The Stubby Beer Bottle. Part I.

Fashions attend packaging for beer no less than what is inside. Environmental laws, or industry accords, affect the matter too, viz. for disposability and recycling.

In Canada currently the can is very popular for craft, while some bottles are still used, of varying shapes. In the domestic mass market industry both bottles and cans appear.

This is an example of a half-litre bottle used currently by Stone City Ales in Kingston, Ontario (and the beer is mighty good, too):

 

 

From the 1930s through the early Sixties 12 oz. “export” or slope-shape “Champagne” bottles were in use, see examples in this link. A slope-shape 22 oz. “quart” was used as well.*

The website of Molson-Coors states Molson Canadian lager, introduced in 1959 was bottled as shown, note clear glass:

 

In 1962, some sources state 1961, Canadian brewers introduced the brown-only stubby bottle as a national standard. A 1968 ad of Newfoundland Brewery Limited, by then an affiliate of Molson Breweries, shows the stubby in classic mode (via Memorial University Digital Archives):

 

 

Note the vending side by side of pale ale and lager versions of the famous India brand. Only the lager is sold today, the India Beer.

In 1983, Canadian brewers adopted taller bottles, which might differ among the brewers. These were considered American in style but were not really long-neck, as the old export bottle was.

By 1992 the bottle was standardized industry-wide to a tall, brown, shouldered format still in use today, mainly by the large brewers. See in Allen Sneath’s Canadian brewing history. Cans are also used.

A CBC radio report explained the background to the 1983 switch, which some rued as a loss of Canuck tradition.

Despite that change, the stubby still appears among big brewer ranks, e.g. this listing for Coors Banquet in Saskatchewan. Some Molson Canadian Lager was packaged in stubbies a few years ago, as a 2017 Tweet from Molson-Coors shows.

Canada popularized the stubby between 1962 and 1983, but it had a long history before that. The best way to understand it is to read the article (2019) A History of Non-Returnable Beer Bottles by Peter Schulz, Bill Lockhart, Carol Serr, Bill Lindsey, and Beau Schriever.

The authors aptly note:

Just as archeologists piece together the story of the past from fragments of ancient pots, so future historians might well glean insights into the way we live today by studying the shapes, materials, and surface designs of the “vessels” which contain our products (Modern Brewery Age 1964).

They explain the stubby was introduced in 1935 to compete better with the can, then new and gaining traction. The stubby was similar in shape and a few ounces lighter than the export bottle. Further, like the can it was disposable.

Owens-Illinois, the glass bottle manufacturer, designed the stubby. There were two main sizes, 12 oz. and, for the West Coast, 11 oz. A larger-size format was also made.

Some brewers, across the country, did adopt the stubby, the authors include a photo of Fidelio Ale in New York packaged in the new bottle.

In 1935 the trade journal The American Brewer carried an Owens-Illinois ad for the stubby (p. 16). The brewing profession at large clearly knew of the development, in other words. It was not an obscure technological advance, and had some commercial application in the period.

 

 

The term stubby was present at the creation, most likely devised by a marketing mind at Owens-Illinois. What Canadians have fondly viewed as their own is of American origin, as many of our cherished institutions.

Yet, we made the stubby famous, that’s true – fame of a kind anyway, the kind unlovely objects can gain with familiarity.

In part this resulted from its being returnable, an early nod to the burgeoning environmental movement. A returnable bottle also has its own economic justification (the two often go together): why throw away all that re-useable glass?

Schulz, Lockhart et al. note that even the first bottle was re-used by some breweries. Particularly during the Depression, people didn’t understand why it should be discarded after one use.

For whatever reason though, the first stubby did not succeed in the market. By World War II it was set aside. After the war it seems to have had limited use in various parts of the country.

Bottles in the stubby shape were sold in six packs in the 1970s in the U.S., certainly. Those I recall were plastic composition, throw-away. Don’t ask me why, but I remember walking with one of these on the sand dunes at Provincetown, Cape Cod, on a trip down there in the early ’70s.

Fun fact: at least one Canadian brewer had adopted the stubby, or a bottle quite like it, even before 1962. An earlier post of mine included this image from a 1949 issue of an employee magazine of National Breweries Ltd. in Montreal:

 

 

It was not quite the near-neckless stubby of 1962, but fairly close. It bears some resemblance to another 1930s abbreviated beer bottle, the steinie, perhaps a compromise between it and the stubby. See linked article by Schulz, Lockhart et al. for its description.

These authors also describe a third abbreviated bottle released in the late 1930s, the Packie, or Brownie, to which the Dow Ale bottle may also be connected.

I cannot confirm the stubby-like Dow Ale actually went on the market, but the accompanying story stated it had, and the plan evidently had reached a high stage of development.

That bottle was disposable, in line with the original stubby design. The 1962 bottle did vary from the 1949 effort as, apart the neck resembling more closely the original stubby, the bottle was made returnable.

My formative experiences with Canadian beer occurred during the reign of the stubby. While I have no strong preference for any beer container – I am more concerned with what’s inside – I liked drinking some brands straight from the bottle.

The stubby seemed ideal for that. Once it faded, I stopped doing that. (Cans aren’t the same for some reason, I don’t know why).

N.B. For a thorough, more international look at packaging formats for craft and mass market brewers, see Cat Wolinski’s infographic article in Vinepair in 2018.

Part II continues the discussion.

Note: source of last four images above is linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*The “quart” usage is my recollection of 1970s beer parlance in Quebec, having lived there at the time. I think probably the British terms pint and quart were simply transferred in Quebec to mean smaller and larger measures of beer, even though the local measures ended as smaller, because in English we called the 12-oz. bottle a pint. I am less sure of the 1970s Quebec French designations, maybe it was just petite and grosse for the 12 and 22-oz. size, respectively. It’s confusing because today, 20 or 22 oz. of beer in Quebec would be called a pint, and pinte in French.

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “The Stubby Beer Bottle. Part I.”

  1. Gary, this may be a little off topic but right at the beginning of your article I immediately noticed your very nice pewter tankard, a rather unusual design and very attractive.

    Reply
    • Thanks Michael, and any comments always welcomed.

      I bought it in, and likely you guessed the origin, England, I think at Bermondsey Market, London.

      It needs some buffing up, but is a favourite, with a glass bottom.

      It has an insignia of some kind on it, club or similar, but I have googled details and can’t sort out what it was!

      Gary

      Reply
  2. This was interesting to me. An 11oz US stubby in the Northwest was introduced by Olympia in about 1936. A website shows a 1940 Bock Beer stubby: http://enjoyolympiabeer.com/bottles.html. This stubby remained seemingly unchanged through the 1970s at least, and was a regional standard returnable. The Canadian stubby is very similar in shape, but there are differences. The US stubby is a slightly different volume, and there is a molded ring around the shoulder (the ring is visible on the Oly Bock bottle; it was a good indicator of correct fill level). The stubby enjoyed a renaissance in Oregon when the 1972 bottle bill permitted industry standard bottles a lower 2c deposit, rather than the typical 5c. National brewers started filling stubbies. I think I even saw Miller High Life in the squat brown stubby.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Michael Hancock Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: