A Brief History of the Beer Can

Vintage Beer Cans – A Brief History of the Beer Can

Preserving food in containers began in the early 1800’s. Frenchman Nicholas Appert developed the process of sealing partially cooked food in bottles with cork stoppers and was awarded a prize from Napoleon. At about the same time, Englishman Peter Durand received a patent from King George III for the idea of preserving foods in containers made of iron and coated with tinplate.

Though preserving food in cans was possible, it would be over 120 years later before beer would be distributed this way. There were two major obstacles to overcome: with beer’s carbonation, the can needed to be able to handle much higher pressures than with other foods. Vintage beer cans would need to withstand a pressure of 80 pounds per square inch while other foods only exerted pressures of 25-35 PSI. Secondly, when beer was stored in metal cans, the beer would react with the metal, become cloudy and taste terrible.

Despite these challenges, producing beer in cans had several advantages over beer in bottles: (A) beer in cans weighed considerably less than beer in bottles, reducing both shipping costs and making it possible to be shipped in cardboard boxes instead of wooden crates; (B) beer in cans is less fragile than beer in bottles so “breakage” is practically eliminated; (C) cases of beer in cans stacked better than crates of beer in bottles; (D) beer in “flat top” cans were about half the height of beer in “long neck” bottles, so less space is needed in the consumer’s refrigerator and the distributor’s warehouse; (E) and possibly the most important reason, beer in cans could be filled about 50% faster than beer in bottles, allowing a brewer to fill over 400,000 more cans per week than bottles.

In the early 1900’s, a brewer in Montana asked the American Can Company whether a can was available for beer. They answered no, but did start to work at developing one. For the aforementioned reasons, there first designs were a failure.

In January 1920, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, prohibiting the transport and sale of alcoholic beverages. For the next 13 years beer was not legally available in ANY container, least of all cans.

In April 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages, including beer with an alcoholic content of 3.2% or less. By the end of that year, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and Prohibition was over.

By the early 1930’s, brewers and can manufacturers were working on improved beer can designs. They could see that Prohibition was going to end sooner or later and like the rest of the country, can manufacturers were hit hard by the Great Depression. By the mid-1930’s, the beer bottle market was approaching $100 million, a vast sum at that time. If a portion of the beer bottle market could be converted to vintage beer cans, that would greatly help Depression-battered can companies. However, two major obstacles still needed to be overcome: can strength and taste problems.

American Can Company was the most aggressive at coming up with a successful vintage beer can design. To overcome the can strength issue, they employed thicker steel and an improved seam design.

Continental Can Company went a completely different direction. They thought brewers would be resistant to moth-balling their expensive bottling lines and that consumers would be reluctant to buying beer in a package that looked so different from beer in bottles. For those reasons, they developed a “cone top” beer can that could be filled in a brewer’s existing bottling line and be opened just like a beer bottle.

With the can strength issue resolved the more difficult issue of taste integrity had to be tackled. Can manufacturers decided on a lining inside the can that would prevent the beer from coming in contact with metal. However, the can lining had to be able to: (A) withstand both contact with metal and the alcohol and carbonation of the beer without degrading; (B) be elastic enough to handle the expansion and contraction of the can as it goes through pasteurization and refrigeration; (C) and most importantly, not change the taste of the beer stored inside.

Each of the three major can manufacturers solved the taste problem in their own way. American used Vinylite, a synthetic material made from plastic. Continental used a hardened wax over a coating of enamel and the National Can Company simply used a double coating of enamel.

In those days consumers were familiar with how to open a bottle of beer. Bottle openers were common-place and consumers were experienced with how to use them. Opening a can was something completely different. A new “tool” had to be developed, brewers needed to get it into consumer’s hands and they needed to be instructed how to use it. D. F. Sampson devised a simple solution for the American Can Company. It was a five-inch strip of stamped metal and it was dubbed the “church key.” In order to get them into consumer’s hands, one was given away with each case of beer sold. By the mid-1930’s over 30 million had been distributed. The instructions on how to use the church key were printed on the can. These early vintage beer cans with opening instructions on them are called “instructionals” or OI for short.

Now with the practical issues out of the way, it was time to start putting beer in cans. And, although most brewers were interested in the advantages of beer in cans, none of them wanted to be first. If beer in cans was a commercial flop, a small brewery may never financially recover.

G. Krueger Brewing Company of Newark, New Jersey was that first, brave brewery, however, it wasn’t without a very lucrative offer from American Can Company. American’s offer was to install a temporary canning line, and to supply cans, all at no cost. If the test was not a success, they would pack it all up and go home.

In November 1933, they filled 2,000 cans of their Krueger’s Special Beer for a test market. It was given to a small group of dedicated Krueger’s customers and was an overwhelming success. In fact, many said it tasted better than beer in bottles.

Even with this successful test under their belt, the management was still concerned about releasing their flagship beer and ale in their primary market. A decision was made to perform a second test. With careful consideration, Richmond, Virginia was selected. Richmond was far enough away from New Jersey that a bad test would not hurt their primary market. Also factoring into the decision was that Richmond did not have a “home town” brewery and Richmond’s beer consumption was below the national average.

In January 1935, Krueger had the production capacity to handle this larger test and it was an even bigger success than the first. Krueger quickly expanded distribution to the entire state of Virginia, then their entire market including their home town of Newark.

By August 1935, Krueger sales had grown over 500% over the previous year and they were starting to cut into the market share of the Big Three: Pabst, Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch. American Can was supplying Krueger with over 30 million cans a month.

With all the success Krueger was having, it wasn’t long before the bigger players were ready to jump on the beer can bandwagon. The first major player ended up being the biggest in those days: Pabst Brewing Company. Just as Krueger was cautious about putting their flagship product in a can, Pabst wanted to ease into cans. In July 1935, they introduced Pabst Export Beer in cans supplied by American. Pabst was soon filling over a half million cans a month.

With the success of Pabst Export in cans, Schlitz decided the time was right to put their brew in cans. However, the executives at Schlitz decided to partner with Continental and put their brew in a cone top. making it the first beer to be canned in a product from Continental.

With two of the Big Three now on board, the floodgates opened and many brewers teamed up with American, Continental or National and put their golden brew in cans.

In an effort to compete, bottle manufacturers developed a new bottle design that is roughly the shape of the new flat top beer can called the “stubby.” Some regional breweries opted for the new bottle design than risk putting their elixir in a can.

By 1940 there was a fourth manufacturer making waves in the can market: Crown Cork & Seal. In 1937 they introduced a conventional cone top in three pieces (cone top, bottom and sides). However, by 1939 they had developed a two-piece cone top called the “Crowntainer.” It was first used by C. Schmidt & Sons Brewing Company in late 1939 and it was popular with small and medium sized breweries.

With all of the success that beer in cans has had to date, cans were still vastly more expensive than bottles. Consequently, by the time the US entered World War II less than half of breweries had adopted cans and cans had a small portion of the total consumer beer market compared to bottles.

During the war, can production suffered with the restrictions on steel and in May 1942, consumer production halted as tin-plated steel was restricted for the war effort. However, the vintage beer cans joined our fighting boys. Nearly three-dozen breweries filled cans painted in olive drab, or OD for short. The vast majority of these cans were shipped over seas for the military.

After the war, beer sales soared. And with increased sales, the advantage of the flat top’s canning speed became a death knell for the cone top. By the end of the ’50s the end of the cone top was here, just as a new can was making its debut.

In 1958, the Hawaii Brewing Company marketed its Primo beer in an all-aluminum flat top. Just as the steel flat top had sealed the fate of the cone top, eventually, the aluminum “pull top” would seal the fate of the steel flat top.

Brewers were continually looking for less expensive and more convenient packaging options for their consumers. Alcoa and Reynolds Aluminum answered the call. Initially, they put aluminum tops on steel cans and were most notably marketed by Schlitz and Coors. However, these cans still needed church keys and their first forays into the market never gained traction.

In 1962, Alcoa developed an aluminum pull top can. Early variations of these are call Zip Tabs, or ZT for short. Initially, these were mounted on steel cans, however, by the 1970s the lower weight and lower cost won out and the vintage beer cans evolved into an all-aluminum we recognize today.