In 1935, the Gottfried Kruger Brewing Co. of Newark, NJ, became the first US brewery to package its beer in cans in a joint venture with the American Can Co. of Richmond, VA. The city of Richmond was chosen for the release because failure in Kruger’s home market could have ruined the brewery financially. The experiment was an overnight success.
The first beer cans were issued with opening instructions printed on the side. They were opened similar to how you would open a can of tomato juice today. These early cans, known as flat tops, were produced into the mid-1960s.
Another early can, known as a cone top, resembled the brake fluid cans of a few years back. Their purpose was to be filled and look like the then-popular throw-away bottles. The cone top saved the breweries the need to purchase an entire canning line since they could simply adjust their bottle-filling equipment to fill the cone top cans. These cans were sealed with a crown like the bottles. Crown Cork & Seal developed a two-piece tapered neck design known as the Crowntainer.
During World War II, both the flat and cone top cans shipped to the troops overseas were painted in a basic G I issue olive drab with the text and logos in black or gray. This allowed the cans to remain camouflaged from the enemy. As steel became scarce, the cone top started to be phased out.
Schlitz introduced the 16-ounce can in 1954, Coors and Primo of Hawaii introduced aluminum cans in 1959, and many can companies introduced the aluminum “soft top” to make the cans easier to open. In 1962, Pittsburgh Brewing Co. introduced the first easy-opening pull top, called the Snap Top can.
The pull tab was devised around 1959 by Ermal Fraze, a draftsman from the Dayton Tool and Die works of Dayton, OH. He was fishing and forgot the can opener! Necessity took over from there. The early version of the Zip Top can was simply a triangular opening created when the tab was zipped away. Later improvements added a pull ring to the opening. How many dorm rooms in the Sixties had a chain made out of these rings as the focal point of the décor?
The “stepped on a pop top” problem led the Fall City Brewery of Louisville, KY, working with Reynolds Metals in the mid-1970s, to develop the Stay Tab can of today.
The body of the beer can has gone through a number of changes from the heavy gauge, welded seam, three-piece can all the way to the two-piece aluminum can that has become the industry standard. In the last few years, can lids have begun to shrink due to the fact that the lid contains almost as much metal as the can itself. The smaller lids are a great cost saver as well as easier to drink from.
In the late 1960s, the National Can Co. developed a 1-gallon beer can with its own tapping device. The overall expense of this mini-keg practically doomed it from the start. The Germans have perfected this package and numerous breweries worldwide have packaged their products in the 5-liter can. As the container continues to evolve, a Canadian company has developed canning equipment that now is affordable even to brewpubs and microbreweries.
For a more extensive history of the beer can, visit www.bcca.com. The Beer Can Collectors of America began in 1970 and today is the largest breweriana club in the United States.
Beer Dave Gausepohl has collected breweriana since 1974 and has a personal collection of over 400,000 items. He has visited over 1,000 breweries and tasted well over 10,000 different brews from the world over.