In 2013, the owners and brewers of Upland Brewing Company decided to celebrate the company’s 15th anniversary with a special beer release. Normally in these situations, breweries go big with a barrel-aged imperial stout, or a trendy IPA with a creative combination of hops.
The Bloomington, Indiana-based brewery decided to go historical, however, and rereleased Champagne Velvet, an iconic Hoosier beer first brewed in 1902 by Terre Haute Brewing Co. The corn-based Pilsner was an immediate hit, and, eight years later, the beer is still available and thriving.
“In terms of success and prominence, it is one of our flagships and our number two brand by volume, and our fastest growing as well,” says David Bower, president of Upland Brewing Co.
Revivals of heritage beers are increasingly popular at craft breweries nationwide. Despite craft beer drinkers’ tendencies to seek out new or rare beers, including one-offs available only in taprooms or via limited-member clubs, there’s a market for beers that combine accessible flavor profiles with a dash of nostalgia.
After all, most of the beers sold in the United States are easy-drinking lagers and ales, often purchased in grocery stores. Craft breweries that have large enough footprints to grant them access to the retail chain have noticed and adjusted their lineups accordingly—with considerable results.
A handful of brands with deep historical roots are also shelf and tap mainstays, including Pabst Blue Ribbon and Narragansett Lager, which was resurrected in 2005 after a 24-year absence. In 2021, Narragansett was the 32nd largest craft brewery in the country.
Heritage beer revivals are usually regional, a nod to their initial geographic market, though Bower says that Champagne Velvet has found some success in outside markets like Washington, D.C.
Its branding is different from other Upland Beers, allowing the brewery to position the label in a distinct way, with its own identity and consumer connection. This is a model followed by other established breweries that also have revived mothballed or diminished brands.
In Nashville, Yazoo Brewing Co. helped revive Gerst Amber Ale, the flagship of Gerst Brewing Company, which once called Middle Tennessee home but did not survive Prohibition. Over the years, the Chandler family, who owned the brewery as well as Gerst Haus Restaurant, contracted an amber ale from Yazoo to serve at its restaurants in Tennessee and Indiana, often served in frozen stemmed goblets.
Linus Hall, the owner of Yazoo Brewing, says that when his company began brewing the beer, they looked to history to build out a recipe, since not much knowledge about the original survived outside of memories.
“We went with a modern craft take on it for the process but wanted the right ingredients,” he says. “We figured imported barley with a little corn in it, with a gentle noble hop flavor,” would resemble a beer made in the 1940s and ’50s.
Gerst Amber Ale, which is marketed separately from other Yazoo beers and its Embrace the Funk wild and sour lineup, is in Yazoo’s top three best sellers. In addition to its home state, it is also available in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.
“It’s not a beer to build an entire business around, but wherever it goes, it does crazy business,” says Hall. “It just clicks all the boxes—people love to support local breweries, it is sessionable and it’s a craft beer that has more of a mainstream flavor.”
With retro-style branding and its availability on draft and in cans, Gerst can easily be a crowd-pleaser for a large group with varying beer tastes.
These heritage beers, even long-running offerings from names like Rainier, Ballantine or Schlitz, are a way to bridge a generational gap over pints. They’re also a reminder of the country’s brewing history and legacy.
Vinnie Cilurzo, cofounder and brewer of Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, California, has resurrected some beers from the long-closed Grace Brothers Brewery, which operated from the 1940s to the 1960s.
“Happy Hops was one of their main brands,” says Cilurzo. “And the logo for Happy Hops is this little hop, and they named him Happy. He’s got this bright yellow face and his body is a hop leaf and he’s holding a tray with a glass of beer and his cheeks are rosy. It’s a great little logo and it’s what we put on the label.”
Russian River is one of the country’s most renowned breweries, especially of hoppy ales. And so, when the brewery decided to release this selection, they did not make a lager, as the original was, but rather a 6.5% alcohol-by-volume India pale ale.
Keeping a bit of history alive while also staying current is important, says Cilurzo. While Happy Hops might not be what old timers remember, the brewery also makes Velvet Glow, another Grace Brothers Brewery brand, that not only has a label that resembles the original but is also a similar lager.
“It’s probably not too far off from what they were making back in the day, although I’m sure what they were making was a little bit lighter than what we do with Velvet Glow,” says Cilurzo. “I really make this beer to be a classic German-style helles.”
There have been other attempts at resuscitating abandoned brands in recent years, including Piels, a New York brand, and New Albion Ale, a pale ale recreation of what is largely considered the flagship beer of the original modern craft brewery.
Beer evolves. It changes with consumer tastes, advancement in brewing technology and new ingredients. Sometimes all drinkers have is a name or a memory, but that can create new experiences and allows the beverage to continue on its journey and encourage further evolution.
When Champagne Velvet rolled back onto the beer scene, it did so just as the hazy IPA craze was taking off.
“Our messaging was that we were around before today’s trends and intend to be long after,” says Bower. “A lot of beers that are popular for a moment are because of trend chasing or colorful labels and then they are not around tomorrow. This beer has staying power, has a story arch, and it is one of resilience.”