In the long story of beer, the beer can is a relative newcomer. The first canned beer didn’t show up until after the end of American Prohibition, but beer and cans have become inseparable in the last 70 years.
Despite old stereotypes, cans are not just for cheap beer anymore. There some really good beer that has been showing up in cans.
The first beer can appeared in the carefully chosen test market of Richmond, Virginia. The American Can Company had been experimenting with the idea of packaging beer in cans since 1909. They knew that canned beer would offer breweries lots of advantages.
Bottles add a lot of expensive weight to shipping and as some of the bigger brewers were distributing their beer longer distances, they were looking for ways to cut costs. Most bottles were also returnable then, which further added to their cost. At that time, returned bottles had to be hand sorted for any chips or cracks which made them unusable.
Cans offered lightweight packaging and because metal was cheap, they would not have to be returned. Cans also offered the marketing department a much larger surface area for labeling.
Cans also came with some significant challenges.
The Metallic Taste
The first was the reaction that beer has with many metals. It wouldn’t do to deliver cleverly packaged beer if the product was undrinkable. A practical lining had to be developed.
Though this problem has, for the most part, been fixed, some beer drinkers continue to find a metallic taste in canned beer.
Containing the Pressure
Another challenge to canning beer was the pressure of carbonated beer. Previously canned products only had to protect the contents from the outside under relatively equal pressure conditions.
However, the carbonated beer had to not only be protected but it had to be contained. The cans would have to be able to contain up to 80 pounds per inch of pressure.
The First Beer Can
Still, in the early development stages, the beer can soon found a roadblock. Prohibition had put a halt on any hopes of selling beer, no matter how well packaged and the project was shelved. In the late 1920s Pabst and Anheuser-Busch, sensing the eventual end to Prohibition, asked American Can to start working on the beer can again.
By the early 1930s, American Can had developed a can strong enough to withstand the pressures of packaged beer. They had also finally solved the problem of lining the can by using a moldable plastic called Vinylite. Initial tests with Pabst beer were positive, but the big brewers wouldn’t commit until the can had been tested in a real market.
The Richmond Can Test
The Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company in Newark, New Jersey had, like most regional breweries, suffered during Prohibition. American Can’s offer to build a canning line and to pay for the initial test batches convinced Krueger to submit their beer to the can test.
In June of 1934, four cans of beer were delivered to one thousand homes in the Richmond, Virginia area. They were delivered with a questionnaire and the results were better than anyone could have expected. By January 1935 Krueger’s canned beer was being sold throughout the city.
Refining the Beer Can
And so, the beer can was born. However, the cheaper cans presented an unexpected challenge, especially for smaller breweries, in that they required a completely new packaging line. The problem was solved with bottle-shaped, or "cone top," cans that could be sealed with crown caps just like bottles.
This provided the smaller breweries with a can that they could run through their old bottling lines. They could enjoy the cost-effectiveness of the cans without having to retool their packaging lines. As breweries went out of business or upgraded their equipment the cone top cans slowly disappeared and by 1960 they were gone entirely.
Enter the Pull Tab
In 1963, the first pull tab beer cans appeared on the market. Pittsburgh Brewing Company used the 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 they cut swimmers’ feet at the beach.
In 1975, the first fixed tab beer can was introduced by Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, KY. The design caught on has remained relatively unchanged since.