As a collector of beer memorabilia, I’ve many times had novices ask me, “What’s the oldest piece in your collection?” My guess would be some of the embossed bottles from the 1800s.
Maybe the real question is, “What is the earliest known piece of breweriana?” That answer might be the pots that the Sumerians used to brew the first batch of beer about 6,000 years ago, but let’s be realistic here. In more recent times, one of the earliest items has to be the Bass “red triangle.”
In today’s age of label infringement from look-alike and taste-alike products, we actually see history repeat itself. Back in the late 1800s, the Bass Brewery of England was awarded the first registered trademark. Details are sketchy, but supposedly a French brewer was using a label that bore a close resemblance to the Bass label. This prompted action and trademark law was invented.
But Bass’s red triangle existed long before it became a registered trademark. The company began brewing in 1777. Edouard Manet’s (1832-83) Folies-Bergères painting prominently displays a few bottles of Bass on a bar full of other intoxicating beverages.
Trademarks are sort of the coat of arms for a product. Icons like the Bass red triangle, the Spaten shovel, the Pabst B in the hop leaf, Saint Paul on the Paulaner labels, the blue star on the Newcastle label, the Lowenbrau lion, Fuller’s griffin, Orval’s fish with the ring, Marston’s rope twisted in the shape of a pretzel, the Guinness harp, the Whitbread stag head, the ram on the Young’s brands, and the three linked rings for Ballantine are graphic designs recognized by beer lovers the world over.
One must realize that 200-plus years ago, the rate of illiteracy was much greater than it is today. These symbols were used to identify a particular brand to consumers. The person may not have been able to read the word, Whitbread, but the stag’s head was a visual that he could identify. Symbols also helped to create brand recognition in countries where a language barrier would have been a determining factor.
Pubs and taverns used this same tactic. Such names as The Two-headed Swan, The Cock, The Bull (well, that’s another story), The Spotted Dog, The Bag of Nails, etc., are all pictographs that could identify a product or service to a greater audience.
How are trademarks themselves developed? Sometimes by chance. The three overlapping rings design used in Ballantine advertising was created in a tavern by Peter Ballantine. As he was quaffing a few beers with some friends, he noticed that a sort of pretzel pattern was formed from the condensation where he had set his mug on the bar. The three-ring idea was turned over to the marketing department. These crafty individuals have since taught us to believe that these rings represent “purity, body and flavor.”
On the Pabst label, you notice a B in the middle of a hop leaf. Captain Frederick Pabst created this trademark in a tribute to his in-laws, Jacob Best, along with his four sons, who founded the Pabst brewery in 1844. Captain Frederick Pabst married Jacob’s daughter, Maria. When Philip Best was forced to retire due to ill health, he sold his interest in the brewery to the captain. In 1889 Captain Pabst owned the brewery outright and changed the name to the Pabst Brewing Co. When the new trademark was unveiled, the Best family was pleased with the homage paid to the founders of this now world-famous brewery.
Today, we are privileged not only to have worldwide distribution of great ales and lagers, but also the ability to read, interpret and enjoy the labels.
Beer Dave Gausepohl has collected breweriana since 1974 and has a personal collection of over 400,000 items. He has visited over 1,000 breweries and tasted well over 10,000 different brews from the world over.