Beer Can History


by Rob Barrow – coordinator of the British Beer Can Collectors Society

IN DECEMBER 1935, a small Welsh brewery started to sell its beer in a new type of container.  Many were skeptical about this new form of packaging, claiming that it was a novelty and would never be an alternative to the bottle.  But this month the British beer can is 50 years old.

The origins of the beercan can be traced back to 1909, when a brewery in the USA approached American Can Co. to see if it could supply cans for the packaging of beer.  It could not as its attempts to produce a can were unsuccessful.

In 1931, anticipating the end of Prohibition, American Can again began to experiment with canned beer.  Most cans at that time only needed to withstand a pressure of 25 to 35 lb psi, but beer needed a container that would withstand in excess of 80 lb psi, otherwise there would be a major problem with cans bursting along the welded seam.

After two years of research, American Can had overcome the problems of pressure and had developed a coating for the inside of the can to stop the beer reacting with the tinplate.  The company now had to sell the idea to the breweries.  This was not easy as the big breweries did not want to risk their reputations on such a radical innovation.

One of the smaller breweries that American Can approached was the Gottfried Krueger Brewery of Newark, New Jersey.  After 13 years of Prohibition and the death in 1926 of Gottfried Krueger, the brewery’s founder, the family business was not in good shape.  To add to its problems, when repeal finally came, the workers went on strike.

As the can company would install the canning equipment for free and the brewery would only pay for it if the venture was a success, Krueger had nothing to lose.

A test run of 2,000 cans was produced in 1933 and these were sampled by regular Krueger drinkers.  The results were positive, 91 per cent of them liked the can.  It was not until Jan 24, 1935, that the first beer cans went on sale to the general public when Krueger’s Finest Beer went on sale in Richmond, Virginia.

By the end of 1935, no less than 37 US breweries were producing canned beer.

In Britain, Metal Box Co had seen the developments across the Atlantic and began looking for a British brewery that would be willing to package its beer in cans. Unfortunately, many of the breweries did not believe that canned beer was a viable proposition.

In 1934, Sanders Watney, of Watney Combe Reid, in an article published in the World Press Review, said: “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.”

And so it was left to the small, independent Felinfoel Brewery Co of Llanelli, Wales, to become the first brewery outside of the USA to sell its beer in a can.  The cans, supplied by Metal Box, were “conetops,” which looked similar to a can of metal polish and were sealed with a crown cork, the same as a glass bottle.  Two sizes were produced, 10oz for the domestic market and 12oz for export.

Felinfoel’s Pale Ale went on sale in December 1936, and by March of the following year the experiment was deemed a success.

Other breweries began to show an interest, especially those involved in the exporting of beer.  In April 1935, John Jeffreys of Edinburgh, produced Scotland’s first beer can, Jeffreys’ Padlock Brand lager in both 10 and 12oz sizes.  This was soon followed by Barclay, Perkins; Hammertons; Wm. McEwans; Simonds and J. & R. Terment.

By October 1937, some 23 breweries were producing over 40 different brands of canned beer!  Then, in 1939, the advance of the beer can was brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of the war.  With, it seems, one exception, all canning for the domestic market was stopped and the only cans filled were for the troops.

The exception, according to records held at the brewery, was Felinfoel.  These records show that Felinfoel continued to can beer for home consumption throughout the war years and that it has continually canned beer from December 1935 until today.

In 1948, McEwans Export was packaged (for export) in what was, for Britain, a new type of beer can, the flattop, although this was, in fact, the type of can that Krueger had used for its beer.  The flattop can required a special opener, the can punch or, as it was called in the USA, the “church key” opener.  For many years, British flattop cans carried opening instructions on the can lid

Canning for the domestic market had been fully resumed by 1952, and most breweries were converting to the flattop can, although some smaller breweries continued to use the conetop until the late 1950s.

The year 1955 saw a turning point for canned beer in the UK, especially in Scotland.  The 10oz can was the standard domestic size, but was now retailing for up to 4d more than for a halfpint bottle.  The Scottish brewer, J. & R. Tennent wanted to sell its beer in cans on the home market, but it was not prepared to compete against the bottle with such a large price disadvantage.  So the brewery approached Metal Box to see if it could come up with a larger container.  The largest that Metal Box could offer at that time was a can holding l6oz.  Tennent calculated that with this size it could, ounce for ounce, sell at an equivalent price against a halfpint bottle and without the additional expense of a deposit.

Soon after Tennent introduced its l6oz can on to the market, in the summer of 1955, other Scottish brewers were looking to adopt this new size.  Soon, half of Metal Box’s production of beer cans was going north of the border.

Metal Box conducted a survey in 1958 that showed that in Scotland, 75 per cent of those interviewed had drunk canned beer and 92 per cent of Scottish off-licenses carried canned beer against national averages of 34 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively.

From the start the 16oz can had a dramatic effect on canned beer sales.  In 1954, 1.5 million cans of beer were sold in the UK.  This had increased to 8.42 million in 1955, 42 million in 1956 and by 1957 sales had increased to 70 million cans!

The next big innovation was the introduction of the “party” can.  In December 1960, Ansells Brewery launched the first party can, Ansells Caskette Draught Beer, a seven pint can made by Metal Box at Perry Wood, Worcester.  This was soon followed by a four pint can and, in 1972, a five pint can.

In actual fact, even though many of these cans had brand names like Big Four Draught Bitter, Fullers Bitter 5 and Watneys Party Seven, they were all 2 or 4oz less than their names implied.

In 1978, government legislation was passed that made it illegal to sell a can purporting to hold five pints when, in fact, it only held 4 pints, l8oz.

For some reason only the five pint can was singled out and the four and seven pint cans continued to be sold under measure!  The party can survived for some 25 years, but has now been replaced by 2 and 3 litre PET bottles.  Although some stocks still remain with one or two small breweries, production of these cans will soon cease.

It was in the ‘60s that beer cans began to come of age.  Relaxation of the licensing laws meant that more and more supermarkets started to sell alcohol and cans were the most suitable form of packaging for this type of outlet.

The can had many advantages over the bottle; it was lighter, took up less space, did not have to be returned and it did not break if you dropped it.

In 1967, a major problem for canned beer was finally overcome.  Although the aluminium pull tab “easy open end” had been used in the USA since 1962, it was not for another five years that Metal Box launched a version in this country with the introduction of the aluminium ringpull top.  In 1966, the year before the introduction of ringpulls, UK sales of canned beer was 242 million units.  In 1970, by which time all breweries were using the ringpull, sales had more than doubled, to 490 million cans.

In the early ‘70s, another innovation was the introduction to this country of aluminium or steel “drawn and wallironed” (two piece) cans.

Previously, all cans had been made of three pieces of metal, the body and two ends.  The body of the can would be produced from a flat sheet of tinplate on to which the graphics were in up to eight colours, 20 cans to a sheet.  The sheet was then cut and “rolled” to form the body of the can.

Two piece cans consist of just the lid and the can body.  The body is first stamped out into a cup shape from a long roll of metal and then these cups are “rammed” through a series of tungsten carbide rings or decreasing diameter in a wall-ironing machine.  The base is “domed” and the can top trimmed before the graphics are printed on to the formed cylindrical can.

This type of can is some 25 per cent cheaper to produce than a three piece can, but until recently, only four colours plus a white base coating could be applied, which greatly reduced the quality of the can’s graphics.  For Tennent Caledonian, this presented a massive problem.

Since 1959, Tennent had been issuing cans using colour photographs, first with famous Scottish and English landmarks and then with pinup girls, the Lager Lovelies.  These cans became renowned around the world with both British servicemen and beer can collectors, alike.  Many tests were made using four colour printing, but none were successful.

It was not until 1982 that Metal Box came up with an answer in a development called Reprotherm, where the image is transfered to the body of the can from a printed label. The results are as good, if not better than, the old three piece cans.

This year, Nacanco introduced six colour printing for two piece cans, but the first cans to be produced by this process have looked faded and washed out.  Hopefully these are just teething troubles that will be overcome soon.

One interesting development in the marketing of canned beer over the past few years and something that is peculiar to this country has been the onpack promotion or special offer can. Tennent was the first brewery to use the onpack promotion, in 1972, with a “win ready money” offer on its lager.  But it was not until 1977 that they reappeared, again on Tennent’s products, followed soon after by Harp and Guinness.  In 1981, Courage issued the first “10 per cent extra free” cans and in 1984, no less than 49 brands carried some form of onpack promotion.

More than 60 countries around the world now produce canned beer in every conceivable shape and size, from 135ml through to 5 litres.  Probably the most innovative and experimental are the Japanese with their barrel cans, drinking cups and aluminium bottles.  Last year, the four main breweries in Japan issue between them over 140 commemorative beer cans in the 350ml size alone.

In Britain today, cans account for 81 per cent of all packaged beer in the take-home market, 73.6 per cent of that being in l6oz cans. Some 1,900 million beer cans are sold every year.

As we celebrate 50 years of canned beer in Britain, commemorated by a special can from the pioneers, Felinfoel, what lies around the corner?

Metal Box and the Swedish can makers PLM have been researching the possibilities of a plastic can, which Coca Cola is now testing in Columbus, Georgia.  Will this be the future of the beer can?  I wonder what Sanders Watney would have made of it!

%d bloggers like this: