Beer Can History

The honor of creating the first American can used commercially to hold and sell beer goes to the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company, located in Newark, New York. The first official date of sale for this revolutionary beverage container was January 24, 1935. Krueger Brewing Company initiated American beer can history with sale of canned Krueger's Finest Beer and their Cream Ale in Richmond, VA. With the invention of the beer can for sale, another item was required, a beer can opener. American Can Company actually began trying, unsuccessfully, to create a beer can as early as 1909.

Krueger Brewing Company took up an offer made by the American Can Company to test this new style beverage can in 1934. Prohibition, which was law in the United States from 1920 to 1933, had adversely affected regional breweries severely. Krueger Brewing Company was no exception, so they were happy to take up American Can's offer to run a can test in 1934, at American Can Company's expense. A thousand cans were presented to homes in the Richmond, VA, area, along with a questionnaire. Results were far better than expected, and the drive was on to deliver this exciting new product. By January, cans of Krueger's were sold all over Richmond, VA. By the end of 1935, 37 breweries were using beer cans and over 200 million cans were sold.

Anything that would ignite beer sales was welcomed after the drought during Prohibition. There were many reasons why the new can styles were preferred over bottles. One main reason is that the can itself could carry a label that was printed all around the outside surface. Bottles had labels, but the can was totally available for imprinting. Cans were lighter weight, easier to stack and package, non-breakable, and with no deposit required, they were disposable. Old empty cans were simply tossed around and left behind in buildings, inside walls of buildings under construction, or in dumps. These discarded, used, but original cans later were hidden treasure for later beer can collectors.

Many American manufacturers jumped on the beer can bandwagon during the early can years. The first to step up were three major can manufacturing companies, American Can Company, National Can Company, and the Continental Can Company. Others in on the fun were the Pacific Can Company, and the Crown Cork & Seal Company that purchased the Acme Can Company in Philadelphia, PA.

Early cans were made in several styles and parts. A roll can was a roll of metal with a cap on both ends. Other cans were fitted with tops that were similar to a bottle style cap, protruding upwards. These are referred to as cone tops, J spouts or crowntainers. A new device was created just for beer cans, the beer can or church key opener. A significant problem was the can metal itself, which reacted with the beer. Over a two year period, American Can Company managed to solve inherent problems with beer and beer cans. Liner materials were tried until a solution was found. Pressure resistance was another problem to solve for packaging beer into cans. The metal had to be able to withstand an internal pressure of 80 psi to not burst along welded seams. Most cans were first made in 10 oz. and 12 oz. sizes. Later on, larger cans and mini-kegs were created.

Different shapes were tried before most can manufacturers settled upon the typical can found today. Many had bottle style tops, with screw off caps. Others required a can opener to poke holes in flat tops. The development of the pop top can came about in the 1960's and has remained popular and convenient. Early pop off tops and rings became an environmental problem, so manufacturers began making pop off tops that remained attached to the cans or that sank down into the can interior. Other problems for animals and the environment occurred with the plastic ring device that holds a six-pack together.

Among early beer cans, popular brand names included Acme, Brown Derby, Clipper, Eagle, General Brewing, Humbolt, Jolly Scot, Krueger's, Little Imp, National Brewing, Oldstyle Lager, Red Lion, Tally Ho Ale, Valley Forge, Wilshire Club, Narrangansett, and Rainier. Part of the attractiveness of can collection involves the can artwork, which in many cases is truly artistic.

Collecting items like beer cans is common in the USA. Early beer can collectors were very active in the USA from the mid-1930's through the 1950's. Later, collecting beer cans and displaying them in dormitory windows became popular on many college campuses, as local beer taverns fed the student appetite for beer can collecting by offering many different brand names. Persons working in the breweries had opportunities to collect non-sold cans for "insider" collections. These were cans that never held beer. They may have been used for testing, or sample flat sheets rolled into cans. Only cans that actually held beer can be termed "authentic" cans. A beer can collector club in the USA, the BCCA, or Brewery Collectibles Club of America, serves this collector market. They have a Hall of Fame to honor collectors. The first Hall of Fame member was Ernie Oest, who began collecting cans in the 1930s while driving around. Modern collectors can use a black light to reveal if a can is authentic or if it has been retouched or restored, making it less valuable.

Beer can collecting, beer can artwork, and brewery accessories like trays, lights, and signage made beer can advertising history. College students loved can and accessory collecting, filling up dorm room windows with their beer can collections and lighting their rooms with lighted beer advertising devices. As cans gained popularity, the bottle makers staged a bottle war to try to stay competitive. Bottles had drawbacks, such as being heavy and breakable. Their main argument was that cans affect the taste of the beer inside, making it taste skunky. World War II put a halt to can growth as metal was needed for the war effort.

Beer can history remains active, long and colorful, with modern improvements helping to maintain can popularity.