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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.