The Beer Can
                                              by Alex Barrett


The history of the beer can is a deeply American one. Adopted nationally in the 1930s after
Prohibition, the beer can began as an icon of mass production: It allowed American beer to
quickly saturate the global market, and paved the way for other beverage industries that later
took up the vessel to do the same. But the growing popularity of the craft beer movement,
which first arose in the late 1970s, is changing the beer can’s significance. There has been a
slow drive amongst craft brewers, spearheaded by Oskar Blues in 2002 but gathering speed in
the last several years, to claim cans as their own.

Sometime in the first century B.C.E., glass-blowing made the production of bottles much more
efficient than the previous techniques of grinding and casting. However, glass bottles remained
a luxury throughout the Middle Ages, whose contributions to beer containment technology
included oak barrels and gravity casks. Mechanical refrigeration was invented in 1873 on
behalf of the Spaten Brewing Company, and in 1900 Michael Joseph Owens invented the first
automated glass bottle manufacturing machine, making home consumption more efficient.  

While the first patent for the tin can was awarded in 1810, engineering problems would delay
the realization of the beer can for more than a century. Beer can exert more than 80 pounds
per square inch of pressure, which led to ruptures, and lining had yet been optimized to
prevent the taste of metal from leaching into the fluid. The American Can Company managed
to solve the first two problems by 1923, three years after the Volstead Act put an end to selling
beer in any form, and it was their cans that were used for the first 2,000-can run of Krueger’s
Finest a decade later. (These were sold in Virginia, as Krueger didn’t want to damage his
brand in his home state if the experiment failed.) Eighty-five percent of surveyed consumers
said that canned beer was closer to draft in taste than bottled beer, and the ease of transport
endeared the format to brewers.

In 1935, Pabst became the first large brewery to can, producing the earliest iteration of what is
probably canned beer’s most famous image, as well as an early hipster fetish-object. These
original beer cans were heavy; they first were tin, later steel, then eventually incorporated
aluminum sides. They were flat-topped and could only be opened by jabbing a hole in them
with a church-key style tool.  

Production of beer cans halted during the Second World War, as metals were prioritized for the
war effort. After the war, the Aluminum Corporation of America, otherwise known as Alcoa,
helped drop the price of aluminum and broaden its market, which had been narrowed by
wartime strictures.

When the Hawaii Brewing Company introduced the first all-aluminum beer can in 1958, it made
the shift partly for weight savings. The aluminum slugs and tops transported from the mainland
weighed far less than the materials necessary for the former tinplate cans (two pounds versus
five, for every 24 cans). Structural issues, including inadequate lining, led to the cans being
pulled, which seems to have been a factor in the brewery’s bankruptcy. In 1962, Iron City Beer
of Pittsburgh (Alcoa’s hometown), introduced an easy-open can with an Alcoa opening tab.
The next year, Schlitz would roll out this model nationally, and in 1965, the finger-loop was
introduced. In 1969, canned beer sales first surpassed bottled.

Aluminum is the product of refined bauxite, an ore found in abundance near the equator. Raw
bauxite is subjected to the Bayer process, which produces alumina (otherwise known as
aluminum oxide), which is further filtered, then powderized. This powder is electrified to make
liquid aluminum. That aluminum is then cast into ingots. According to the A to Z of Materials,
these ingots are subject to a process of “homogenisation, rolling and annealing cycles” to
produce a 0.30mm thick sheet, which is used to make beer cans.

As nouveau can-enthusiasts and aluminum producers’ marketing materials will inform you,
aluminum can be recycled almost indefinitely, with very little loss of material. Glass is far less
durable (and also takes a million years to decay, as opposite to aluminum’s 80 to 100).
However, aluminum cans are not reusable.. In some areas of the U.S., bars will often return
bottles to the distributor to be washed and refilled, and in the Netherlands, aluminum beer
bottles are pasteurized and reused.

The biggest obstacle in changing the general opinion on canned beer was getting rid of the
thought that beer in a can is going to taste like metal. With modern aluminum cans, however,
the contents never actually touch the can, thanks to a polymer liner that coats the inner
surface.

The can-liners are made of a polymer hardened by the much-maligned compound bisphenol-A
(BPA for short). This stuff is everywhere—in soda cans, soup containers, water bottles;
basically anything made with hard plastic. It received a lot of negative press after it was shown
to induce cancer in mice in relatively low concentrations. At the time, baby bottles were made
with BPA, and studies showed that the constant heating and re-filling actually caused the
chemical to diffuse out of the walls and into the contents at alarming rates.

Don't drink your beer from a can, well BPA is still hard to avoid for beer-drinkers. Ever notice
how the bottle-caps on beer bottles have a plastic seal inside the crown? Well, guess what, it’s
BPA-hardened epoxy, the same material in can-liners. Don't worry howevver, reputable
retailers will only store their beer upright so really this BPA shouldn’t be an issue.
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