Although flat top beer cans are the first thing that pops into people's minds when they think about buying beer today, it wasn't always this way. In fact, prior to Prohibition, the flat top beer can was not even in use. Before Prohibition, beer was distributed solely in kegs, bottle or directly from the brewery tap. Although other foods were already being distributed in cans at the time, there were technical challenges that needed to be sorted out in order to make beer distribution in cans feasible.
The American Can Company was up to the challenge, and they developed a product they called Keglined Cans Prior to this development, beer that was put into a can would take on the taste of the metal. American Can Company put a seal over the metal on the inside of the can which prevented the transfer of metallic taste to the beer. The can was constructed from a heavy gauge steel and had a flat top that required the use of a tool like a church-key opener to punch a hole in the top. This was a huge development that would forever change the world of beer distribution.
Although the Keglined can was an enormous technical achievement by the American Can Company, it did not catch on with the breweries overnight. A smaller brewery called Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company was the first company to purchase flat top cans from the American Can Company. Based in Newark, New Jersey, Gottfried Krueger shipped out the first flat top metal beer cans in history in November 1933. There were only 2,000 cans of Krueger's Special Beer that came out in that first beer can production run. These cans are now some of the rarest available in the collecting world, as there are only 2 cans known to be in existence today.
The cans were an instant hit with consumers. Many people felt that these beer that came in these new steel beer cans tasted more like draft beer than beer sold in bottles. Krueger benefited immensely from taking the chance on the first beer cans, and within a few years they were producing 180,000 cans of beer a day.
This success made the three major players in the brewery game; Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Schlitz; sit up and take notice. By the year 1935, all of the major breweries in the United States were distributing beer in steel cans, though not all of them were utilizing the flat top can. Schlitz was one of the biggest breweries in the country at the time, and they sold a can that had a flat bottom with a cone-shaped top.
Although the use of metal cans became popular right away, it did not become the dominant distribution method of beer overnight. By the time the United States entered World War II in December 1941, more than a billion cans of beer were being sold a year. However, this was only a 10% share of the beer distribution business, and the war was about to have a major negative effect on the can world.
Due to the need of every bit of scrap metal possible to fuel the war effort against the Axis Powers, domestic use of beer cans virtually disappeared. The only beer cans that were made were shipped overseas for consumption by the troops. Collectors of these cans will have some interesting looking specimens. All the cans that were shipped to the soldiers were either an olive drab or camouflage color.
After the end of the war can production shot back up, and a battle for beer can supremacy was quickly fought and won by the flat top beer can over the cone top beer can. The flat top beer can was easier to distribute, as it was stackable. Flat top beer cans also filled faster than cone top beer cans, making them more economical to use in the breweries.
The flat top beer can remained largely the same from the time of its introduction in 1933 to the late 1950s. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, two developments occurred that would profoundly change the flat top beer can universe. The first was the distribution of the first aluminum beer can by the Hawaii Brewing Company in 1958. This can is a great collector's item now.
The second major development was the first distribution of the self-opening can called a zip top can. The zip top was a perforated tab that was removed from the can via a pull lever. Zip tops were a huge hit right away due to their convenience, but they had a couple of problems.
First, the perforated tabs had a nasty habit of cutting people's fingers, especially after they had consumed a few cans already. Second, the fact that the tabs were removable caused a major problem with littering. One notorious problem with this was at the beach. Drinkers would throw their zip tops down on the beach and they would become buried in the sand. People would then later step on them with their bare feet, enduring some nasty cuts.
These problems were first addressed with the pull ring tab, which was detachable but without sharp edges. By 1975, the first Sta-Tab cans that had non-detachable tabs came on the market, and they quickly became the flat top beer can of choice. The major benefit of the Sta-Tab is that it stopped the littering that was so rampant with the zip top and pull ring tabs.
The flat top beer can was a major development in the beer distribution world, and it became the major method of beer distribution in a relatively short time. It wasn't always a smooth ride, and it caused some injuries along the way. However, it is now the champion of the beer distribution world, and looks to remain so for the foreseeable future.