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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 18, 2007

Primo is back

By Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Pabst and Keoki Brewing Co. plan to revive the popular local beer with a high-end makeover.

Advertiser library photo

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HISTORY OF PRIMO BEER

1898: Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co. launches Primo Lager Beer.

1920-1933: Prohibition causes Primo to halt operations.

1933: Prohibition is abolished and Primo later reopens under ownership of Hawaii Brewing Corp.

1963: Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. acquires Primo.

1966: Schlitz builds a new brewery for Primo and other brands in 'Aiea. At its height, the brewery produces 400,000 barrels a year.

1979: Schlitz closes the 'Aiea brewery and moves production to Los Angeles.

1982: Stroh Brewery Co. acquires Primo when it buys Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.

1985: Stroh sheds the brown bottles for green ones. A year later, the brand is bottled in long-neck bottles.

1990: The company brings back the brown bottles.

1997: Stroh stops making Primo beer.

1999: Pabst Brewing Co. acquires the Primo brand when it purchases assets held by Stroh.

2007: Pabst decides to bring back Primo. The beer will be brewed by Keoki Brewing Co. on Kaua'i.

Source: Advertiser research

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Primo Beer, the popular made-in-Hawai'i brand that disappeared about a decade ago, is brewing a comeback.

Pabst Brewing Co. confirmed that it plans to revive the century-old Primo brand, whose distinctive dark brown bottle and blue-collar image made it Hawai'i's best-selling beer for decades.

The Chicago-based company is partnering with craft beer maker Keoki Brewing Co. of Kaua'i to produce a higher-end version of Primo, which would compete with premium lagers like Heineken.

"Primo Beer is returning to Hawai'i very soon, and it will be a high-quality lager," said Kyle Wortham, senior brand manager at Primo Brewing & Malting Co.

Primo's revivals is sure to spark interest among long-time beer drinkers who can recall the taste of the light-tasting, low-cost beer.

"That's terrific," Kailua resident Robert Dye said, when told that Pabst was bringing back the Primo label. "Everybody used to drink Primo. In a sense, it was a national beer of Hawai'i." To be sure, the new Primo isn't going to be the same as the old version.

Noted big-wave surfer Keoni Watson is one of several well-known watermen and community leaders tapped by Primo to taste-test versions of the product and represent the company in local events.

Watson said he sampled several version of the product, which he said has a full-bodied flavor that goes well with local pupu.

He added that the beer's ingredients will include cane sugar, which gives it "a nice flavor."

"The key here is Hawai'i's beer should go well with local kine grindz," said Watson, an unofficial "chief Primo ambassador."

"You gotta go well with the poke."

Primo's revival comes at a time when interest in locally brewed beers is high.

The state's two largest locally based brewers Kona Brewing Co. and Keoki Brewing have seen beer and ale sales grow at double-digit percentage rates during the past several years.

"It's going to be great to have another local beer," said Don Murphy, owner of Murphy's Bar & Grill in Downtown.

"Tourists enjoy the different local beers while locals take pride in the fact that they are made here."

Despite its good will in the community, Primo faces the hurdle of reviving a product that's been dead for about a decade.

Local branding expert Gloria Garvey believes that the Primo name is so well known that it will be able to overcome that challenge.

She noted that the marketing world is full of examples of companies or products that went away only to come back successfully many years later.

Life magazine and Coca-Cola Classic are a few that come to mind, said Garvey, a partner at Kailua-based Brand Strategy Group.

Garvey added the popularity of Primo-related collector's items hats, T-shirts, mugs, bottles and aloha shirts underscores the beer's staying power.

"I think Primo Beer was so beloved here that it almost hasn't gone away," Garvey said.

"The Primo drinkers are still all around, and the nostalgia for it is big."

But nostalgia alone isn't going to sell beers.

During the past several months, Pabst has been conducting a grassroots marketing campaign to reinforce the product's local roots.

Instead of a large-scale advertising blitz, the effort includes involvement in local community events and charitable projects.

For instance, Watson and a half dozen other local watermen were among hundreds of community volunteers that took part in a massive North Shore beach clean up effort.

The Primo volunteers wore T-shirts with the company's logo, which attracted a lot of interest from dozens of fellow volunteers.

The grassroots effort is reminiscent of a marketing strategy implemented on the Mainland by Primo's sister beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Pabst Blue Ribbon a 159-year-old beer known for its blue-collar image saw its sales surge several years ago thanks to a guerrilla marketing campaign that gave the product "street cred" among snowboarders, artists and indie filmmakers.

"Primo really wants to be a strong part of the Hawai'i community, and they want to do it right," Watson said.

"They're such a part of the culture in Hawai'i, and it's exciting to see that they're back," he added.

Once called "the beer that made Milwaukee jealous," Primo was Hawai'i's most popular beer for decades.

Primo was founded in 1898 by Honolulu Brewing & Malting Co., whose brewmaster Emil Joseph Waterman sought to use Hawai'i's high quality water for brewing.

Primo closed its brewery during the Prohibition era, but later reopened. By the 1950s and 1960s, it had become the state's best-selling beer.

Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. bought Primo in 1963 and built an 8.8 acre-brewery in 'Aiea, which at its height was producing 400,000 barrels a year.

The brand's popularity was such that in 1966, retailers had to ration sales to two six-packs per customer, according to past news accounts.

In 1979, Schlitz closed the 'Aiea plant, and three years later it sold Primo to Stroh Brewery Co.

Continued declines in sales prompted Stroh to shut down the company in 1997.

Dye, the Kailua resident, said Primo was never the same after it moved its production to the Mainland.

He said the new Primo's plan to produce its beer in Hawai'i will win many fans.

"I'm sure that if it tastes good it will do well ... because it already has a following," Dye said.

Pabst and Keoki Brewing Co. plan to revive the popular local beer with a high-end makeover

Reach Rick Daysog at rdaysog@honoluluadvertiser.com.