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Recent fan uprisings at NFL games in New Orleans and Cleveland have thrown the future of the plastic beer bottle into doubt. A ban on the easy-to-hurl containers, only recently introduced into the sporting and drinking realms, would be horrible news to brewers who wasted time and money on the product’s rollout.
But no tears will fall into Perry Hahn’s beer if the plastic bottle gets tossed out of the game.
He’s still a can man.
“I want cans to come back,” he says.
Back before the dawn of the plastic-bottle age, cans helped Hahn become the most famous beer salesman in the land. The 40-year-old Riverdale, Md., resident has sold cotton candy, Coke, and Cracker Jack at pretty much every type of sporting and entertainment event in his 21-year vending career.
But Ravens, Orioles, and Redskins fans remember Hahn best as Robovendor, the guy who sold suds while using an elaborate contraption strapped to his arm. Hahn’s gadget, known by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as the Tandem High-Speed Can Opener, ripped the tops clean off of two beer cans at a time with a mere flick of the vendor’s wrist, thereby reducing pouring time to next to nothing. Using his battery-operated opener, which he perfected after years of on-the-job trials, Hahn could open a case of 24 12-ounce cans and pour their contents into cups within one minute.
The device also increased his customer base, because his mechanized modus operandi set Hahn apart from the legions of old-school vendors who used standard “church-key” can openers to merely punch through the tops of containers. Thanks to write-ups in several local and national publications, Hahn became something of a celebrity.
Hahn, who has an engineering degree from the University of Maryland, even looked into mass-marketing his brainchild, though the economics of such a rollout never added up to much. “I calculated that there were only about 900 people in the country who make their living, like I do, as full-time stadium vendors,” he says. “That’s a pretty limited market. And I looked at marketing it to the tailgater crowd as a novelty product, but I asked a tort lawyer about the liability issues involved in that, and he told me that he’d be waiting for some lush in a parking lot to cut his lip using my opener and then he’d come after me. I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t sure if it would ever be much more than a break-even proposition.”
He took any plan to put the openers into production completely off the table, however, when he began sensing that the future of his vocation was in plastics.
Miller Brewing Company spearheaded the advent of plastic beer bottle, which company officials tagged as being among “the biggest breakthroughs in the beer world in years.” Officially, the Philip Morris subsidiary launched its project in the hope of coming up with a container that looked like the traditional glass bottle but weighed less, to cut production and shipping costs. (Plastic containers are just one-seventh as heavy as glass.) Cynics have surmised, however, that the brewer’s plastic fetish also has something to do with a desire to attract young drinkers, who are used to sipping soft drinks from such vessels. One financial analyst suggested that the plastic push was a sign that the beer industry was desperate to counteract a trend that has a third fewer college freshmen—a largely under-21 demographic—drinking beer now than two decades ago.
Whatever the motivation, in the fall of 1998, Miller began test-marketing three of its most popular brews—Lite, Genuine Draft, and Icehouse—in the new containers in stores in Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, and Norfolk. And the company also began trying out plastic bottles in sports stadiums and arenas across the country as a replacement for cans and cups, which had long been the norm.
Anheuser-Busch, the biggest American beer marketer, briefly conducted a similar study but abandoned the plastic project in early 1999 amid reports that it had determined that real beer drinkers wouldn’t sip the golden nectar from plastic containers. And conservation groups howled that plastic bottles would be a huge minus environmentally, because the amber coloring needed to protect beer from sunlight would make the plastic essentially unrecyclable.
But Miller, the nation’s No. 2 beer company, pressed ahead hard, and other beverage pushers followed along. By last year, most NFL teams, including the Redskins and Ravens, had done away with cans in favor of plastic bottles. And for some reason, stadiums allowed vendors to simply hand out the full bottles to customers, rather than pour the beer into cups as with cans.
The switch made Hahn’s original mechanical opener, the very source of his notoriety, almost obsolete. Among his regular vending gigs in the area, only the Bowie Baysox were still using cans as of last season. But even more depressing was the impact the bottles had on the dispensing profession.
The lack of skill required to vend plastic bottles hurt Hahn right away. The Redskins cut vendors’ pay—from the long-standing industry standard of 15 percent to 17 percent of beer sales to just 10 percent—when the plastic bottles came in. “They could just hire a bunch of college kids to do the job, because they could hand out bottles as well as me or any experienced vendor,” he says. “[Experienced vendors] used to be able to boycott stadiums that wouldn’t pay us what we were worth, and they would eventually give in, because we really could sell more beer. But guys like me have no bargaining power anymore.”
But, as it turns out, the plastic era may be short-lived. When Browns fans weaponized the beer containers on national television, and then copycat no-goodnicks in New Orleans launched a similar attack on referees a day later, their actions put the future of plastic beer bottles in doubt. The St. Louis Rams and New York Giants quickly banned the sale of plastic bottles through the rest of this season, and NFL officials are reportedly contemplating a league-wide, permanent prohibition.
“And whatever football does, Major League Baseball will follow,” says Hahn.
He hasn’t yet dusted off the mechanical can opener, but Hahn hopes that he soon might have to. A return to aluminum would also reinstill professional pride in beer men everywhere, he says.
“Selling beer is skilled labor, in the same sense that glazing windows is skilled labor,” he says. “Yes, anybody could do it, but to do it right, to do it well, to do it quick, really takes coordination and experience. That was with cans, anyway. But anybody can hand out bottles.” #—Dave McKenna