Dear Cecil: The other day my friends and I were sitting around knocking back a few beers when we came upon a question we realized only you can answer: why does it say “33" on the back of the labels of Rolling Rock beer? We all know it’s brewed from pure artesian well water in the glass-lined tanks of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, hometown of Arnold Palmer and all that. But what does the number mean? I remember seeing it on the pony bottles (“a little nip”) I drank in the Philadelphia of my college youth, and it’s also on cans and the long-neck returnables. One of the assembled good ol’ persons pointed out there’s a French (formerly Vietnamese, he claims) beer called “33,” which may have something to do with it. Stephanie F., Washington, D.C.
I venture to say there are still one or two people in this country who don’t know about Rolling Rock beer. Too bad. It’s a brave little brew with many shining qualities to recommend it. Among them:
(1) It’s got a taste with some gravel to it, at least most of the time — the flavor is notoriously variable.
(2) They print the ingredients on the label, unlike most brewers. (They use water, malt, rice, corn, hops, and brewer’s yeast, in case you’re interested.) But most important of all:
(3) It’s got an undeniable mystique, which derives mainly from the enigmatic 33.
The official explanation for the number, which isn’t entirely coterminous with the real explanation, is that 33 signifies two things: the year Prohibition was repealed (1933), and the number of words in the legend printed above the number on cans and returnable bottles. I quote:
Rolling Rock from glass lined tanks in the Laurel Highlands. We tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.
A touching sentiment, and no question it’s got 33 words in it. (There have been minor variants over the years, but the word count has remained the same.) However, as explanations go, this one sucks. In hopes of coming up with something better I hunted up James L. Tito, who at one time was chief executive officer of Latrobe Brewing, the maker of Rolling Rock beer. Mr. Tito’s family owned Latrobe from the end of Prohibition until the company was sold to an outfit in Connecticut in 1985. After some prompting, he told me the strange truth.
Based on some old notes and discussions with family members now dead, Mr. Tito believes that putting the 33 on the label was nothing more or less than an accident. It happened like this:
When the Titos decided to introduce the Rolling Rock brand around 1939, they couldn’t agree on a slogan for the back of the bottle. Some favored a long one, some a short one. At length somebody came up with the 33-word beauty quoted above, and to indicate its modest length, scribbled a big “33” on it. More argument ensued, until finally somebody said, dadgummit, boys, let’s just use this one and be done with it, and sent the 33-word version off to the bottle maker. Unfortunately, no one realized that the big 33 wasn’t supposed to be part of the design until 50 jillion returnable bottles had been made up with the errant label painted permanently on their backsides. (I suppose this bespeaks a certain inattentiveness on the part of the Tito family, but I’m telling you the story as it was told to me.)
Given that it was the Depression, the Titos were in no position to throw out a lot of perfectly good bottles. So they decided to make the best of things by concocting a yarn about how the 33 stood for the year Prohibition was repealed.
In retrospect, this was a stroke of marketing genius. Next to cereal boxes, beer labels are probably the most thoroughly scrutinized artifacts in civilization, owing to the propensity of beer drinkers to stare morosely at them at three o’clock in the morning. The Rolling Rock “33” has baffled beer lovers for generations, and accordingly has become the stuff of barroom legend. I have letters claiming that the number has something to do with a satanic ritual, that it was the age of Christ when he died, even that it signifies the number of glass-lined tanks in the Latrobe plant. Très bizarre, but if M. Tito is to be believed, not quite as bizarre as the truth.
I note with sadness that however many glass lined tanks may be used to make Rolling Rock beer these days, they’re no longer in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. In 2006 the brand was sold to Anheuser-Busch, which moved brewing operations to New Jersey. The 33 on the label was retained. I make no claims regarding the mountain springs.
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