The first full beer I ever drank was a Rolling Rock. I was a certain number of years old (for the sake of sending the right message to the kids, let's all just agree that number was 21), my friend's older brother had a bunch of Rolling Rocks in the fridge, and we all decided to be cool and drink one.
Notice the "33".
I was not ready for the taste of beer. To get through my Rolling Rock I had to chase it with sips from a juice box. (True.)
I've only had a handful of Rolling Rocks since then -- not because of any specific beef with Rolling Rock, it just doesn't seem to factor into my life. It's not a light beer, nor is it a "let's drink something nice" beer. It's in that uncomfortable middle ground, neither cheap enough to be utilitarian nor elite enough to be fancy. Kind of like buying a Saab.
The other night, I found myself face-to-face with a Rolling Rock for the first time in years, which reminded me about the mysterious "33" printed on every single bottle.
Here are 11 of the best REAL theories I found about the meaning of the Rolling Rock 33, ranked from least likely to most likely.
The "33" marked the bottles that were poisoned with arsenic (which has the atomic number 33). Under this theory, the brewers didn't set out to make a delicious beer. No, they set out to murder people (or one specific person, but this could make it seem like an accident). So two types of bottles would roll off the line: Ones that contained arsenic (marked with a 33), and ones that contained poison-free beer.
I think this is the least likely theory because it seems like a very overcomplicated, "Count of Monte Cristo" way to set up a murder. Rolling Rock debuted in 1939. I'm pretty sure, back then, if you wanted to murder someone you could just hit them with a stick and blame it on the Kaiser.
It was a mystical foretelling of the coming of Larry Bird. If Larry Bird was a Pittsburgh sports icon I'd believe this one more. But why would a beer made in Pennsylvania foretell the coming of an Indiana- and Massachusetts-based honky basketball player? Seems like a defeatist western Pennsylvania theory to attribute Rolling Rock to a Celtic. At least say it foretold the coming of current 15th string running back, #33 Isaac Redman, or predicted the number of minutes into each baseball season it would take before the Pirates became mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
It's a secret shout-out to the KKK. According to The Internet, 33 is a big number for the KKK. K is the 11th letter of the alphabet, so K+K+K = 33.
It's a better theory than the two that preceded it -- but still not believable for me. Too subtle. They would've called the beer Rolling Rockkk or switched the brewery from Latrobe, PA, to Whiterobe, PA.
It's a secret shout-out to the Freemasons. "33" is the highest order that a Freemason can achieve. Or something. I don't know what that means, I don't read Dan Brown books.
Anyway... I think it's safe to say that there's at least one website dedicated to how every single company in history is secretly run by the Freemasons. Sure, they control the British crown, keep the metric system down and made Steve Guttenberg a star -- but controlling a middle-of-the-road Pennsylvanian beer doesn't seem like their M.O.
Phil? Phil Connors?
Groundhog Day is the 33rd day of the year. Groundhog Day IS more important in western PA than pretty much anywhere else in the world... and Latrobe is only about 40 miles away from Punxsutawney... so this theory has some legs.
The only problem: Who thinks about Groundhog Day as a "33"? If you asked me to turn it into a number, I'd say 22, since it's on February 2nd. (And I wouldn't do that solely because these are all multiples of 11, which now dictate every decision in my life.) "33" seems like an obscure path to Groundhog Day.
Also... why would you need to make that a secret message? This isn't like letting Freemasons know this is an approved beer. If you want to celebrate and/or bring awareness to Groundhog Day, you don't do it through cryptic clues. You put a badass cartoon groundhog on that bottle, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, some Bret "Hitman" Hart sunglasses and a backwards Starter cap.
33 is the age when Jesus died. If any of the "secret shoutout" theories are gonna be right, I'd go with this one. People are always trying to give shoutouts to Jesus. He's like the Jermaine Dupri of deities.
Still, with the way Biblical numerology works, there are plenty of other, better numbers that symbolize Jesus. And not just "OK, type 517537 on your calculator, then hold it upside-down and kinda use your imagination to close the gap between the 1 and 7 and what do you see?"
The brewery was bought with winnings from a horse with the number 33. In this theory, one of the future founders of Rolling Rock was at the horse racing track, bet on a horse with the number 33, and won enough money to start the brewery. That doesn't just explain the "33"... it also explains the random picture of a horse on the bottle, too.
It's not a bad theory at all but here's my red flag. While I'm admittedly not a big horse racing guy, in my experiences at the track I've never seen a horse with a number as high as 33. Maybe up to, like, 12 or 14. Wouldn't 33 indicate there are 33 horses in the race? And doesn't that many horses running constitute the legal definition of a "stampede," not a race? (Like how, in some places, 5 unrelated women living together in a house still legally constitutes a brothel?)
It was 33 steps from the brewmaster's office to the brewing floor. This just reeks of the kind of mystique-building tall tale they tell you on the brewery tour. Can't you just picture your 78-year-old blue haired tour guide telling you this theory, and throwing in a few "I reckons" and "yes sirees" for good measure?
There are 33 total letters in Rolling Rock's ingredients. Rolling Rock actually lists its ingredients on the bottle: Water, malt, rice, hops, corn, brewer's yeast. If you add up all the letters in those, you get 33.
Viable enough, but seems more like a coincidence to me. (Or, to the Internet-at-large, irony.) That's reading so deep into it that the theorist is trying to make 33s happen rather than letting the 33s come to him. (Or her. But, more accurately... him.) It's like what I assume happened in that Jim Carrey movie about the number 23. I don't know. Much like I don't read Dan Brown books, I don't watch Jim Carrey movies that will sully the idealized place that "Ace Ventura" holds in my heart.
Where'd you pinch the hooch? Is some blind tiger jerkin' suds on the side?
1933 was the year when prohibition was repealed. I like this theory a lot. After all, prohibition probably would've been a fairly big roadblock in Rolling Rock's start-up process. (Unless they called themselves Rolling Rock Cloud Social Networking, in which case they still could've wrangled a solid $1.3 million in VC.)
My only hesitation is that there's another number that's much more representative of the prohibition repeal. It was the 21st amendment, so a "21" would be much more logical. (Much more logical than the plot of the movie "21", at least.)
Adding up the words. So, as entertaining as all this theorizing is, it's all fairly moot. According to one of the old chief executives of Rolling Rock, the "33" represented the number of words in the little message on the back of the Rolling Rock bottle.
Back then, it read: "A little nip from the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe. We tender this package as a premium beer for your delight and economical use. It comes from the mountain springs to you." 33 words.
The people painting the message on the bottles didn't realize the 33 was a proofreading note, so they just went ahead and put it on the bottles. It caught on, and became a signature element of the beer.
It's the Occam's razor of all the theories on this list and, therefore, the least entertaining. But don't forget -- just because some Rolling Rock ex-CEO said it, that doesn't make it the absolute truth. If you believe another theory, keep rolling with it. Pun!
This post was originally published on Friday, April 9, 2010 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Food & Drink.