Beer… in Cans!

4 Mar

It’s something we take for granted–getting beer or soda pop in cans. However, the first commercially produced beer can didn’t come out until January 1935, three hundred years after it was first put in bottles! Why the change?

When radio stations are trying to fill time, they’ll put on all sorts of filler, and iHeartRadio throws in “This Week in History.” As an amateur historian, this always perks my interest, so when they said that Krueger Beer was the first to deliver beer in cans in Richmond, Virginia, I had to figure out why it took that long to come up with cans.

The first issue was… you didn’t have to. Most people just had their beer at the pub, where someone with a keg poured it out into leatherjacks (leather mugs) and you drank it there. Once glass became cheap (and strong) enough to put in windows, it was cheap enough to turn into glassware. With the stronger glass, you could also make growlers, so you could take some beer home from the pub, but again… only as far as you could walk. Then some forgetful (drunk) parson left his growler of beer by the stream, found it days later, and found the carbonization caused the cork to fire off like a gun. With that, people realized you could transport beer farther. IPA’s came about two hundred years later because they had to figure out how to transport beer to India and keep it good, so they put a higher hop count in their bottles.

So two centuries of commercial beer transportation later, there was a limit to how far you could reasonably transport your brand of beer. Bottles were heavy and they were returnable… which had to be inspected before reuse. Plus, glass still cost more than shipping things in cans. So the American Can Company (still around), in order to drum up new markets, offered to fund the new production line for Krueger to see if it would work. This was just after Prohibition, so they figured this was a great new revenue source.

If you see the original can, you’ll notice that it’s more bottle shaped–this was done to make it easier for smaller breweries to use so they didn’t have to change their production lines. However, they had to design the can to contain 80 lbs of pressure. Also had to put in a liner so that the metallic taste didn’t transfer to the beer. The pull tab (versus the bottle top) only came thirty years later.

With beer in cans you could transfer it as far as you could reasonably keep it cold. Since we had international ice transport since the 1850’s, this wasn’t a big deal, and companies such as Anheuser-Busch took advantage of this and dominated the domestic American beer market. It also helped they were located in St. Louis, Missouri, and were more centrally located to distribute their beer from the Rockies to the Appalachians. Coors, located in Denver, Colorado, only transported as far as the Mississippi River until 1986, although that was more to do with pasteurization laws in Eastern states, but did give us the plot to Smokey and the Bandit.

This took me down a serious rabbit hole, and I have Bryce Eddings to thank for that, so I’ll stop while I’m ahead and not go into why Yingling didn’t leave Pennsylvania for decades. But what do you think? Why does beer in cans still exist, since we’ve solved the transportation problem? What beer would you really wish you get in your hometown? (For me, Leo Beer from Thailand–good cheap beer with a shrimp aftertaste.) Did the microbrewery phenomenon save or kill commercially produced beer? Let me know in the comments below!

2 Responses to “Beer… in Cans!”

  1. schingle March 4, 2021 at 8:45 am #

    one ofmy all time favorite subjects: BEER! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Silk Cords March 4, 2021 at 8:46 am #

    Cool history. 😀

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