A Quick, Drunk History of Canned Beer

This year is the 80th birthday of the humble beer can.

Arthur Schatz

The beginnings of canned beer start like a lot of other great origin stories: in 1909 Leopold Schmidt, an idealistic German immigrant living in Washington and nursing Olympia Brewing in its infancy, decides it would be pretty rad to have beer in cans. He asks the largest cannery in the US, American Can Company (CANCO) to see if it’s possible. CANCO says no. It turns out that the can technology of the time can only handle 24 to 35 psi, while the process that beer undergoes for pasteurization can generate pressures up to 80 psi (there’s also the pesky question of how to prevent the cans from ruining the beer’s taste). The next 10 years prove unfruitful, and the passing of Prohibition in 1919 doesn’t help. Undeterred by teetotalers and Andrew Volstead, CANCO keeps researching, and in 1925 Charles Stollberg files patent number 1,625,229 for a can that’s sturdy enough to hold beer. Anheuser-Busch and Pabst convince CANCO to start prototyping. CANCO eventually devises a mix of Vinylite (same stuff as the records) and enamel to keep the beer from coming in contact with the can; they settle on the suitably catchy term “Keglined”. The first beer can is sold on January 24, 1935, and the 80 following years serve to cement its status as an American icon. The following nine cans each tell the story of the beer can — but they also serve as cultural illustrations of the rapidly changing country around it.

Steel (1935-1958)

Kruger Cream Ale, 1935


Kruger had the honor of canning the first beer ever in September of 1933, but they sent all 2,000 cans to loyal Kruger drinkers along with a survey to judge whether people would like beer in a can (91 percent said yes). The first canned beer to be sold was this Kruger Cream Ale in Richmond, Virginia.

Pabst Export Beer, 1935


By the end of 1935, 18 breweries were canning, but the largest by far was Milwaukee‘s Pabst (which was also the largest brewery in the US at the time). The iconic Blue Ribbon was reserved for the bottles, and instead the cans were dubbed “Export Beer”. Pabst’s decision to start canning so early was crucial to ensuring that the can wasn’t going to go away anytime fast.

Mil-Spec Beer, 1942-1947


When World War II broke out, tin plate, which was used to make cans, was reserved for millitary use. That wasn’t too big of a problem for breweries: the military bought at least 18 million cans of the stuff to ship overseas. Forty breweries made the same recipe and poured their suds into drab, olive cans with black logos so they wouldn’t give off a reflection and give away soldiers’ positions.

Budweiser, 1950


1950 was the first year that Anheuser Busch canned their Budweiser lager with the distinctive red and white, script-filled label, which would go on to become one of the most recognized logos on earth. The gold can would give way to the famous white one just a few years later.

Aluminum (1958- )

Primo Beer, 1958


Primo Brewing Company was originally founded in Honolulu in 1898, and their 11-ounce can in 1958 was the first all-aluminum beer can to hit market. Straight-sided steel cans would go on to be produced until 1984, but for them this was the beginning of the end. Hamm’s Beer would go on be the first to produce an all-aluminum 12-ounce can in 1963. (As an aside, Primo Beer is still being manufactured on the island of Kauai and stays true to the original recipe that includes sugar cane. We’re still not sure what “Fully Aged Slowly” means.)

Schlitz, 1963


One of the biggest leaps forward in beer cans came in 1963 when Schlitz introduced what they called the “pop top”, which came to be referred as tab tops or pull tops. The tab top would go on to become the standard for the next 20 years, but it was hardly an elegant solution. Oregon banned them in 1972 citing environmental and litter concerns, and they’d be replaced by today’s “stay top” tabs in the early ’80s.

Chief Oshkosh Red Lager, 1991


There’s a bit of debate around who canned the first craft beer, but the general consensus is that Jeff Fullbright at Mid-Coast Brewing of Oshkosh, Wisconsin was the first. Chief Oshkosh would publish ads stating the advantage of canning, but truth is, it was mostly about economics; cans allowed the brewery to save a couple cents per ounce over glass. They’d go on to switch to bottling in 1992, but this was a crucial first step in the can-based craft brew surge that we’re in today.

Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale, 2002


Dale Katechis loves canning his beer, and in 2002 announced that all of Oskar Blues’ beers would be canned. Katechis was way ahead of the trend: in May 2013, 285 craft breweries were canning 956 different beers (according to the CraftCans.com database). As of February 2015, 493 craft breweries were canning 1,873 beers. How’s that for growth? Most breweries cite freshness, portability and recyclability when deciding to can these days, but one notable holdout is Lagunitas, the sixth-largest craft brewer in the US, who cite doubts about the environmental effects of can recycling (specifically the lining within).

Sly Fox Helles Golden Lager, 2013


The latest innovation in can tech? Pennsylvania’s Sly Fox Brewery teamed up with Crown Holdings to distribute a top that comes entirely off, allowing for the full aromatic effect of drinking from a glass.

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