A Whirlwind History of the Beer Can
In many ways, the current revolution in canning mirrors what happened almost 70 years ago to the day as I’m writing this. The first patents for canning food were granted in the early nineteenth century, but more than a century elapsed before beer appeared in cans. That’s because beer, as a carbonated, alcoholic beverage, presented special challenges. Canning beer requires a pressure of 80-90 pounds per square inch, three times that of most other foodstuffs. Additionally, the alcohol tends to react with metal to form foul-tasting salts.
In 1934, the American Can Company in Greenwich, Conn. trademarked the name “Keglined” for a flat-top, steel-and-tin can with an inert plastic liner called “Vinylite.” It took months of negotiations to convince the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, NJ,to be its guinea pig. American Can Company had to offer them a sweetheart deal: it would install the equipment for free, and remove it if the cans proved a flop. To protect its reputation, the brewery elected to lead with its Krueger Cream Ale (rather than its flagship lager), and to test-market the container in Richmond, VA, a small, outlying market.
On January 24, 1935, the first beer cans went on sale. Krueger’s jitters turned out to be groundless; by June, the brewery’s production was up 550% over the previous year.
An early ad for the Keglined cans touts their advantages over the bottle: “Imagine buying Beer or Ale for your home without paying a bottle deposit, without the trouble and effort of making bottle returns! Imagine being able to get twice as much in the same space in your ice-box!”
One disadvantage was that you needed a can opener to punch through the steel lid. Liquor stores gave away openers by the thousands, and early cans were printed with instructions for perforating the top.
In September 1935, Continental Can Company introduced a different type of package officially called the “cap-sealed” can and informally known as the “cone-top.” Unlike today’s seamless aluminum bottles, this steel container consisted of three parts soldered together and resembled a modern brake fluid container. Schlitz, a large national company, was the first to use cone-tops. But the container held the most appeal for small breweries, because you could fill it on a standard bottling line, without an expensive investment in new equipment.
The cone-top, however, lacked several of the advantages of the flat-top can: it was less compact, and took longer to fill. As small breweries fell by the wayside, the demand for cone-tops declined, and the package was phased out entirely in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Today, cone-tops are highly prized by collectors.
During the 1950s, Coors took the bold step of switching to aluminum. After five years of R&D and a $10 million investment, the brewery filled its first aluminum can—a 7-oz pony—in 1959. Today, aluminum is the industry standard.