarke, says he isn’t comfortable with the term, even though a half-decade of overuse has left it mostly meaningless. When he sees “hipster,” Clark says, the reference is usually pejorative.
Besides, he says, “We’re just as happy with other people drinking it.”
All the same, Clarke’s description of PBR’s die-hards sounds awfully hip. “The most loyal people who drink it are super-interesting people, whether its artists or people who play in bands or rugby players—as long as interesting people are drinking it, that appeals to a broader group of people,” he says. “If you cultivate loyalty among interesting people, other people will want to drink it, too.”
It’s a strategy whose creation myth Rob Walker captured in a 2003 New York Times Magazine article. The brand, created in the 1800s, had for two decades been in decline. Then, in 2002, it saw 5.3 percent uptick in sales. In Portland, Ore., a sales rep reported that “these alternative people’’ were “starting to get into the brand,” explained Neal Stewart, Clarke’s predecessor.
Marketing managers took it from there: There were no marquee sponsorships (NPR Music is about the biggest); instead PBR threw its weight behind heaps of low-impact, high-cachet events. It kept the retro design of its can. It became an “underdog” brand.
“It’s a way to differentiate themselves from other people,” Clarke says. “Ski-instructor and snowboard culture, people who play rugby—they’re not concerned with being on the corporate ladder. They’re doing what they love.” He thinks Walker’s article slightly over-academicized PBR’s efforts. “Our approach is, ‘How do you support those people who helped put us back on the map?’”
The strategy has worked. Sales of the beer totaled $165 million last year. In D.C., bar sales are up 60 percent this year, according to Clarke, and were up 85 percent in 2009, VanHoozer’s first year on the job. The company considers D.C. an “emerging market.”
“Three to four years ago it was barely on the map in D.C.,” Clarke says.
VanHoozer and Clarke are cagey about sharing exact numbers, but say VanHoozer dispenses several hundred cases of PBR each year (he also arranges for cheap bulk buys). VanHoozer says his cash budget is “less than you’d think” and that most of the support he offers is product—that is, beer and swag.
VanHoozer says he’s not a hipster, whatever that means—“I joke with my bosses that I look like a deadbeat lawyer”—but that he shares the company’s ethos. “I want people to drink the beer if they like the beer,” he says. When he’s helping out an event, he tries to avoid lending a PBR banner. Stacks of cans and more inventive swag seem to do the trick better. Not looking like every other beer marketing scheme in the world is a plus, too.
But the best advertisement is putting the beer in the right hands. If those hands end up in front of, say, a Brightest Young Things photographer, it’s only good for PBR.
7 p.m. Union Pub on Capitol Hill
VanHoozer pulls up to the bar, but remembers another beer is on special tonight. He keeps driving.
VanHoozer began his involvement with PBR with a maneuver you probably won’t find in the beer’s playbook: He product-placed it.
In 2007, he directed the Pabst and Popcorn Hour’s adaptation of the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, a Capital Fringe staging of the Marlowe play involving, well, free beer. It was a hit. Pabst provided about 40 cases, and helped VanHoozer out with two subsequent theater pieces. In 2009, VanHoozer gave Pabst’s area sales representative a tour of the National Archives, where VanHoozer was working in grants and research. The sales rep asked VanHoozer for a list of other artists and groups to work with, which VanHoozer provided. Then he asked him: “How’d you like to get paid to do this?”
VanHoozer had moved to D.C. in 2003, two years after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, and worked in development for three years at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. He assistant-directed plays in D.C. theaters and made more theater at the scene’s margins. At one point, he applied to graduate programs in theater directing, but didn’t get in. He’s big, with a kind face and a scruffy, light-colored beard. When I tell him I drink PBR, he says “thank you.”
The work isn’t easy. Each week, he has to visit 10 to 15 bars. He puts on events and has to bring in “non buys”—venues that don’t already carry PBR. On the Friday night I spend with him, he’s been going since 8 a.m. Between 6 p.m. and midnight, he hits six venues, a light schedule for him. He’ll pull similar hours tomorrow, the date of the Artisphere party.
When VanHoozer is on, he’s on. He’s as comfortable with fratty Capital Hill denizens as he is with keyed-up DJs. He’s on intimate terms with most of the bartenders and managers and programming directors he visits. Some of them he hugs. He understands relationships, and they shape the contours of his evenings. Some bar proprietors expect him to drink with them, so he has to bring a designated driver and leave open a large window of time.
On duty, VanHoozer can’t drink any beer but PBR. Over the course of a long evening he knocks back four, nursing two of them. Conversation frequently returns to D.C.’s arts landscape, and not just the part he pumps with booze. He thinks D.C. theater is overinstitutionalized. He thinks individual artists have too tough a time. He says he sometimes finds the city’s alternative culture elusive and decentralized, even though he’s in many ways at the center of it. There are exceptions, but for the most part he hates working with DJs. “Never have I met a subset of artists so self-involved,” he says.
The work is rewarding (the warm greetings when he enters a bar, the sense of community, occasional perks like comped food) and draining: Sometimes after interacting with bar-hoppers and proprietors for an evening, he says, all he’ll want is a bourbon. On his off-hours, he avoids bars. “When someone wants to meet up, it’s either wine or coffee,” he says. Or if it’s beer, it’s beer on VanHoozer’s porch. “People will say it’s a dream job,” he says. “And I’ll ask: Can you imaging eating chocolate cake every day?”
Whether or not VanHoozer’s is a dream job, it’s certainly a high-calorie one. He says he’s put on 10-15 pounds since he started it a year and a half ago. For a while, he limited himself to four beers a week and still drinks very little on nights out. He only eats meat he cooks himself.
Over Pabsts and pizza at Comet Ping Pong in Chevy Chase, the conversation turns to books. Recently he’s been reading John Williams (Butcher’s Crossing, specifically, about a Harvard drop-out who in the 1870s goes soul-searching out west) and Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. He begins explaining the book’s central dichotomy, between knowledge workers and soul workers. “I guess I’m sort of in-between,” he says.
These days, he doesn’t have much time for his own art, but he’s working on a salon performance he’ll stage in his living room. It has three parts, and he asks me not to reveal the author because he’s not paying for the rights to the work. “I’m leaving PBR out of the equation for once,” he says. “It doesn’t fit.”
7:06 p.m. Tune Inn Bar and Grill on Capitol Hill
VanHoozer drops off a small swag bag, though his sales manager has wondered why he bothers. He gestures at a haggard man in a Marines baseball cap at the bar. “This is the real PBR,” he says.
Float a theory that PBR has become a quiet arts patron in D.C. and VanHoozer demures. “I wish I could be Beer-a Claus, but I’m not,” he says.
In fact, much of his work sounds distinctly non-hip. “The bulk of my job is dealing with accounts,” he says. “My job is to know those people.” An account is any venue—bar, restaurant, theater—that sells PBR. There are about 150 in the D.C. area, and VanHoozer targets 40 of them. One-hundred eighty stores in the area sell PBR.
“The other stuff is brand-building.” That’d be helping arts happenings and putting on bar events and barbecues and the like. When VanHoozer spots a bar-goer sipping on a PBR, it means buying him another one in gratitude.
Even on that front, there are a lot of non-sexy logistics to work. In the spring, PBR’s marketing operation in Colorado had to cancel an event after alcohol regulators took issue with its advertisement of “free PBR.” Clarke blames a failure to understand to wide-ranging, parochial alcohol rules. So part of VanHoozer’s job here involves helping clients avoid such pitfalls.
Patrick Kigongo, a prolific local indie rocker, was drinking at Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club on Bladensburg Road NE earlier this year when VanHoozer put down some PBRs on his table. When Kingongo and two friends started planning an all-day festival called Done&Done, a more experienced planner said talk to VanHoozer: “This is a guy who’s very down for helping out with events.” VanHoozer arranged for a cheap buy of cans, which the festival sold, and he helped the organizers navigate Alcohol Beverage Control regulations.
The new attention to liquor-law concerns also means VanHoozer’s obliged to move more slowly. Seek PBR sponsorship now, and you need to talk to VanHoozer early. There’s a Google form (an innovation from earlier in the year that helps with the stricter rules). And he’ll no longer show up and shower you with beer. Instead, he’ll hand you a check to buy your PBR, or reimburse you after the fact. That means fewer house shows, for starters. When working with VanHoozer became harder, some of his beneficiaries decided they would no longer bother.
But VanHoozer’s role in the Artisphere roll-out was evidence that PBR can still hook the cool kids. The “Burst!” party was the first time Brightest Young Things worked with PBR. “We actually have a working relationship with Flying Dog,” Legetic says, “and we’ve kind of tried to be more local-centric.” The Frederick-based Flying Dog brewery has been making a bigger marketing push in D.C. in recent months, and even edged VanHoozer out of a special at one bar during the H Street Festival. Not this time.
On the other hand, PBR still isn’t always able to keep up when an establishment’s clientele gets older and richer. Take Comet Ping Pong, a spot increasingly known for an impressive selection of draughts. A year ago Comet was among the top five vendors of PBR in D.C.; now it’s barely in the top 25. A manager there Friday night attributed the drop to a change in the artisan-pizza place’s customers. They’re grayer now.
Clarke’s not worried in that department. “People who drink craft beer drink PBR—we’re happy with that.” As for the bigger worry of brand backlash: “I don’t think we’re close to the point.”
Kigongo says he could’ve put on Done&Done without any corporate involvement. “It comes with its pitfalls,” he says. “You’ve associated yourself with a logo, with a name, and some people have a difficult time grasping that.
“Ultimately they’re a corporation and the goal of any company is to make money and expand its influence,” he says. “But there’s much less of stigma about having the involvement of a large corporation—it’s different times. The debate has changed. It’s about supporting yourself as an artist. If you do this stuff, you have more money for equipment and for recording, because it’s not coming from anywhere else.”
Pabst, at least, is quirky, Kigongo says, and unassertive. It’s like the Pavement of beers.
10:30 p.m. Strathmore Mansion in North Bethesda
A PBR banner hangs near the bar at a “Friday Night Eclectic” event. The band Stripmall Ballads wraps up Americana opera involving 10-foot-tall puppets and a four-person chorus. VanHoozer chats up Strathmore staffers. Later gets lost in a painting in one of building’s galleries. It’s the first time he’s been by himself all evening.
In May, after 10 years of ownership by the charitable trust of its late owner, Pabst Brewing sold for $250 million to C. Dean Metropoulos—who is known for buying decaying supermarket brands, fixing them, and then unloading them—and his sons, Evan and Daren. The brothers talked to Bloomberg Businessweek last month, and shared their ambitions for Pabst’s 42 mostly inactive beer brands, which include National Bohemian, Lone Star, Schlitz, and Colt 45.
“The brothers went on to lay out the Metropoulos strategy—a series of grassroots campaigns targeting regional markets. Celebrities, musicians, and local festivals would figure prominently. Lone Star, their Texas label, might sponsor rodeo riders. Primo, a Hawaiian beer, might build relationships with big-wave surfers,” wrote the magazine’s Matt Schwartz. They hope to attach Snoop Dogg to the launch of flavored Colt 45 drinks; this summer a TMZ camera captured Evan and Daren in the company of New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey, wearing a PBR T-shirt.
“They have a lot of energy for the brands—you want your owners to share your passion for the brand,” Clarke says. He’s seen changes, mostly organizational and budgetary. “What Dan does is still the biggest thing,” he says, which is why the company will be hiring marketing managers in more cities. He says the Metropouloses understand PBR’s marketing philosophy. “Because it’s handled differently than a lot of brands, there’s obviously a learning that takes place, but I think they appreciate what makes the brand successful.”
VanHoozer say he hasn’t detected huge changes yet. “They want us to be more mindful of accounts,” he says. The emphasis on the places selling PBR doesn’t seem to have diminished VanHoozer’s focus on who’s drinking it. Whether the new ownership will square with the eccentric, ground-level efforts of VanHoozer and his counterparts—parachute art, ping pong tournaments, can sculptures—is less clear.
“They’re aggressive,” VanHoozer says.
But so is he, in his way. “I don’t mind slinging beer,” he says, “if I get to help out art in this city.”
11:20 p.m. Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club in Trinidad
The DJ spins some jacked-up salsa. Many customers sip Tecate. VanHoozer pulls aside the bartender (who has a PBR tattoo) and asks if it’s a good idea to send cans to the two guys at the bar drinking Pabst. Answer: No. They weren’t tipping, the bartender says. “They’re douchebags.”