Beer Can History
BY NANCY AND DON CHANDLER
Oak Pond Brewery
How do you drink your beer? Bottle, draft, or in a can?
Prohibition ended in 1933, and individual serving cans cropped up shortly after. Prior to prohibition, about 90 percent of beer was sold as draft, made and consumed locally. In 1915 there were 1,400 breweries in the U.S. By the late 1980's, there were 80 breweries in the U.S. and only 12 percent of the beer was consumed as draft. The dramatic shift from draft beer sales to single-serving containers is in large part due to the development of the beer can. Today approximately 65 percent of U.S. beer consumption is via canned beer.
The primary technical challenge for developing the beer can was how to contain the 80 pounds per square inch that a beer may generate. In 1933 American Can Company developed the flat top beer can. Krueger Brewing Company of Newark, NJ introduced canned beer in 1935. The birth of the beer can was met with some skepticism, but was readily accepted by Joe Six Pack. The initial cans were more compact than bottles (and lighter) but still weighted a hefty four ounces each and required a can opener, or a "church key," to open.
In 1891, metal-cork crowns (bottle caps) were invented. The crimped bottle caps allowed breweries to automate the filling and sealing of beer bottles. When the flat top can was introduced, many breweries did not have the equipment to shift to the new can technology. To bridge the problem of old bottling equipment and new can technology the "cone-topped can" was developed. This beer can had a standard can base and a cone top that was capped with a standard bottle cap. This bizarre shape allowed breweries to modify there old bottling equipment and move into the growing canned beer market.
World War II had a major impact on the beer can. Rationing of metal brought on a prohibition of canned beer in the U.S. The U.S. War Production Board encouraged beer lovers to buy "Victory Quarts" instead of 12 ounce bottles in an effort to conserve the metal used in bottle caps. Only soldiers overseas were allowed beer in cans. All brewers were required to allocate 15 percent of their production for military use. To further accommodate the lubrication of our overseas troops, the beer cans were painted olive drab to allow troops to drink on the job without giving away their positions to the enemy.
In 1959, Coors introduced aluminum cans. Lighter than the "tin" cans, they still had the flat top requiring a church key. Aluminum cans made it less dangerous for young males to demonstrate their drunkenness by crushing the empty cans against their heads. Prior to aluminum cans, this practice caused much brain damage to young males as demonstrated by the diminished mental capacity of today's males who are over 50 years old.
The next giant leap in beer can technology came in 1963, when a simple ring attached to a wedge-shaped impression in the can top allowed the can to be opened without a church key. The "pull-tab" was introduced. Beer consumers rejoiced with the speed and ease with which they could open cans. Within two years, 70 percent of all beer cans had pull-tabs. By 1966, pull-tabs covered the earth and hospital emergency rooms were jammed with patients with feet cut by pull-tabs. Stores across the country started to display door signs that read "No Shoes No Service," many of which are still in place today. In true American capitalist fashion, thong flip-flops were manufactured to protect feet from this dangerous pull top scourge.
In 1975, "stay tabs" were introduced. They were similar to pull-tabs, but the aluminum wedge was folded back into the can.
The legacy of discarded pull tabs remains, and flip-flop thongs became part of American culture.
Nancy and Don Chandler own Oak Pond Brewery in Skowhegan.
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