In the long story of beer, the beer can is a relative new comer. The first canned beer didnâ€™t show up until after the end of American Prohibition. But in the last 70 years beer and cans have become inseparable. And cans arenâ€™t just for cheap beer anymore. Some really good beer 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 packaging the 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 further all the time they were looking for ways to cut costs. Also most bottles were returnable then which further added to their cost. Returned bottles had to be hand sorted for chips or cracks which made them unusable.
Cans offered lightweight packaging and the metal being cheap, would not have to be returned. Cans also offered the marketing department a much larger surface area for labeling. But cans came with some significant challenges. The first was the reaction that beer has with many metals. It wouldnâ€™t do to deliver cleverly packaged beer if the product was undrinkable. A practical lining had to be developed. 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. But 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, but Prohibition put a halt to 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 finally solved the problem of lining the can with a moldable plastic called Vinylite. Initial tests with Pabst beer were positive but the big brewers wouldnâ€™t commit until the can had been tested in a real market.
The Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company in Newark, New Jersey had suffered like most regional breweries during prohibition. American Canâ€™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 each were delivered to one thousand homes in the Richmond, Virginia area. They were delivered with a questionnaire and the results were better than anyone expected. By January 1935 Kruegerâ€™s canned beer was being sold throughout the city.
And so the beer can was born. But 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, called 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 were gone entirely.
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. But 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 swimmersâ€™ feet at the beach. In 1975, the first fixed or stay tab beer can was introduced by Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, KY. The design caught on has remained relatively unchanged since.