Why you should care
America’s hipster beer of choice claims to have won its namesake at the 1893 World’s Fair. But the details aren’t so cut and dried.
Massive structures and ornate buildings dot the Chicago waterfront along Lake Michigan, spanning more than 600 acres. The oldest functioning locomotive train is on display, as is the iconic Ferris wheel. The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 put Chicago and the American Midwest on the map as a hub of international trade and commerce. Forty-six nations participated, and over the six months the fair was in operation, 27 million people visited — half the U.S. population at the time.
While transportation and architectural innovations were in no short supply, the world’s fair also exhibited cutting-edge clothing, food and beverage products. The zipper was introduced for the first time, as was Cracker Jack. Many exhibitors entered competitions to gain attention for their brands. Brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Pabst competed for best beer. In fact, the world’s fair is when Pabst Blue Ribbon began using the blue ribbon, after winning the beer competition. However, research shows that the scoring of the contest wasn’t so clear. And despite more than a century’s worth of PBR advertising claims, no blue ribbon was awarded.
To understand why brewers were so eager to take home the grand prize in a competition, you have to understand the climate at the time. The world’s fair organizers were anxious to build Chicago and its surrounding areas as a commercial center, to encourage competitive trade. At the time, Chicago was seeing huge growth in consumer products, according to Miriam Levin, a professor of history at Case Western University. Previous fairs, like the 1864 Great Central Fair in Philadelphia, didn’t showcase food and drink the way the Chicago fair did. “There was a big midway with all sorts of shows, restaurants and vendors,” says Levin.
The beer judges went rogue and decided to come up with their own system of scoring, based on made-up categories.
There was also an unprecedented number of exhibitors, which made standing out the most important thing for a burgeoning beer manufacturer. “It’s amazing that any [exhibitors] got noticed there,” says Levin. “Saying you were at the fair and won a prize was one way to do that.”
While alcohol was not openly served at the fair, Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and others had exhibition booths and competed for the best beer award. The fair organizers, though, were concerned with maintaining peace among exhibitors and didn’t want to encourage competitiveness. They decided that contestants weren’t competing against one another and instead were to be judged against a list of criteria including purity, color and flavor, and assigned a score between zero and 100, according to research by Illinois historian Neil Gale. Any beer that scored 80 or higher would receive a bronze St. Gaudens Medal and a certificate of excellence.
But during the contest, the beer judges went rogue and decided to come up with their own system of scoring, based on made-up categories. The brewers assumed that getting the highest score meant “winning” even though no grand prize existed — each brewer who scored 80 or higher received the same medal and certificate. There is some discrepancy over whether Pabst actually scored highest, but in this case, history was written by the owners: Capt. Frederick Pabst declared himself the winner. He ordered his Milwaukee brewery be draped in blue ribbons and gave his workers the day off. Prior to this, Pabst had begun tying blue ribbons around the necks of his beer bottles to make them stand out at saloons. The world’s fair contest, though, solidified his beer as the blue-ribbon winner.
Realizing early on the importance of brand recognition — especially among the enormous number of exhibitors at the world’s fair — Pabst changed the name of his beer from Best Select to Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Giving yourself a blue ribbon would be a good way to get noticed,” says Levin.
In the decades that followed, Pabst used his newfound recognition to open hundreds of Pabst taverns, or “tied houses,” across the country, which exclusively served Pabst products. To this day, Pabst has “Selected as America’s Best in 1893” printed on every bottle and can, and until recently, the website’s timeline included “Pabst is awarded the blue ribbon at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, beating out many other popular American brewers.” But Gale’s research changed that. Today the site says, “In 1882, Pabst adds pieces of blue ribbon tied around the necks of Best Select beer bottles.”
There is no longer mention of the brewery winning the blue ribbon at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.