Richmond, Virginia: The original beer can testing ground

We gave it a thumbs up. You’re welcome, world!

Photo by: Bryan2

The beer can. That most unassuming and humblest of drinking vessels. What’s the deal with this 12-ounce contraption? What’s its story? And what does Richmond have to do with it?

By the late 19th century, mass distribution had turned canned foods into grocery store norms across the nation, but it wasn’t until 1909 that the first attempt at canning beer occurred.

The idea of beer cans held many potential advantages over bottles: they would be easier to transport, would take less time to chill, and best of all, wouldn’t expose beer to sunlight, which leads to the dreaded skunking effect.

However, there was a pretty major disadvantage for the cans of the early 1900s: unlike the foodstuffs traversing the country unscathed, beer is carbonated. This carbonation creates internal forces of up to 80 pounds per square inch, and, well, the flimsy tin cans just couldn’t handle the pressure…literally. Experiments led to quite a few exploded cans with sticky floors (read: frat house kegger) and ultimately, the idea was shelved.

Fast forward a few non-beer-friendly years (1919-1933 to be precise), and the good folks at American Can Company had finally figured it out. By developing a tin can reinforced with steel, the internal pressure was no longer the crippling blow it once was to the idea.

But like most things, solving one problem creates another. People soon realized that beer packaged in metal ended up tasting metallic. Taking a page from keg designs, inventors coated the inside of cans with pine tar-like substance known as brewer’s pitch. This coating insulated the beer from the can walls, thus eliminating the tinny taste. These became known as “keglined” cans.

With the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the end of Prohibition, brewers were looking for some way to invigorate the scene, and American Can Co. knew the time was right to strike with this innovative new product.

It was the Gottfried Krueger Brewery, from Newark, N.J., that would ultimately partner with American Can Co. and test their luck with this whole beer can thing.

This is all well and good, you say, but what does this have to do with Richmond?

Eighty years ago, on January 24th, 1935, Krueger’s, somewhat hesitant to be the first brewer to sell in cans, decided it was a bit too risky to release the product in their own regional market. Instead, they delivered flat top cans of Krueger’s Finest Beer and Krueger’s Cream Ale to our fair city.

To say it was a success would be an understatement. The cans quickly sold out and garnered a 91% approval rating–and with that, the Richmond market greenlit what would eventually account for half of the current $20 billion U.S. beer industry. The can was an instant success story!

Within three months of its release, Krueger’s leap of faith had it competing with the “big three” national brewers: Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz. Distributors and consumers across the nation were eager to get their hands on the product. Pabst took notice, and by August 1935 they had followed suit. Much to future Richmond’s chagrin, Pabst opted to begin canning their “Export” beer in lieu of the local favorite, PBR. Pabst’s Blue Ribbon would remain reserved for bottles for the time being.

It’s unwise to muck with perfection. Not too much changed in the next thirty years for the ever popular beer can. A few variations of cone-top cans hit the scene, and aluminum was introduced in 1958, but overall the tin/steel flat tops dominated the market.

Since their creation in the 1930s, flat top cans were opened with church keys–strips of metal with sharp bills to punch holes in the can’s lid. Without this apparatus, beer lovers needed to get creative when opening their beverages, which led to Virginia once again becoming the test ground for beer can “paraphernalia” in the Spring of 1962.

A get-together was actually getting together, and no one had remembered to bring their church key. A gentleman, who happened to be a metal worker, spent most of the day piercing flat tops with the bumper of his car and would create pull tab cans out of equal parts frustration and necessity. A short time later, Iron City Brewing Company of Pittsburgh was the first brewery to test the product. Coincidentally, it was Virginia that was chosen as a market–Virginians were once again on the forefront of the beer can game.

Pull tabs were a beer drinker’s dream come true. No longer were beer lovers dependent on church keys, they simply had to lift a tab and pull. Again, as with earlier aspects of the beer can’s development, there were flaws with the design. While these cans weren’t exploding or making beer taste like metal, they proved to be disastrous for the environment. The pulled-off tabs littered roadsides, trashed beaches, and even injured people and animals who accidentally swallowed them.

1976 rolled around and yet again, it’s Richmond who’s innovating beer can technology. To remedy the pull tab fiasco, Reynolds Metal Company introduced the “Stay-on-Tab,” which was deemed the next step in the evolution of the beer can. Unlike its predecessors, this can was 100 percent recyclable and required zero assistance from church keys or car bumpers!

It’s this aluminum masterpiece we all know and love today.

So the next time you’re shotgunning that Natty Light or enjoying a Hardywood Cream Ale, take pride that Richmond’s had a huge influence on how it got in your hand.

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Enjoyed this read and want to learn more about the Virginia connection to all things booze? The Virginia Historical Society’s History on Tap crew is geared up to provide a Behind the Scenes tour entitled “Bottoms Up: Ales, Ciders, and Taverns from Virginia’s Fermented Past” on September 26th, 2015, 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM. $17 ($10 for members).

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Jamison Davis

Jamison’s love of history is only surpassed by his fondness for beer…and maybe tattoos.

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