A Brief (and Condensed) History of the Beer Can | Craft Beer & Brewing

A Brief (and Condensed) History of the Beer Can

The practice of putting beer into cans has been around for the better part of a century, and although cans are ubiquitous today, it's been a slow march to achieve that level of use.

Jaime Jurado 4 months ago

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What many consider the first canned beer was by the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company of Newark, New Jersey, with an initial pilot of 2,000 cans of 3.2 percent ABV beer for consumer feedback (91 percent positive) and then commercially in 1935 with its "Krueger's Finest" along with its Cream Ale. But even before Krueger's first sale, Pabst and Anheuser-Busch had tried canning experimentally in the 1920s, but then came Prohibition.

Krueger's 12-ounce beer can was manufactured by American Can Company, and within five months of the package's production, the company was running 550 percent of its pre-can production. Next to follow was Northampton Brewery in Northampton, Pennsylvania, with its "Tru Blu Ale" and "Tru Blu White Seal Beer" in cans manufactured by the National Can Company.

In late 1935, Schlitz developed an entirely different beer-can design, sealed with a crown closure, the same as used on beer bottles. It was called a "spout top" or a "cone top." Consumer resistance to drinking from flat-top cans opened with an opener piercing the top was overcome with cone tops, and conversion of existing bottling lines was much, much easier and cheaper with fillers formerly for bottles being modified. The first beer cans outside the United States were all cone tops, made from three pieces: a base, the main body, and a cap.

In January 1936, the Felinfoel Brewery in the United Kingdom introduced its pale ale in the new cone-top design, making it the first beer in Europe available in cans. Some questions exist whether it preceded canning at Tennent's Brewery (Glasgow). Before World War II, Simonds (Reading), Watney's (London), and McEwan's (Edinburgh) introduced can beers.

Back in the United States, Pabst followed, not for its Blue Ribbon brand, but for an export brand with cans featuring a flat top. It was also the first beer can that used the newly developed lightweight 2CR tinplate, which featured a very thin plating of tin. Tin is not found in the United States, and World War II made it a precious commodity reserved for wartime needs. So, tin-free metal became the standard for beer cans, with resin coatings or linings.

In 1937, companies began the game of competition and innovation. Crown, Cork and Seal introduced a quart cone-top can. The American Can Company countered with a flat-top quart can.

The end of the first generation of cone tops began in 1938, when Continental Can Company, the firm that originally developed the cone top for Schlitz, changed production to flat tops. The Old Dutch Brewery in Brooklyn, New York, was the first to use them. (World War II halted can production in Europe…until the 1950s). In 1940 in the United States, Crown, Cork and Seal introduced its "Crowntainer" can, a new two-piece cone-top can launched by Schmidt's in Philadelphia. The new can was made of tinless black plate covered with powdered aluminum.

Canned beers produced in the United States were not allowed between 1942 and 1947 due to the war. And in the 1950s, cone tops became obsolete with the last cone tops sold in stores in 1960.

In the late 1950s, the "party can" (holding either 4 pints or 7 pints) was used by breweries, but these did not find the success in the United States that they had in Europe, so in 1973 the last party can by Koch's Brewery (Dunkirk, New York) ended this container in North America.

From coated and lined tin-free cans, we moved to aluminum cans in two competing approaches. There was the aluminum easy-open top (with pull tab) on a steel body. And separately, the all-aluminum two-piece can was developed.

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In 1958, Hawaii Brewing Company introduced its 11-ounce all-aluminum beer can for "Primo Beer" and in 1959, Coors (Golden, Colorado) and Gunther (Baltimore, Maryland) experimented with aluminum for the first time in their brewing history. Each launched in a 7-ounce can. In 1960, Schlitz was the first to apply an aluminum top to a steel can, the last effort at having steel as a contemporary container material for beer packaging.

Development of opening methods was the focus of much attention in the 1960-1970 decade, with the finger-loop pull tab introduced nationally by Schlitz in 1965. By 1969, canned beers sold in the United States overtook bottled-beer sales.

And in the 1970s, the crimped can was introduced, with a reduction in diameter of the top and bottom of the can. What followed next were years of research and development devoted to reducing the weight of aluminum cans, which already were the low-weight option. Current research is focused on new liner materials that do not include bisphenol-A (BPA), and the first generation is already available.

Because of the nature of the industry at the time, the brewers that began using cans were the large national companies. That began to change in the early 1990s as microbreweries and craft breweries began to experiment with cans.

Regional breweries such as Eau Claire Brewing in Wisconsin offered "Eau Claire All-Malt Beer" in cans and contracted beers such as "Chief Oshkosh Red Lager" made at Steven's Point and launched in 1991. Four years later, "Pete's Wicked Ale" and "Pete's Summer Brew" were packaged in cans at the large breweries that produced them.

Other contract breweries exploited the availability of canning lines in the facilities, but it was at best incremental sales that were realized. In 1999, Cask Brewing Systems introduced its manual beer-can filler and seamer for $10,000.

Then, of course, there was Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colorado, which was the first craft brewery to succeed and move the craft-beer industry into cans, starting in 2002. Today you're hard pressed to find a production brewery, large or small, in the United States that isn't using cans, be it use of a small manual filler, a mobile canning service, or a fully automated packaging line.

Today's craft consumer expects cans, filled with all manner of styles and often decked out with expressive and artistic labels. The aluminum can has been with us, the drinkers, for a generation, and its future seems bright. From humble beginnings to multiple iterations, expect progress from this vessel as it continues serving its duties as the world's largest consumer of aluminum for generations to come.

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