There are certain bar orders that feel particularly American: Manhattans, PBR, and in some parts of the country, Old Milwaukee beer. The American macro lager — which has been on the market since 1934 — may not be a household name today like Budweiser or Miller Lite, but that doesn’t detract from its long-held place in the nation’s history.

Like its fellow macro brews, Old Milwaukee is designed to be crushable, refreshing, and straightforward. But more so than its competitors, this beer is built on its working class reputation: The can art embodies Midwest, blue-collar humility. Its dapper, pin-striped can is reminiscent of a vintage pack of Pall Malls, and the simple slogan “America’s beer” adorns every label. The official Old Milwaukee website doesn’t reveal much about the beer, but it contains no shortage of images featuring people fishing, hiking, and hunting all while decked out in Old Milwaukee apparel with a can in hand.

The beer’s history may not be as well documented as that of its macro cohorts, but it’s equally rich in corporate acquisitions, celeb endorsements, and antiquated ad campaigns — all built upon a stalwart, tried-and-true lager recipe.

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Old Milwaukee’s Roots

Old Milwaukee was born out of Milwaukee’s Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, founded in 1849 by German immigrants August Krug and Joseph Schlitz. The serendipitous pairing of Wisconsin’s quality water sources and an influx of lager-brewing German settlers made Milwaukee the obvious choice for America’s brewing capital — though today that unofficial title belongs to Chicago or Portland, Maine, depending on whom you ask. It wasn’t long before Schlitz’s flagship beer adopted the tagline, “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the United States was still in the midst of the Great Depression, so the Schlitz brand wanted to create a lager at an even lower price point than its other offerings. In 1934, the brewery introduced Old Milwaukee, and the beer became a beloved Midwest value beer over the next several decades. Fast-forward to 1982, and Schlitz was acquired by Detroit’s now-defunct Stroh Brewing Company, and then again by Pabst Brewing Company in 2000. These days, Pabst still brews Old Milwaukee at a number of its breweries around the country. Meanwhile, Sleeman Breweries in Ontario (a subsidiary of Sapporo) brews Old Milwaukee for the Canadian market.

Old Milwaukee - While the history of Old Milwaukee may not be as documented as Budweiser or Miller Lite, it has a long-held place in American history.
Credit: Old Milwaukee

Old Milwaukee is only sold in four iterations: the original 4.9 percent ABV formula, Old Milwaukee Lite, Old Milwaukee Ice, and a non-alcoholic version. Though not common for macro lagers, all four beers have won prestigious awards — 19 of them to be exact — at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The original beer won the gold medal in the American-Style Lager category three times, and the light version has brought home the gold in its category six times. It goes without saying that despite its low price point, Old Milwaukee is a seriously good, no-frills beer. Although Old Milwaukee needed little help in its rise to macro lager stardom, the beer enjoyed marketing pushes from a series of ad campaigns that were, at times, controversial.

‘It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This’

Before the ‘90s, Old Milwaukee ads were fairly generic. They depicted scenes of average Americans — usually all-male casts — performing myriad outdoor activities while basking in the refreshing taste of Old Milwaukee beer, with the TV spots often ending with someone claiming, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” But in 1991, the brand challenged its go-to slogan and tried to prove that it does, indeed, get “better than this.”

For a few months, Old Milwaukee appeared on TV sets nationwide with the infamous, misogyny- and supermodel-riddled Swedish Bikini Team ad campaign. While the ads undeniably tugged at the… heart strings of Old Milwaukee’s target audience, the campaign was quickly dropped following protests by the National Organization for Women and the brewery’s female employees. Nonetheless, the concept of the fictional Swedish Bikini Team lived on, making a memorable appearance in the final scene of the movie “Dumb and Dumber” in 1994.

While the history of Old Milwaukee may not be as documented as Budweiser or Miller Lite, it has a long-held place in American history.
Credit: Old Milwaukee

In 2011, Old Milwaukee made efforts to redeem itself from its problematic ads when Will Ferrell approached Pabst’s chief marketing officer to do a series of unscripted Old Milwaukee commercials for free to show his love for the beer. These ads, though strange, proved to be a massive hit, and even secured sacred ad space during the Super Bowl in 2012.

Old Milwaukee Nowadays

Since the Will Ferrell campaign, Old Milwaukee has kept a low profile in the ad sphere, but the brews are still going strong. Folks on the East and West Coasts may have some trouble tracking it down, but it remains widely available throughout middle America, Canada, and a handful of international markets. By several accounts, it remains one of the best American macro lagers out there. Maybe that’s partially fueled by nostalgia, or perhaps it’s the bargain price point of roughly $16 for a 30-rack. Hell, maybe it really is just that tasty.

So the next time you’re at your local bottle shop, skip the $20, 4-pack of milkshake IPAs; pick up a sixer of Old Milwaukee, pick up some Ball Park franks on the way home, and enjoy a slice of humble Americana heaven.