In honor of Beer Can Appreciation Day- we are rerunning this story from 1/24/13.
When I was a kid, I remember taking a sip of my dad’s beer, right out of the can. I am fairly sure it was the worst thing I have ever tasted. It tasted like a wet bread and metal sandwich. I did not actually drink another beer until I was legal to do so, thinking if all beer tasted like that, I was better off without it. In retrospect, drinking Old Milwaukee out of a can is a poor choice on quite a few levels. And for the most part, people will agree that beer out of a can is about as low as you can get on the beer spectrum. That was not always the case. On January 24, 1935 the first canned beer from the Kreuger Brewing Company hit the market, and the world of beer was transformed forever.
Canned beer snuck into the market in 1935, offered by a little known brewing company looking to make a big name for itself. The writing was on the wall for Prohibition by the late 1920’s; everyone knew the end was near. Especially a company named the American Can Company, who already dominated the canned food industry, and were looking to expand into canned beer. They had been doing some experiments with canned beer on a request from the Olympia Brewing Company in 1909. Their biggest problems were making a can strong enough to hold up to the heat of pasteurization and stress that off gassing would have on the can as well as keeping the beer from absorbing a metallic flavor. This was all put off with the passage of the Volstead Act and the march towards country wide temperance. American Can did not give up. The developed a tin and steel based can which could resist all the pressure it was going to be put under. They also coated the inside with something called brewer’s pitch, which kept the beer from interacting with the metal of the can.
This new can had some big advantages over bottles. Two of the main enemies of beer, light and oxygen, would be kept completely away from the liquid. This ensured the product inside would be as fresh as it was when it was first brewed. This extra insurance of freshness would allow brewers to ship their beer further than they currently were. Most beers at the time did not ship much further than the state they were in, maybe an adjacent state if they could. This would allow them to ship beer to be consumed at home all over the country. Bottles often broke while they were being shipped. The ones that finished the journey had to be returned and reused by the brewer. This added extra expense to the beer. Cans would be disposable; no expenses for cleaning, returning, and reusing the bottles. The American Can Co. experimented with cans that were in the shape of traditional bottles, to allow factories already set up for bottles to use the cans without having to invest very heavily into it. Now that they had a working can, all they needed was a brewer to use it.
Prohibition was hard on breweries, and they were not going to jeopardize getting their product back to a thirsty market in an experimental package. After trying the major breweries, the Kreuger Brewing Company out of New Jersey agreed to take American Can up on their offer of paying for all the materials up front. They sent out some samples, and they were a hit. Their test market, Richmond, VA, also bought the cans of beer in such quantities that Kreuger was cutting into the major brewing companies market. Pabst was the first of the major brewers to buy into the use of cans, and started to modify the overall design. They discovered you could ship more cans than bottles if they were shaped like the food cans that were more commonly shipped. Miller Lite’s punch can idea is not really a new idea; the first beer cans had a flat top, so you had to punch holes into it yourself to get to the delicious liquid inside. Pabst also made a change to the lining of the can, switching out the brewer’s pitch for a consistent plastic lining called Vinylite. These can were engineering masterpieces, and also very short lived. World War II cut into the steel supply. It was not until 1958, when Coors introduced the aluminum can that the can started to rise again. The lighter metal made the can easier to open, and the addition of the pull tab by Schlitz in 1963 made the can a solid seller.
By 1968, the can was the beer container of choice. This beer can was not lined, as their older steel counterparts were, and the metal flavor of the can began to heavily leech into the beer. The decline in the quality of the cans matched a decline in beer in general in the United States. The country was shedding breweries at an astounding rate, and by the early 1980’s most of the beer in the country was being provided by only a hand full of brewers. Over 90% of the beer in the country was being provided by Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Coors. Not what most people would call a fine selection of beer. This environment would last until the late 80’s, and the beginning of the microbrewing revolution. Microbreweries would be the engine to get the beer industry back from the brink of being completely obsolete. They made beer interesting again, and people began to come back to drinking, and appreciating, good beer.
Can technology began to improve as well, but with one small drawback: most canning machines were designed for the Budweisers and Millers of the world. It was not until the Canadian company Cask Brewing Systems developed a canning system that was good for small breweries that the smaller craft brewers even had an option to can their beer. Cans had also returned to being lined with a thin, more modern plastic, which meant the beer was no longer in contact with the metal. The Craft Beer in a Can revolution began only ten years ago, with the Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado. They put their first beer, Dale’s Pale Ale, in a can and never looked back. 21st Amendment Brewing Company also puts their beers in cans, and makes some incredibly good beers such as their Back in Black IPA, Allies Win the War, and Hell or High Watermelon. Revolution Brewing Company out of Chicago and Anderson Valley Brewing Company in California also make quite a few canned beers. More and more small breweries with great beers are seeing cans as an economical and environmentally friendly way to get their beers into more markets for more people. According to CraftCans.com, there are currently 740 canned beers made by over 200 different breweries across the country.
If you have not had a can of beer in a while, do yourself a favor and check out the selection of canned beers that are now available. Even if your beer of choice has always been in a can, give that beer another chance. In fact. many of my favorite beers come in cans. What will you find when you crack open a craft cold one on the birthday of the beer can? Cheers!