The Newfoundland Short Neck: Bob-21

A lot of the traffic I get on this blog comes from people looking for an answer to some variety of the question “why does Newfoundland have short neck beer bottles?” It’s a good question, but one for which the internet is not rife with answers.

One of the first things that most people notice when they first come to Newfoundland (or when they first go away) is that Newfoundland beer bottles are a little shorter, just about an inch off the neck, than most beer bottles you’ll find almost anywhere else in North America. Even for big breweries like Labatt and Molson, though the beer inside and the labels are identical, the bottles are different.

Bob-21 (Quidi Vidi Brewing 1892) vs. Long Neck (Dieu du Ciel Péché Mortel).

The best answer I’ve found to this historical question was published in The Telegram (St. John’s biggest local newspaper) by Russell Wangersky in November of 1999. Wangersky, reporting on a bottle shortage of the bottles in the provence, provides a good bit of insight into why the little bottle, known in the industry as Bob-21, has stuck around in the provence. Wangersky is a better source if you can access newspaper archives, but as googling does not yield his article and most people don’t have easy access to newspaper archives, I’m going to go over the story here.

The short history goes like this. When the industry moved away from stubby bottles in the mid-1980s (due to pressure from more attractive looking long necks from the import and American markets) each brewery was left to its own devices to figure out what kind of bottle they should use. (The rise of the stubby as an industry standard is, in itself, an interesting historical development which is covered well in both Brew North by Ian Coutts and Cheers! A History of Beer in Canada by Nick Pashley.) On the mainland the big three breweries (Carling-O’Keefe, Molson, and Labatt), likely due to the proximity of the more aesthetically pleasing taller bottles coming from American imports like Miller, settled on the long neck (see page 120 of Coutts for more on the American influence).

The story differs on the island in part due to Carling-O’Keefe’s dominance in the market. Having control of the old Bennett brands and the popular Black Horse beer, the interim bottle used by Carling-O’Keefe became standard in Newfoundland. Why? Well, there were simply too many Bob-21 bottles kicking around the provence to warrant the economic cost, which Wangersky quotes to be around $10 million, of switching. That’s largely what keeps the bottle around too, as switching would require the whole old stock of bottles to be trashed rather than be reused some 15 to 20 times as they normally are.

That’s it. That’s the story. I’ll admit, it’s not very romantic or exciting! The name Bob-21 doesn’t even have a very interesting story. Wangersky explains, “No one seems to know for sure how the Bob-21 got its handle, except that Carling-O’Keefe picked it.”

The bottle might not have a great backstory, but the cultural value of the little guy stands for more than the odd economic lock-in that keeps it in circulation. Everyone hears the stories of a Newfoundlander hitting the clubs in Toronto for the first time, only to chip their front teeth on those longer-than-expected necks. There is something very tacit about the cute little bottles that makes them feel, well, homey somehow. Anyway, Internet, there is the answer to the question. I’d love to hear about what folks think about the Newfoundland Short Neck bottles, so do leave a comment or pop me an e-mail if you’ve got any strong feelings towards the little Bob-21 bottle.

For more information see Russell Wangersky “Calling all empties: Breweries short on bottles asking beer drinkers to turn them in” The Telegram, November 12, 1999, p. 27.

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Filed under Culture, History, Material Culture

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