A brief history of beer cans

11th April 2022

Beer cans are much older than most people think, the story of canned beer started in the Napoleonic Wars with the invention of canned food, and the French army developing a method of preserving food in metal containers. The process was perfected over the next 50 years and by the end of the 1800s canned food was commonplace.

With the advent of World War 1 the use of canned food skyrocketed, the cans were lighter, and more durable than glass containers, as well as kept the light away from the food inside. Though the traditional containers for beverages stayed the same, with glass bottles and wooden casks. The main problem with putting beer into cans was to maintain the internal pressure without the can deforming. During and after World War One the process of canning improved and by the 1920s the technology to put a pressurized drink into a can was perfected, but in the 1920s the United States introduced prohibition, which put back the invention of canned beer.

By 1933 the popularity of prohibition was waning and the American Can Company saw a new market to sell to, so the engineers developed a 12 Fluid Ounce can capable of holding pressurized beer. Next, they needed a guinea pig to trial the cans, ACC approached Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company which also saw a marketing edge in selling beer in a lightweight easy to identify the container. The canning line was installed in November 1933 and a test brew was canned in December 1933, the beer was Krueger's Special Beer, a 3.5% lager which was the strongest beer that was allowed under prohibition. The can looked like a standard soup can with straight sides and flat tops and bottoms, the can was opened with a churchkey can opener that required a drinking hole and an air hole.

After the repeal of prohibition in January 1935 the Krueger Brewery was ready to start ramping up production and with the large quantities of beer was the new beer cans to hold the beer. The first two drinks were Krueger's Finest Beer and Krueger's Cream Ale. Local beer drinkers instantly took to the new cans and other breweries installed canning lines including the large national brewery of Pabst. While canned beer was popular people did not like having to carry a specific opener around with them so by September a new top to the can was invented to make it like a normal beer bottle, the new top was named a cone top as the can had a neck with a crown seal applied.

It took 23 more years for Australian breweries to take the plunge and start canning their product, with Carton United Brewing being the first, canning their Foster's Lager and Victoria Bitter in 1958. The other large Australian breweries started canning in the early 1960s. The South Australian Brewing Company started canning West End XXX Bitter, West End Stout, Southwark Bitter, and Adelaide Light, with Coopers starting soon after with their Sparkling Ale, Best Extra Stout, and Light Dinner Ale. All beer cans in Australia were the traditional flat-top style requiring a churchkey to open.

By the 1970s beer cans went through a revolution with cans being made from lightweight aluminium, and the top made easier to open with a pull tab. The customers loved the changes but unfortunately, the pull tabs caused lots of problems with litter and the razor-sharp sides. Several American states even went so far as to ban the pull taps, leaving the breweries to re-introduce the flat tops to cans. But by 1975 the canning companies had found a solution to the problem by putting the now-familiar stay tab on the top of cans. The stay top is pushed into the beer, unlike the pull tab that comes off the can, this way there is no litter and no sharp metal daggers hiding in the sand for unfortunate beachgoers to step on.

The first Australian micro brewery to can beer was Matilda Bay with assistance from their part owners Carlton United Breweries, several other small breweries dabbled with beer cans over the next 15 years. The microbrewery scene in America has really taken to beer cans, so much that new cheaper canning lines were developed that made beers cans an affordable container to use. The first SA microbreweries to start canning were Pirate Life, Swell, Barossa Valley Brewing & Malt Fiction.