In this holiday season filled with the opening of gifts, a little history on the opening of beer bottles is in order. As long as breweries have been packaging beer, inventors have been tinkering with ways to release the contents. Many inventive ways to keep the beer in the bottle were tried before 1892, when William Painter finally came up with the bottle style and pry-off crown with which we are now familiar.
But for about 50 years before the pry-off bottle cap became commonplace, beer was sealed in the bottle by a cork held in placd with a wire bale. Liquor, wine and spirits were also sealed this way. Thus, the first beer bottle openers were actually corkscrews.
Most of the breweries of the time issued a T-shaped corkscrew with advertising across the wood handle that held the spiraled metal tool. Some corkscrews were more elaborate and ornamental in design and included figural corkscrews and smokers’ tools. The smokers’ tools proved to be very popular. With various attachments to aid the pipe, cigar or cigarette smoker, these openers were sort of the Swiss Army knives of the day.
The term “church key” is sometimes used to describe openers. The moniker is derived from the elaborate and gaudy designs that these otherwise simple tools often shared with the keys worn on the rope belts of various members of religious orders.
As the 1900s began, more and more breweries converted to the standard returnable bottle that would accept the pry-off crown. This made it necessary for the flat stamped metal and wire beer openers to appear on the scene. Some manufacturers of this type of opener let their creativity shine through. Openers in the shape of parrots, women’s legs, pretzels, bottles and automobiles were soon offered to beer drinkers everywhere.
In 1935, beer first appeared in cans. This led to the need for a new opening device–the triangle bend with the small hook to catch on the lip of the can. If beer in a can was your choice, this became a very important tool to have. Early beer cans actually had opening instructions on the label.
I once helped a good friend clean up his first car, which he had purchased from his grandfather. We opened the glove compartment and found a first aid kit. When we pried the kit open, all that was inside was a bottle and can opener.
After 1962, following the introduction of the easy-opening, pull-top cans, openers became less essential and their production started to decline. Nevertheless, today, a number of companies still produce new and creative tools to help us release the nectar of the gods.
“Beer Dave” Gausepohl has collected breweriana since 1974 and has a personal collection of half a million items. He has visited over 1,500 breweries.