A Classic Marketing Mystery Finally Explained!

So I have been a die hard Rolling Rock drinker for years (4 of them legally, haha), and just tonight came across the secret behind the “33” on the bottle.

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I was reading a blog over at StraightDope.com that finally explained the mystery for me. As far as the truth behind this…I take no responsibility, but it sure makes sense!

I would venture to say there are still one or two people in this country who don’t know about Rolling Rock beer. Too bad. It is 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 on occasion–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which is not entirely coterminous with the REAL explanation, is that 33 signifies two things: the year Prohibition was repealed (1933), and the number of words in the legend printed above the number on cans and returnable bottles.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.”

Now, this is a touching sentiment, and there is no question it has 33 words in it. But from the standpoint of intellectual satisfaction, it sucks.

Therefore, 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 sordid 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 a horrible 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 am telling you this story just as it was told to me.)

This being the Depression and all, 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 all of 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.

Tres bizarre, but if M. Tito is to be believed, not quite as bizarre as the truth.

Finally, I know I memorized the words on the back of the bottle for a reason!

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