The human race’s fascination with turning all their favorite things into spheres — from cake pops to meatballs to Nestle’s early aughts staple Aquapods — is as old as time itself. That’s one reason why if you attended college parties in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there’s a good chance you encountered a beer ball keg. These translucent, amber-tinted orbs were roughly the size of a beach ball, contained a little over five gallons of beer, and functioned as a slightly more convenient alternative to buying a traditional keg or multiple cases of beer. They were essentially party-ready right out of the local beer cave, and once the keg was tapped, party goers would often repurpose the empty vessel into a lampshade, a makeshift soccer ball, or any other orb-shaped household item that crossed their minds. It truly was the gift that kept on giving.
By many accounts, beer balls were beloved. But where did they come from? And more importantly, where did they go?
The first beer ball was conceived by former F.X. Matt Brewery vice president J. Kemper Matt Sr. in 1976, and the Utica-based brewery launched theirs to market the following year. For the first few years, the brewery purchased pre-made plastic balls and filled them with their own beer. By 1982, though, the brand began developing the balls in-house by buying plastic tubes, heating them, and then inflating them until they took shape. Every 5.16-gallon vessel was filled with the since-discontinued Matt’s Premium Lager and came in a box with a plastic bag liner, making it easy for consumers to use: Simply fill a box with ice, put the beer ball on top, insert the tap handle, and pour up.
The combined appeal of the beer ball’s relative convenience and novelty shape made it an instant hit among college-age drinkers. Beer balls were non-recyclable, so there was no incentive to return the empty kegs for a return on a deposit. Plus, despite weighing over 40 pounds, beer balls were only a third the size of a traditional keg. One account fondly recalls transporting beer balls in stolen shopping carts from one party to another.
Beer ball taps were often sold separately and advertised as “reusable,” but most people from the beer ball generation will tell you that the taps rarely lasted for more than three uses. Thankfully, beer balls were so ubiquitous in their heyday that someone in attendance would often have a spare tap in their car. If no taps were available, party goers would resort to brutish tactics and pop the tops off the balls with a screwdriver, go to town on the top with a pair of pliers, and allow guests to dunk their cups inside for refills.
Given that beer balls were usually found in frat basements and stadium parking lots, these minor obstacles only added to the fun of the product. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a group that appreciates consuming alcohol both quickly and in unconventional ways more than college students — think beer funnels and “icing” — and while having to jury-rig a broken tap with a screwdriver may be frustrating, it only leads to a good story to recount down the line.
Needless to say, F.X. Matt’s beer ball was a hit, and other breweries soon followed suit with their own versions of the keg.
By the mid-’80s, Coors, Genesee, and Anheuser-Busch had developed their own beer balls, all advertised with relatively uninspired puns. The term “party ball” became a registered trademark of the Coors Brewing Company, and the brand subsequently rolled out an ad in 1989 that proudly boasted the vessel’s convenience: “It’s just not a party if you don’t have a ball.”
Still, F.X. Matt’s balls continued to flourish with the help of its “Play Ball” campaign that hit billboards, radio waves, and airplane banners. It also didn’t hurt that the Matt’s Premium Draft Beerball was more affordable than most of its competitors. At one point, the brewery was even shipping beer balls out to the West Coast as the spherical kegs had become popular at beach get-togethers.
Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light Beer Ball, though, eventually proved to be pretty stiff competition. In the late ‘80s, light beer was all the rage, and F.X. Matt had missed the boat on putting a light-beer ball on the market. And as the ‘90s rolled by, the ever-shifting economy started to create problems for the beer ball’s once-promising future.
F.X. Matt initially had a good deal on plastic, but as that cost went up, the price of the beer ball did, too. At $15, a beer ball seemed like a good deal, but once the cost rose above $20, Matt Brewing knew customers would start exploring the shelves for other options. Speaking of shelves, the architecture of the party ball also proved to be a fatal flaw: The awkwardly shaped vessel ended up dominating precious space in drinkers’ refrigerators. As beer balls started to present real-estate dilemmas for both consumers and distributors, many ditched the balls entirely and switched back to shipping cans and traditional kegs.
The other issue was sales volume. While beer balls were undoubtedly well loved, they were a niche product largely catering to college and beach parties, and casual drinkers certainly weren’t stocking them in their kitchen fridges over cans. Terry Gras, F.X. Matt’s former public relations manager, was once quoted saying that beer ball sales made up less than 15 percent of the brewery’s overall revenue. One by one, breweries began dropping their beer balls from their portfolios. It’s believed that Coors and Budweiser were the last beer-ball brands standing, with both finally discontinuing their versions in 2011.
Beer balls are sadly no more, but people generally look back on them and smile. While they were hardly the logical choice, nostalgia does sell, so who knows? Maybe a beer ball renaissance will get the world excited about craft beer again. Nothing quite says TikTok bait like a five-gallon orb of macro lager.
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