Around the country, there's a certain category of beers that are regional favorites because they are reasonably cheap and reliably drinkable. Think of them as the local versions of Pabst Blue Ribbon. We're talking about beer brands such as Old Style in greater Chicago, Lone Star in (of course) Texas, and National Bohemian (or "Natty Bo") in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic.
In the Pacific Northwest, there's Rainier. It's named after the famous peak outside of Seattle, and, like so many other classic beer labels, Rainier is now owned by a big beer company. In fact, Rainier and all of the beer brands mentioned above are owned by the same brewer, the Pabst Brewing Company.
Despite the fact that these brews are no longer run independently or owned locally, they tend to maintain affection in their home regions, partly out of tradition and the fact that they're only sold in that part of the country. Chicago Cubs fans were momentarily outraged, for instance, when the idea surfaced that Wrigley Field might stop serving Old Style.
Low cost is undeniably a big part of the equation as well: There's no way that hipsters and artists would have embraced PBR like they have if the brew didn't have its blue-collar, everyman appeal.
So it may come as a shock to longstanding Rainier drinkers that the brand's first new beer in 20 years is an upscale brew with a price point up there with craft beers. The new Pale Mountain Ale, which is being brewed in Washington state "using two-row barley and Yakima Valley hops, so it’s got a solid malt backbone and clean citrus finish," according to marketing materials, will be sold as soon as this weekend in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and northern California. The suggested retail price will be $11.99 for a six-pack of 16-ounce cans or bottles.
Meanwhile, drinkers along the West Coast have been able to find regular Rainier on sale for around $5.99 for a traditional six-pack of 12-ouncers (Pale Mountain Ale bottles are 16 ounces each), or $18 for a case of 24.
While the cost of Pale Mountain Ale may be offputting to old Rainier loyalists, the big question is whether the taste of the new brew is good enough to justify the price. The Seattle Times tried to get to the bottom of this issue by asking local bartenders what they thought of Rainier's new flavor.
The consensus is that it's decent, and certainly tastier than the cheaper traditional Rainier, but ultimately overpriced in comparison to truly worthwhile craft beers. "Little is memorable about it, and by the time I finish typing this sentence I will likely have already forgotten Rainier Pale Mountain Ale," one taster observed. Another said flatly, "I don’t think the quality of the beer is that great where you would charge 12 bucks for a six pack."
So it looks like Pale Mountain Ale is not going to replace classic Rainier as the "beer of choice at frat parties and dives," as the Seattle Times described it. And it will probably have quite an uphill battle winning over the beer snob market as well.