If you are of a certain age like me, you may remember party ball beer from your college days or Spring break vacations.
A fun and popular way to serve beer at parties, this large plastic, almost beach-ball-like container for beer seemed to be found everywhere a party was happening.
Then the beer ball, or party ball, just seemed to disappear!
Maybe it’s because we all got older, more sensible (pah!), or just that our tastes got more refined (if you remember drinking from a beer ball you probably recall they never used the finest of beers – although if you enjoyed too many beer party balls, you probably don’t remember too much at all!).
Whatever happened to the beer party ball? Can you still get a beer party ball? Or are they destined just to be a fond memory from the past?
What is a Beer Party Ball?
Beer party balls are essentially large, spherical containers filled with beer that can be tapped and dispensed to guests.
Constructed from a lightweight yet durable plastic, the party ball’s lower weight and smaller size would make it much more convenient to transport to a party.
It was the ideal size for fitting in the trunk of a car, could be carried by most without any help, and could even fit in your average baby stroller (we even used to “borrow” the local Walmart trolleys to push a party ball over to the next party!).
One of the advantages of using a beer party ball was that it can help to keep beer cold for extended periods of time.
The spherical shape of the container allows for better insulation and distribution of cold temperatures throughout the beer, which can help to prevent it from getting warm and flat.
Beer party balls were also popular because they are easy to set up and use. They are normally purchased full of beer before the party and simply tapped when guests are ready to start drinking.
This allows hosts to focus on other aspects of the party without having to worry about constantly refilling cups or bottles.
In addition, beer party balls can be a fun and unique way to serve beer at events. Their large size and unique shape can make them a focal point of the party, and guests may enjoy the novelty of being able to tap their own beer.
Although any beer sold in a ball-shaped container is often called a party ball of beer, the term party ball is a registered trademark of the Coors Brewing Company, which was one of the biggest sellers of party balls in the 1980s.
Are Party Balls Re-useable?
Initially, party balls were designed to be disposable and were, indeed, made of disposable materials so you could easily put them in the trash once empty.
.The taps which you used to “tap” the beer would often be sold separately and could be reused, but, if you were going to a party in the early 80s, you would always find some guy who had a tap in his trunk.
The taps would sometimes be of very low quality and could easily be broken, especially at some of the more raucous “keg” parties, and rarely lasted for more than two or three uses.
If you didn’t have a tap handy you could always just remove the hard cardboard tapping point top and dip your cups straight into the beer.
Later on, some breweries started producing reusable beer party balls, normally made from stainless steel or aluminum, which could be rented from the brewery.
The extra weight and bulk of these units were due to some being fitted with an electrical element to keep the beer chilled, which negated many of the benefits of a traditional disposable ball (you may as well just rent a keg!).
However, reusable party balls were popular in many bars and taverns where they could easily be refilled with gallons of draft beer for larger groups of customers and were ideal for private parties in the bar.
How Much Beer is in a Beer Party Ball?
The original beer balls were durable, plastic, spherical containers which held just a little over 5 gallons of beer (about one-third of the usual capacity of a traditional beer keg). That’s over two cases of traditional beer cans or, to be exact, 55 12-ounce beers.
Normally it would come in a box with a plastic bag. Once you lined the box with the plastic bag you could fill it with ice (or snow) and then add the disposable plastic ball full of beer to keep it ice cold for the entire party.
Lining the interior of the box with plastic would also prevent the box from weakening due to contact with the melted ice.
Who Made the First Beer Party Balls?
The original beer balls were produced by the F. X. Matt Brewing Company in Utica, upstate New York in around 1976. Although it took a few years, the beerhall craze swept across the nation and by the 1980s rival breweries such as Coors, Genesee, and even the mighty Anheuser-Busch had jumped in.
The brainchild of J.Kemper Matt SR., the uncle of current Matt Brewing president Fred Matt, Fred believes his uncle got a good deal on the plastic and came up with the idea of a 5.16-Gallon plastic sphere as a lightweight alternative to the metal kegs of the time.
The initial beer balls became the main vehicle for the now-discontinued beer, Matt’s Premium Lager.
As one Syracuse long-term radio personality, Jim Reith, recalls “You got a relatively large amount of crappy beer for not too much money.” (F.X. Matt Brewing is better known nowadays for the Saranac range of craft beers).
Primarily a party pack, the beer ball was used in place of standard metal beer kegs. They were sold in cardboard boxes which could also double up as a makeshift cooler if filled with ice.
The main complaint with these original beer ball designs was the wonky taps you had to buy, which were intended for reuse but rarely lasted too long.
There were solutions, however, and if the tap broke you could simply take a screwdriver and pop the top off before dunking your glass to fill it with beer.
Many underaged friends of mine who either couldn’t afford the extra tap or may have “borrowed” a party ball from their father’s stash would resort to cutting through the top with a sharp knife.
One of the most fun parts was seeing first-timers with beer balls sprayed with beer as they excitedly stood too close to the ball as you punctured it.
As the beer levels got lower it was a time-honored tradition to remove the tap before cutting a hole in the top of the ball to ensure you got every last dreg out. The empty beer ball then could be turned upside down and worn as an astronaut helmet.
Although the beer balls were designed to be thrown in the trash after use, (there were no deposits for returning them), innovative reuses for them included storage containers, summer camp lampshades or even planting pots.
A couple of friends liked to save the empty beer balls and, with a few large trash cans, play a giant game of beer pong in the backyard.
The BeerBall Craze that Swept a Nation
For a few years, Matt Brewing had no competitors, but then Genesee, Coors, and Bud came after them.
In the 1980s most regional and national brewers would attempt to copy the success of Matt Brewing’s beer ball concept.
First Genesee copied the idea, then Coors jumped in and finally, Anheuser-Busch brought out the Budweiser and Bud Light BeerBall party packs (folklore says the last regular beer ball production was at A-B’s massive brewery near Baldwinsville in 2007).
Beer balls were seen as affordable ways of purchasing beer in bulk for parties, especially among college fraternities. In 1987 a case of beer would on average cost about $8, whereas a beer ball would cost anywhere between $15 to $20 for the equivalent of up to 55 twelve-ounce beers.
In the late 1980s, as beer ball sales continued to flourish, Matt Brewing/Saranac would start pushing their beer balls with a series of ads called “Play Ball” which featured on billboards, nationwide radio slots, and signs carried by planes over larger summer events.
They even had a mascot dressed in a beer ball costume – a human beer ball, if you like.
At one stage, Matt Brewing even shipped their beer balls as far away as California, with them being particularly popular for beach parties on both the West Coast and the East Coast.
What Happened to the Party Ball?
Unfortunately, the beer party ball was a victim of simple economics. For the extra effort required in beer ball production, and to make it worthwhile for both the brewers and distributors, the beer ball concept needed large volumes.
Many beer wholesalers just didn’t want to bother with beer balls as they took up so much more storage space for what was seen just as a niche product, and that’s without mentioning the valuable cooler space they took up in supermarkets.
A 1987 Post-Standard story estimated that of the 187.5 million barrels the beer industry brewed in the previous year, beer ball sales only accounted for just over 100,00 barrels.
Even Matt Brewing’s then-PR manager has been quoted as saying the beer ball accounted for less than 15% of the brewery’s total sales.
Other critics would argue that compared dollar for dollar a quarter or even a half keg is a much better buy. When priced at around $15 for 55 12-ounce beers a party ball was a good deal, but as the price rose above the $20 marker, the cost would become prohibitive.
Unfortunately, the good deal on plastic prices Matt Brewing had originally secured didn’t last and as the price of plastic rose so did the cost of a beer ball.
Another issue for Matt Brewing was the surge in light beers, which happened in the late 1970s to the mid-’80s, with Matt Brewing not producing a light beer to package in the beer balls as people were demanding.
Bud Light made a large inflatable ball that could hold up to enough beer for 30 people and was sold through the retailer Walmart, but stopped producing the Party Balls in 2007. Coors and Budweiser both officially discontinued the plastic beer Party Balls in 2011 on their websites.
Modern techniques in canning now mean it is much cheaper to produce mini kegs from smaller 3-gallon sizes to 8-gallon sizes which seem to be preferred by beer drinkers as take-home, single-serve dispense solutions.
They tend to be easier to store in both supermarket warehouses and coolers as well as fitting more easily into home refrigerators than a ball with beer.
Can You Still Get a Party Ball of Beer?
Sadly no..well, not unless you look really hard. There is a nostalgic market for old beer ball memorabilia including actual old beer balls, but remember – they were designed for single use and probably won’t be up to refilling standards in most cases.
Even after nearly two decades since the beer ball disappeared, there are many beer drinkers who recall the party ball of beer with fond memories, and there are periodic calls for its return.
In just 2016 the local Utica area country radio station, Big Frog 104, tried to rally its listeners into demanding a return of the iconic beer ball with both an on-air and online campaign.
Is the Party Ball on Its Way Back?
Matt Brewing/Saranac the original producers of the beer ball have considered a return but haven’t yet pulled the trigger. Every so often Saranac Brewery will post on Facebook asking if people remember the beer ball.
Fred Matt, the current president of Matt FX/Saranac brewery, has even admitted they are thinking of bringing it back but in a smaller package with a lower price point, but reluctantly acknowledges it’s unlikely to make any money.
One of the reasons, Fred thinks, is the changing nature of the beer scene. Modern parties tend to feature so many more options than just one standard draft beer.
There are hard seltzers, imported beers, craft beers and maybe even some wine served at modern-day parties. The days of a keg party seem to be confined to the college frat movies of the 1980s and 1990s.
Should the Beer Ball Return?
David Rivers of KegWorks thinks that if the empty balls and tapping equipment were to be made available again, some of the smaller craft brewers could do a nice business in them.
For your avid homebrewers keen to take a batch of their latest brew to the next social gathering, a beer ball would be a unique talking point.
Would you buy a beer ball or fill one with your homebrew? Or are you happy with modern-day mini keg systems and growlers? Should the beer ball just remain a beloved item of brewing nostalgia from the past? It’s your call!