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Mystery 33

Claim:   The '33' on the Rolling Rock label stands for 1933, the year Prohibition was repealed.

UNDETERMINED

Origins:   Rolling Rolling Rock Rock is a well-loved gentle-spirited beer produced by a small Pennsylvania brewery that survived for a very long time as an independent before being bought out by Labatts in 1987. Over the years, this brew has gained widespread acceptance, becoming one of the few regional beers to carve a niche in the nationwide market. As it spread to new markets, the mystery surrounding the appearance of a cryptic '33' on its label spread with it.

The mysterious '33' has been on the Rolling Rock label since the beer's debut in 1939. One would think finding out where the '33' came from would amount to little more than a bit of digging in the file room of that brewery. Unfortunately, if the real reason for the name was at one time set down in the records of the company, it's long gone now.

In common with any bit of lore worth theorizing about over a brew, a number of "explanations" for that mysterious '33' have sprung up over the years, including:
  • It refers to 1933, the year Prohibition was repealed. (The 21st Amendment abolished Prohibition on 5 December 1933.)
  • It took 33 steps to get from the brewmaster's office to the brewing floor.
  • The number of words in the brewing pledge on the back of the bottle total 33 words. ("Rolling Rock, from the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.")
  • It's the number of the racing horse pictured on the label.
  • The owner bet $33 on a horse (#33, of course) and bought the brewery with the proceeds in 1933.
  • There are 33 streams feeding into the reservoir from which the brewery draws its water.
  • Groundhog Day is the 33rd day of the year, and they make a big fuss over that holiday in Pennsylvania.
  • The number of letters in Rolling Rock's ingredients - water, malt, rice, hops, corn, brewer's yeast - adds up to 33.
  • Beer tastes best at 33 degrees. (It's just above the freezing point of water.)
  • 33 is journalism jargon for "end of copy." (Actually 30 is the term for this, not 33.)
  • Rolling Rock was brewed at 33 degrees.
  • It's related to the highest level status (33rd degree) attained by Freemasons.
  • The workers at the brewery belonged to union local number 33.
(Many of these same reasons have been offered to explain why Walt Disney's private club at Disneyland was named Club 33.)

Though the Prohibition explanation does at first blush appear the most likely, it's possible the 33 sneaked onto the label purely by happenstance.

The family of James Tito, one-time chief executive officer of Latrobe Brewing (makers of Rolling Rock beer) owned the brewery from the end of Prohibition until the company was sold in 1987. Based on notes and discussions with family members now dead, James Tito believes the mysterious '33' got there by accident when family members couldn't agree on the wording of a slogan to be printed on the bottle, or even whether the slogan should be long or short. Someone eventually came up with the 33-word pledge now in use, and to emphasize its brevity, he drew a large '33' on the paper. The printer to whom this wording was sent mistakenly thought the '33' was part of the copy and included it on the labels. By the time the mistake was discovered, so many labels had been printed and affixed to bottles that it would have been prohibitively expensive to scrap and replace them, therefore the mistake was retained as a permanent feature of the label. Thus every Rolling Rock bottle now sports the following pledge:
Rolling Rock. From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment, as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you. "33"
The "mistake" explanation doesn't sound terribly convincing since the printer who sets and runs off thousands of labels before providing the customer with a proof copy to approve does so at his own risk. And even if someone from Rolling Rock had mistakenly approved the label design, error and all, there was no good reason why the errant '33' couldn't have been removed from the copy before the next printing.

So, the only real answer here is that no one knows the real answer. And perhaps that is the answer — after all, nothing helps sell a product like a little mystery.

Barbara "prohibition superstition" Mikkelson

Last updated:   3 May 2011

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Sources:

    Potter, Chris.   "You Had to Ask: What Does the 33 on the Rolling Rock Label Stand For?"
    Pittsburgh City Paper.   19 August 1998   (p. 7).

    The Boston Globe.   "Ask the Globe."
    3 February 1991   (p. 8).

    [Minneapolis] Star Tribune   "What's the 33 on the Rolling Rock Beer Label?"
    3 November 1991   (p. E15).