In the lengthy history of beer, the beer can is a relatively new addition. The first canned beer did not appear until after the end of American Prohibition, but in the past 70 years, beer and cans have become inseparable.
Contrary to old stereotypes, cans are no longer exclusively used for cheap beer. Some really good beer can now be found in cans.
The first beer can made its debut in Richmond, Virginia, which was carefully selected as a test market. The American Can Company had been experimenting with the concept of packaging beer in cans since 1909. They knew that canned beer offered numerous advantages to breweries.
Bottles added a significant amount of weight to shipping, and as larger brewers began distributing their beer over longer distances, they sought ways to reduce costs. Additionally, most bottles were returnable at the time, which further increased expenses. Returned bottles had to be manually sorted for any damages, such as chips or cracks, which made them unsuitable for reuse.
Cans provided lightweight packaging, and because metal was inexpensive, they did not need to be returned. Cans also provided the marketing department with a much larger surface area for labeling.
However, canning beer also came with significant challenges.
The Metallic Taste
The first challenge was the reaction between beer and many metals. It would not be ideal to deliver cleverly packaged beer if the product turned out undrinkable. A practical lining had to be developed. Although this issue has mostly been resolved, some beer drinkers still perceive a metallic taste in canned beer.
Containing the Pressure
Another challenge was containing the pressure of carbonated beer. Previously canned products only needed to protect the contents from external pressures, which were relatively equal. However, carbonated beer needed to be not only protected but also contained. The cans had to withstand pressures of up to 80 pounds per square inch.
The First Beer Can
Still in its early development stage, the beer can faced a roadblock. Prohibition had halted any hopes of selling beer, regardless of how well it was packaged, so the project was put on hold. In the late 1920s, sensing the eventual end of Prohibition, Pabst and Anheuser-Busch requested American Can to resume working on the beer can.
By the early 1930s, American Can had developed a can strong enough to withstand the pressures of packaged beer. They had also solved the lining issue by using a moldable plastic called Vinylite. Initial tests with Pabst beer yielded positive results, but the major brewers were hesitant to commit until the can had been tested in an actual market.
The Richmond Can Test
The Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company in Newark, New Jersey, like most regional breweries, had suffered during Prohibition. American Can’s offer to build a canning line and cover the cost of initial test batches convinced Krueger to submit their beer for the can test.
In June of 1934, four cans of beer were delivered to one thousand homes in the Richmond, Virginia area. They were accompanied by a questionnaire, and the results exceeded expectations. By January 1935, Krueger’s canned beer was being sold throughout the city.
Refining the Beer Can
And thus, the beer can was born. However, the cheaper cans presented an unexpected challenge, especially for smaller breweries, as they required a completely new packaging line. This challenge was overcome with bottle-shaped, or “cone top,” cans that could be sealed with crown caps, just like bottles.
This provided smaller breweries with a can that could run through their existing bottling lines. They could enjoy the cost-effectiveness of cans without having to reconfigure their packaging lines. As breweries went out of business or upgraded their equipment, cone top cans slowly disappeared, and by 1960, they had disappeared entirely.
Enter the Pull Tab
In 1963, the first pull tab beer cans hit the market. Pittsburgh Brewing Company used tabs on their iconic Iron City Beer, and consumers loved them.
As wonderful as they were, these easily removable strips of metal caused a whole new set of problems. Litterbugs seemed determined to scatter the sharp metal tabs everywhere. Pets and wild animals often choked on them, and swimmers’ feet got cut at the beach.
In 1975, Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, KY introduced the first fixed tab beer can. The design caught on and has remained relatively unchanged since then.