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Happy birthday to the beer can
Focus Correspondent Jan. 23, 2005
- Click for picture -

How old are the pretzels?
The beer can celebrates a milestone this month, marking 70 years of providing one of America’s favorite beverages in a more convenient manner. — EB Special and Buckeye. The cone can’s advantage was that it could be filled on a regular bottling line.

The ever upward march of technology is a boon to mankind. It’s especially heartwarming when the spark of human inventiveness is harnessed to innovations that better life for everyone.
Beer cans, for instance.

This month is the 70th anniversary of the first use of beer cans, which have delivered thirst-quenching quaffs to parched throats around the world.

‘Twas January 1935 when the American Can Co. convinced the Krueger Brewing Co. that cans were the right way to sell beer. Krueger said not so fast.

It was willing to give the new container a try, but it test marketed it in just one place — Richmond, Va. American Can proved to be right. After six months, sales of Krueger jumped 550 percent. Canned beer was on its way.

It wasn’t easy, though. Food had been canned as far back as the Civil War era.
Brewskis were a different matter. First, metal diminished the taste of the beer. The villain was “metal turbidity,” the tendency of metal to react with the beer to produce “precipitated salts” which gave the beer a bad taste.

Secondly, beer is a carbonated beverage. A can had to be strong enough to withstand the pressure — 80-90 psi — or the can would come apart at its seam. Then where would beer drinkers be? Beer exploding in bars, on back porches, in garages. No, that wouldn’t do at all.

Back in 1909, American Can tried to make a workable beer can, but it was no soap. However, these guys were nothing if not persistent.

In 1931, American Can smelled the end of Prohibition. It went back to the draughting — er, drafting — board.

By 1933, they’d solved the pressure problem and knocked off the taste problem, too. The company developed a thin lining which prevented the tinplate of the can from foam-enting unhappy chemical reactions with the beer.

Brewers experimented with several liners including a waxy substance that was sprayed on the can’s interior after manufacture and before the top was welded on. Finally, though, Union Carbide invented a vinyl coating in 1934.

You’d think that having solved those two big troubles, the beer can was home free. Noperoonie.
Now American Can had to convince brewers to put their product in cans as well as bottles.

It took American Can two years, until Krueger agreed, to get that job done.

But Krueger wasn’t one of America’s major brewers. However, Pabst was.

Furthermore, Pabst took note of canned Krueger sales in Richmond. So they figured to cash in, too. In the summer of 1935, they agreed to sell some of their beer in American Can Co. cans. By year’s end, 37 breweries were turning out canned beer.

Now canned beer really was on its way, though there were other problems, too.
For instance, cans didn’t look as big as bottles so many brewers put statements on the cans saying things like “Just Like A Bottle — 12 Oz.” Some brewers even put a picture of bottled beer right on the can.

For the most part, the beer cans of the 1930s looked a lot like their 21st century brethren. Some were different, however.

One was the cone can. Just what the name implied, the cone can narrowed to an opening the same size as that of a bottle.

This can had a distinct advantage. It could be filled on existing bottling lines. Cone top cans competed with regular flat top cans until the 1950s.

The flat tops had no pull tabs or pop tops. Those came later. The pull tab was invented by Alcoa in 1962 and was first used by Pittsburgh Brewing.

The pop top, though it didn’t come into widespread use for some years, was invented in 1963 by Ermal Fraze of Dayton. Schlitz was the first beer equipped with pop tops.

Almost all beer cans today are aluminum. The aluminum can debuted in 1957.

Younger folks might not know that you needed an opener to punch two triangular holes in the can. This opener, of course, was the famous “church key.”

Incidentally, the church key got its name because it resembled the top portion of the large keys that opened church doors. Church keys were called church keys before cans came into use.

In fact, church keys were for multi-taskers since you could open a can or a bottle at practically the same time.

Brewers gave away church keys along with the beer. Many brewers printed instructions on how to use the church key on the can.

Of course, the folks who manufactured bottles didn’t like cans — competition and all that. Bottle makers said you can’t see inside a can so how you trust the contents?

Can makers said, “Phooey!” They said people returned bottles for the refund and how did you what they might have put in those bottles?

In addition, can makers touted their convenience. In fact, one early ad showed a guy throwing his empty can in the lake. Convenient.

Cans also have the advantage of being lighter. A truck loaded to capacity with 200 cases of bottles could carry 400 cases of cans.

Hitler and Tojo nearly knocked canned beer right out of the market in World War II since virtually all metal was diverted to the war effort. A curious exception was the canned beer shipped to the fighting forces overseas. Some of the cans were painted good old Army olive drab.

Today, all manner of beverages, not just beer, comes in cans. Why, even soda pop comes in cans.
But who’d want to drink that stuff?


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