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The Meanings Behind the Symbols on 20 Beer Labels

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Breweries are some of the oldest companies in the world, and beer labels are full of little symbols and phrases that point to their storied histories. That, or they just load up the bottles and cans with weird crap so you have something to talk about as you're downing your fifth cold one. Either way, let's decipher some.

1. Amstel Light

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The two lions fighting over a capital letter A on Amstel Light labels? Those are the lions from the Amsterdam city crest, which can be seen here.

2. Bass

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The famous red triangle was the first ever trademark in the UK, registered on New Year’s Day, 1876. In Great Britain's Intellectual Property Office, the Bass Triangle is filed under the registration code UK00000000001. It was selected because it was a clear, distinct, and unmistakable symbol—one that even blind drunks could identify from across the pub. Or, as James Joyce describes in Ulysses:

During the past four minutes or thereabouts he had been staring hard at a certain amount of number one Bass bottled by Messrs Bass and Co at Burton-on-Trent which happened to be situated amongst a lot of others right opposite to where he was and which was certainly calculated to attract anyone's remark on account of its scarlet appearance.

3. Beck's

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The key in the Beck's logo is a reverse image of the key in Bremen's coat of arms—Beck's was founded and is currently headquartered in the German city.

4. Budweiser

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What does that little tiny cursive bit say at the top of Budweiser's label? Glad you asked:

This is the famous Budweiser beer. We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age. Our exclusive Beechwood Aging produces a taste, a smoothness, and a drinkability you will find in no other beer at any price.

The larger text below reads: "Brewed by our original all natural process using the Choicest Hops, Rice, and Best Barley Malt. Beer • Bier • Cerveza • Birra • Biere."

Until 1908, the text on Budweiser labels was in German. Since 1876, the seal in the center has displayed the names of four continents around the rhombus—Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa—and "America" rests beneath it. Sorry, Antarctica and the other, unspecified America.

5. Dos Equis

Dos Equis was first brewed by Wilhelm Hasse in 1897, and was called "Siglo XX" to celebrate the arrival of the 20th century. This was eventually shortened to "XX," or "Dos Equis." Between the two x's on the label is the face of Aztec ruler Moctezuma II, who was killed in 1520 during the Spanish invasion of Mexico.

6. Heineken

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Heineken concedes that they don't know exactly what the red star on its labels means, but they have some guesses. According to them, it is either "a symbol of European brewers in the Middle Ages who believed it to have mystical powers to protect their brew," or that "the position of a star on the front door of the brewery indicated the stage of the brewing process," or "that four points of the star accounted for the elements earth, fire, water and wind and that the fifth point is the unknown, which is an element that brewers in the Middle Ages couldn’t control."

Also, Alfred Heineken wanted the logo to look "friendlier," so he changed the font and designed a "smiling 'e'" by giving the letter a slight tilt.

7. Guinness

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The harp, the national symbol of Ireland, was adopted by Benjamin Lee Guinness for his family's beer in 1862. He based the logo on a specific harp—Brian Boru's Harp, which is the oldest surviving Gaelic harp, and is preserved at Trinity College.

8. Kronenbourg 1664

The red sashes in the label pay homage to the single red sash in the flag and coat of arms of Strasbourg, the French city where Geronimus Hatt first brewed a version of the beer in 1664 (although, back then, Strasbourg was in the Holy Roman Empire).

9. Miller High Life

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The tale of Miller High Life's "girl in the moon" is a bit of literal corporate mythology. Legend has it that in 1907, Miller advertising manager A.C. Paul got lost in the northern woods of Wisconsin and was struck by a vision of a girl perched upon a crescent moon. Some claim she was modeled after a specific member of the Miller family, but no concrete matches can be made.

"The Champagne of Beers" is thought to refer to the fact that it was launched a few days before New Year's Eve.

10. Modelo Especial

The Modelo Especial lions bear a striking resemblance to the lions featured on Mexico City's coat of arms. The shadowy building in the center looks to be a representation of Mexico's National Palace (although we aren't sure. Feel free to drop in to the comments if you have a better guess).

11. National Bohemian

The man on National Bohemian beer is Mr. Boh (derived from the suds' nickname, "Natty Boh"). Mr. Boh was introduced in 1936, and no one knows why he only has one eye. Some say it's because he is in profile, while one of National Bohemian sales chiefs says it's because "It only took one eye to pick a good beer."

12. Newcastle Brown Ale

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The five points of the blue star on bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale represent the five founding breweries of the city. The shadow inside the star is of Newcastle's skyline, including the Tyne Bridge. In its first year, the beer swept the 1928 International Brewery Awards and the gold medals from that event adorn the label to this day.

13. Pabst Blue Ribbon

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Like Newcastle Brown Ale, PBR includes some serious boasting of accolades earned decades (or centuries) ago. The cursive below the ribbon on PBR's label states:

This is the ORIGINAL Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Nature's choicest products provide its prized flavor. Only the finest of hops and grains are used. Selected as America's Best in 1893.

This selection occurred at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the beer that won the honor was actually Pabst Best Select. (Though just how special the Blue Ribbon honor was is a matter of debate.) After the World's Fair, they changed the name of the beer to reflect the award.

They also used to tie real blue ribbon around the bottles, which required over one million feet of silk a year. They stopped this practice in the '50s, when they just started printing an image of a ribbon on the labels (and cans).

14. Pilsner Urquell

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Imprinted in the red seal on Pilsner Urquell's logo is an image of the brewery's main gate. The brewery was founded in 1839 in Plzeň, and construction on the gate began three years later.

15. Rolling Rock

Ah, the mysterious "33." To be clear, no one is 100% sure what it means. However, plenty of folks have taken guesses:

• It took 33 steps to get from the brewmaster's office to the brewing floor in the Latrobe brewery.
• 33 degrees Fahrenheit is the perfect temperature for drinking beer.
• 33 stands for 1933, the year prohibition ended (or the year the Pittsburgh Steelers were founded).
• The racehorse on the bottle wore 33.
• The water used for the original batches was taken from a stream marked "33" by the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission.
• There are 33 words in Rolling Rock's pledge of quality, which is printed on every bottle:

"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."

The "33" was to inform typesetters of the word count, but they accidentally left it in.

16. Sol

More corporate mythology, this time from south of the border. Sol was apparently created on a bright, sunny morning in 1899 at a brewery called “El Salto de Agua” (the water fall) outside of Mexico City. The sun's rays sprung from the horizon and fanned over the brewing pot, and the brewmaster named the batch "El Sol," for the sun, and its label represents this moment.

17. Stella Artois

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Stella can be (loosely) tracked to 1366, with the Den Hoorn brewery in Leuven, Belgium. Den Hoorn means "the horn," and this symbol is represented on the beer's current labels—making it the perfect brew for Pynchon fans.

18. St. Pauli Girl

The original St. Pauli Girl was a cartoon of a buxom waitress drawn by a local artist, but a common connotation for the woman on the label is a little different. St. Pauli is the Red Light District of Hamburg (not Bremen, where the beer is bottled), and many associate the term "St. Pauli Girl" with "prostitute."

19. Stroh's

Keen-eyed drinkers will notice that cans and bottles of Stroh's used to say, "America's Only Fire-Brewed Beer," but now merely say, "America's Premium Brewed Beer." (As you can see in the above photo, which appears to have been taken in a wood-paneled basement. Appropriate, considering Stroh's is exclusively consumed in wood-paneled basements.)

Apparently, after Stroh's was acquired by Pabst, they had to ditch their old ways of heating kettles over an open flame for cost reasons. The product is now produced mainly in Miller breweries, which don't have those specialty open-flame kettles.

20. Yuengling

The eagle on bottles of Yuengling is an artifact from the beer's beginnings at the "Eagle Brewery," opened in 1829 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania by David Gottlob Jüngling. The German immigrant anglicized his name, and when his brewery burned down in 1831, he and his son opened a new brewery that featured their brand-spanking-new American names.

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History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
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It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
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Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
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With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


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Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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