If you’re a certain age or tend to watch TV shows from a certain time, you might remember the ubiquity of the humble beer nut. Almost any sitcom in the ’80s or early ’90s that involves a bar will mention beer nuts at some point. Here’s Norm Peterson using beer nuts in a clunky analogy about women:
And of course, there are the mandatory Simpsons references, such as when Homer buys “Kwik-E-Mart No Name Brand Beer Nuts” or when a fake beer nuts can is spring loaded with snakes.
For the unfamiliar, you would be forgiven for the thinking that beer nuts are just another type of bar snack, like pretzels or peanuts. In fact, Beer Nuts are a product proudly made by a family in Bloomington, Illinois and something of a case study in brands avoiding genericization.
The history of Beer Nuts starts in 1937, when the Shirk Family purchased the Caramel Crisp Shop. Among the products offered included caramel apples and corn, orange drink, and the unfortunately named predecessor of the Beer Nut called “redskins”. These sweet and savory glazed peanuts proved to be wildly popular. One fan and customer was a snack food distributor that tried to get the Shirk family to let him sell a prepackaged version for sale along his route.
Eldridge Brewster didn’t just have the foresight to see the candied peanuts as a snack food. He also came up with a name that immediately found a niche. No one is quite sure where the name Beer Nuts originated from. The business took a bit of a different direction when Arlo Shirk died at a young age. His brother Russell took over the business and by 1950 was already selling pre-packed “Shirk’s Glazed Nuts”. With Brewster’s unique focus on liquor stores and bars, he decided to go with a name that fit the market. Here’s Al from Beer Nuts shipping explaining how they came up with the name:
People like beer and people like nuts. Despite the fact that there is no beer in Beer Nuts, the name stuck and became popular in bars across the country. From there, it seems that Beer Nuts slowly ingratiate their way into American pop culture.
A strangely antagonistic write up on Beer Nuts in the book Better than Homemade: Amazing Foods that Changed the Way We Eat notes, “Beer Nuts have been extolled (or derided) by everyone from Drew Carey to David Letterman to Murphy Brown. But the show most associated with the brand is Cheers… And one advertising campaign for the show simply pictured Sam, Norm, Cliff, and company and the words ‘Beer Nuts.’”
The latest iteration of Beer Nuts marketing seems to be concentrating around the craft beer boom. Again from Better than Homemade: “For one thing, the sugar and salt on those other products are slathered on in a way that masks the nuts’ flavor, whereas the top-secret Beer Nuts process delicately cooks it in. Beer Nuts also retain their skin, which adds a slightly bitter taste to their much more complex mix of sugar, salt, and fat, they say. In other words, the Shirks talk about Beer Nuts the same snooty way microbrewers and brewpub owners talk about beer.”
This attention to quality and uniqueness might also have defended the brand from becoming genericized when competitors, like Planters, started introducing similar products in the late 1970s. Like many companies, Beer Nuts has sought to defend its trademark with litigation. The case of Beer Nuts, Inc. v. Clover Club Foods Co. reads like a playbook for introducing a generic version of a well-known product to market.
As far as IP rulings go, it’s also remarkably easy to follow. The court “examined the probability of confusion with regards to potential purchasers…” and found that “the only group of potential customers that face the potential of confusion over the source of BREW NUTS is the group that has heard of BEER NUTS(R) but not BREW NUTS.”
As a result of this fairly narrow finding, Clover Club Foods prevailed in keeping their “Brew Nuts” available. But Beer Nuts proudly stands as a unique product produced in Bloomington, Illinois.
Truth be told, I’ve been drinking in bars for over a decade and I can’t think of a single instance when Beer Nuts were available. I honestly didn’t know they were a specific product until researching this article. But I was able to track down a pack and ate them while downing a six pack of Coors Light. They’re tasty and I wouldn’t be mad if the brown wood bars I frequent had a bowl of them around.
They would seem out of place, a reminder of bygone days in bars of a particular type. But any real product proudly enjoyed by Norm Peterson and Homer Simpson is at least worth a sample.