The first beer cans were quite a bit different than the ones we know today. They were heavy-gauge tin cans, coated on the inside, with a flat welded top and not sort of tab to open them, as such a technology had yet to be invented. Just getting beer into a can in he first place was enough of a feat. But who first took the plunge? Who was the first ever to put beer into a can? It wasn’t any of the modern macro-breweries that you know of today. Read the article below, watch the video, or View it on Youtube.
The first beer to be sold in a can was Krueger Finest Beer, brewed by the Gottfried Krueger Brewing company of Newark, New Jersey. They went on sale in Richmond Virginia, shortly after the repeal of prohibition, in 1935. The initial shipment was 2,000 cans, sent out over a hundred years after canned food first started being sold.
Video Presentation of “First Beer in a Can”
These first cans, that Krueger used to can beer, were made by the American Can Company or CanCo, out of Pacific Grove, California. This company had started trying to develop beer cans as far back as 1909 but they gave up fairly soon. As I said, getting beer into a can was a feat. Why? Well, beer can generate a pressure over 80 pounds per square inch inside the can, which was well over what the cans of the time could withstand. Anything over 40 pounds per square inch pressure could burst the cans or cause them to spring leaks. And, of course, beer is acidic, so early cans would have been corroded by the beer, infusing it with a God-awful tin can taste.
So, the company had to lick the strength problem, and the lining problem, to protect the inside of the can. Or, rather, to protect the beer from the inside of the can. Both, really. And, they had to do this while keeping the cans inexpensive. After all, glass bottles were well established and had none of these problems. Plus, many of them could be returned and refilled. To make the problems worse, after this initial effort, prohibition came into effect, so that subsequent efforts, like one in 1921, were done with a very limited potential market. However, their foresight paid off, and they did solve the pressure and lining problem, making the CanCo ready to serve the first brewery wanting to can beer, after prohibition was lifted. The lining used in the cans was a substance developed by Union Carbide which they called Vinylite.
These cans would have been a quite a change to existing beer customers. They were difficult to open, as all cans of the day were. Although, one advantage was that the entire top did not have to be removed, as with canned foods. You just needed to punch a hole to drink out of. To do this, the customer had to use something sharp like a church-key style can opener. The cans devoted a lot of label space to telling customers how to open them, with two pictorial instructions and a picture of a can opener one side, which the company also distributed with the shipment. For this reason, these early beer cans were called “instructional cans.”
The Can Company had also invented and manufactured these openers, which were used to punch holes into the top of the cans. That means that the Can Company is responsible not only for the first successful beer cans, but also for the church-key style can opener that every beer drinker is familiar with! You probably have one in your kitchen drawer right now. It has one curved and pointy end, with a tab for gripping the can rim, used to punch holes, and another, non-pointed curvy end, used to remove the caps from beer bottles. I think we owe the Can Company a debt of gratitude! These openers were one of the most simple but effective tools ever invented, and even though the usual modern design is a bit different, the concept is still pretty much the same.
It was a fairly bold move for Gottfried Krueger to market beer in a can. Customer acceptance was certainly an issue and there was every reason for the company to expect the new cans to fail. And, this answers the question as to why a brewery based in Newark, New Jersey, shipped its first cans all the way to Virginia. This was far away from the brewery’s home market to keep them fairly dissociated from the product if it were to fail so that the company’s reputation on the Northeastern seaboard was not affected.
However, the cans were a success and many customers seemed to like them better than bottles. Therefore, the company followed Krueger’s Finest Beer, in 1935, by putting Krueger’s Cream Ale into cans.
Some sources like to refer to the initial 2000 can shipment of Krueger’s Finest as a “test batch” and then claim that Cream Ale was the first canned beer. This is because it was sent out not to stores, but to actual beer drinkers. They sent 4 cans each to 500 households so they could test the product and give it a thumbs up, or thumbs down. It is reported that over 90% of them approved, so the company was able to go forward with marketing canned beer. However, it is quite clear that Krueger Finest was the first beer to be successfully canned and drank by beer drinkers. Since most people would not have had very much beer for the last decade or more, it is hard to say if it really tasted very good. This could have been the first legal beer many of the test drinkers had had in quite a while!
The success of these first canned beers was enough to have many other breweries in the U.S. and abroad to follow suit. In August 1935, Pabst began canning beer, the first major brewery to do so. Then, Schlitz followed a month later. By the end of that year, 37 American breweries were canning beers.
Soon, a rival to the Can Company’s can, which they had named “Keglined,” was developed by Crown Cork & Seal Company, which perfected a process that allowed them to produce a two-piece steel can with a neck and a crown cap, the ubiquitous standard bottle cap that the company had invented. They called this “the Crowntainer” and it held a quart of beer. These cans could be opened more like a bottle.
The first aluminum beer cans appeared in 1958, and the first cans with ring-top openings appeared in 1965, which had a metal loop that was pulled to remove a metal tab, creating an opening to drink out of.