The Story of Canned Beer
Using a can to contain beer had serious technical problems. Beer required a container that could withstand a pressure in excess of 80lb per square inch. Food cans on the market only needed to withstand 25-35lb. If filled with beer, they would burst along the seam. At best, they leaked.
Then there was the question of flavor contamination. Beer reacted with the bare tinplate, leaving a tinny taste. But coating with the traditional brewers' pitch, as used in casks, was no use in the smaller container. As a correspondent in the "Brewer and Wine Merchant" magazine explained: 'Samples of linings for the can were found to absorb all the hop flavor out of the beer and leave it tasting like the proverbial 'ditchwater'.
Finally there was the all-important bottom line. Cans cost more than glass bottles. So breweries, which had invested heavily in bottling plants and large stocks of returnable bottles, were unlikely to be enthusiastic.
In fact, like most drinkers, they were deeply suspicious. Sanders Watney of the London brewers "Watney, Combe, and Reid", said in an article in the World Press Review in 1934: "I am not convinced that there would be any demand in this country for beer in cans. I cannot conceive the idea of a can ever replacing the half-pint, pint or quart bottle. The canning habit is certainly growing, but I do not think it will spread to drinks". With brewers and drinkers indifferent, if not hostile, the impetus for change had to come from another quarter; the sector with the most to gain - the tinplate industry and the can manufactures.
In 1909, the American Can Company (CanCo) had tried to produce a can for beer, but without success. Technical problems kicked the concept into touch. In 1921, anticipating the end of Prohibition in the United States, and with the Depression affecting its conventional markets, it tried again.
Eventually CanCo found a small brewery desperate enough to give tinned beer a try. The Gottfried Krueger Brewery of Newark, New Jersey, was in a poor shape after thirteen years of Prohibition. To add to its problems, when the ban on alcohol was finally repealed in 1933, its workers went on strike.
As the company was prepared to install the canning equipment for free - Krueger would only have to pay for it if the experiment was a success - the troubled brewery had nothing to lose.
In 1933, a test run of 2,000 cans was produced for a trial sampling. Further trials followed. The can was modified. Only in September 1934 did CanCo patent its Vinylite lining under the trademark 'Keglined'. Then, in January 1935, two brands, "Krueger's Finest Beer" and "Cream Ale", went on public sale in Richmond, Virginia.
The tinning took off beyond American Can's wildest dreams. Krueger was also pleased. Its sales shot up, so that by July its production was running at over five times its pre-canning level. By the end of the year, no less than thirty-seven US breweries were following its example and rattling out canned beer, including reluctant giants Pabst and Schiltz, brewers of the beer 'that made Milwaukee famous'.
A major factor in its success was that the packs were easier to carry home; shoppers were even prepared to pay a premium for the convenience. In addition, the compact can fitted more easily into the increasingly popular refrigerators appearing in every home; Americans preferred their beer ice cold. A survey of 750 drinkers found 89 per cent liked the new brightly designed containers.
To help convert wavering customers, early CanCo cans carried the imaginative claim that the contents were better than if served any other way, as the goodness was sealed in, the flavor preserved, and the beer protected from the harmful effects of light.
American brewers discovered that while the unit costs of one-trip cans were higher than returnable glass bottles, there were significant savings to be made in transport costs. Cans were much lighter and could be more tightly stacked - advantages which were also welcomed by retailers. And there were no empties to worry about.