In the early ’60s, a fellow named Bob Uihlein took the reins at what was then a brewery second only to the mighty Anheuser-Busch: the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company of Milwaukee. Schlitz was known nationwide as “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” and the absolute heavyweight of the day. However, under Uihlein’s hackneyed, ham-fisted, and otherwise ill-advised direction, both its liquid and its liquidity would transform into an irrecoverable disarray less than two decades later.
There are two ways to go bankrupt — gradually or suddenly — but for the Uihlein-backed Schlitz, it was a little bit of both. Initially, Uihlein bought a fleet of IBM computers and hired a marketing guru from Anheuser-Busch to figure out a growth strategy. After investing in automated brewing plants and tweaking the tried-and-true Schlitz recipe to cut back on the cost of ingredients, sales started to look more promising, but that glimmer of hope was tragically short-lived.
The thing is, Uihlein was dead set on making more money, but he didn’t care much about the Schlitz product itself or any of the happenings in the brewhaus. As the lager’s recipe continued to thin out and brewers adopted corn syrup and hop liquids as flavoring agents, the beer started to lose its original identity and drinkers took notice. Slowing sales compiled and kicked off the gradual downfall of the once-almighty Schlitz stronghold. The more “sudden” phase came in the ‘70s when the economy crashed and the price of just about everything, including hops and malt, went through the roof. With Schlitz already destined for the gutter, the final nail in the coffin arrived in the form of an infamous 1977 ad campaign now remembered as the “Drink Schlitz or I’ll Kill You” campaign.
Today on the “Taplines” podcast, Dave Infante is joined by recurring guest Maureen Ogle, historian and author of “Ambitious Brew” to recount the downward spiral of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. The two discuss how Uihlein and company erased a century’s worth of Schlitz’s industry-leading, Milwaukee-born brewing legacy in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tune in for more.