Arts & Culture

The Evolution of Chapel Hill’s Blue Cup

The 32-ounce beer vessel started out as a Brunswick stew container

Ask anyone who’s ever taken a class at the University of North Carolina, and they will know exactly what a Blue Cup is. Disposable, light blue, and clocking in at a whopping thirty-two ounces, the cup is the signature drinking vessel of legendary Chapel Hill bar He’s Not Here that opened in 1972.

In fact, it’s pretty much the only cup at He’s Not (as patrons call it), the oldest bar in town and a watering hole for students, professors, James Taylor—who used to play music there when he still lived in his hometown—and allegedly, Michael Jordan. “I’ve been told it’s his favorite bar,” says Fleming Fuller, the bar’s longtime general manager. But, he adds, “to be fair, we’re the only bar that still exists from his college years in town.”

photo: Courtesy of He’s Not Here
He’s Not Here in 1983.

Before the Blue Cup, bar service looked a little different. “We would just sell pitchers of beer,” Fuller says. Then, sometime in the 1980s, the health department showed up. The pitchers needed to be washed between uses, which wasn’t possible in He’s Not’s limited kitchen facilities. “Well, we just went to one of our supply manufacturers and said give us the biggest cup we can get,” Fuller explains. “The first incarnation of the Blue Cup was actually made as a Brunswick Stew container.”

Though He’s Not didn’t offer food, the bar decided to get creative and use the soup cup for beer. “We had never heard of beer being sold in such a container,” recalls David Kitzmiller, one of the founding owners. “But we just decided to do it.” Which is how, it turns out, today’s cup got its hefty volume. And surprisingly, its Carolina Blue color. “The blue had nothing to do with Carolina,” Kitzmiller says. It just so happened to be the color the containers came in. 

The Blue Cup continued to evolve through the decades. Manufacturers added a lip to the rim to make it more drinkable and slapped on a He’s Not logo. Most recently, in 2012, the cup switched to recyclable plastic, a change the bar is particularly proud of. 

Though the cup is now on its seventh iteration, one thing hasn’t changed. “They’re always gonna be thirty-two ounces,” vows Fuller. “Two pints, half a pitcher, or just one cup—however you want to view it.” Blue Cups have appeared at weddings in Canada and alumnae gatherings in California. The bar has even shipped cups as far away as Hong Kong.

He’s Not recently reopened to the public after shuttering at the beginning of quarantine, and now serves guests in the bar’s outdoor courtyard. And for those looking to capture the nostalgia of Blue Cup imbibing at home, the bar offers the classic cups for purchase online, though you’ll have to commit to a minimum of twenty-five per order. If that seems like a lot of beer, perhaps consider serving up some stew.