Let’s hoist a cold one in honor of the aluminum beverage can, invented 50 years ago by Ruben Hartmeister in Golden, Colo. The Materials Information Society recently commemorated this golden anniversary by conferring historical landmark status on the former Adolph Coors Co. facility. “Over the following 25 years,” noted George Krauss, a past president of the society, “aluminum would eventually replace steel as the material of choice … and cans would replace bottles as our favorite containers.”
Happily for Planet Earth, aluminum cans would also prove more practical and economical for recycling. Today, 25 percent of America’s aluminum supply comes from recycled materials, and two-thirds of used beverage cans are recycled.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of a better way to open those cans. Ermal Fraze, who owned the Reliable Tool and Manufacturing Co. in Dayton, Ohio, was inspired by a fishing trip on which he forgot to pack a church key for opening drink cans. His “Zip Top” can idea wouldn’t be put into practical effect until March 1963, when the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. introduced its flagship Iron City Beer in “self-opening cans.” The Schlitz brewery took the notion national later that year. Not coincidentally, Schlitz’s “Pop Top” worked much better with the equally newfangled aluminum cans, which were lighter and less rigid. By 1965, three-quarters of all beverage cans sported a pull-tab—which proved as disastrous for the environment as aluminum cans were beneficial. Pull-tabs choked beer drinkers and small animals until 1975, when the Falls City Brewing Co. of Louisville, Ky., introduced the “Sta-Tab.”
Our ancestors, of course, didn’t enjoy such convenient options for quenching their thirst. The earliest beer brands—such as Beck’s, introduced in 1553, and Molson, in 1786—were sold in kegs. Although English scientist Joseph Priestly invented carbonated water in 1767, he had no way to store this primitive pop for individual consumption. By the late 19th century, soda fountains had popped up to meet the needs of thirsty patrons, fizzing up sweet concoctions on the fly. Still-familiar beverage brands began to appear: Budweiser in 1876, Dr Pepper in 1885, Coca-Cola in 1886, Pepsi-Cola in 1898.
But how did our ancestors bring these beverages home without watching them go flat? Wire-attached caps, introduced in 1875, were an early solution. In 1892, William Painter invented the Crown Cork Bottle Seal—a crimped, cork-lined metal cap that could keep the carbon dioxide trapped inside a bottle. Just three years later, Michael J. Owens of Toledo, Ohio, solved the related problem of producing enough bottles to meet drinkers’ demand. His automated glass-blowing machine boosted production from 1,000 to nearly 60,000 bottles a day.
But bottles broke. Englishman Peter Durand had patented the “tin can” back in 1810. Early attempts by the American Can Co. in 1909 to borrow the technology for beverages had failed. Unlike pork and beans, carbonated beverages created a lot of pressure in the can—about 90 pounds per square inch.
As Prohibition neared an end, American Can tried again. After two years of experiments, it developed a can not only strong enough to withstand carbonation, but also with a coating to keep the beer from reacting with the metal. None of the major breweries wanted to take the risk, but the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, NJ, had little to lose: Its titular founder had died in 1926, and Prohibition had nearly sunk the family business.
In 1933, the company produced a 2,000-can test run of Krueger’s Special Beer—the world’s first beer in a can. The beer was given away to 2,000 loyal Krueger customers, who responded with a thumbs up. (Although a surviving can surfaced in 1985, the current whereabouts of that prized collectible are unknown.)
The brewery first sold canned Krueger’s Finest Beer and Krueger’s Cream Ale Jan. 24, 1935, in Richmond, Va.—a test market far enough from Krueger’s headquarters in Newark to minimize potential humiliation. By June 1935, Pabst was hawking its own steel cans nationwide, and by year’s end, 37 American breweries were selling canned beer.
Those first beer cans used a “flat-top” design. The heavy steel containers—nearly 4 ounces without the beverage—required an equally sturdy church key opener. Before World War II, beer cans were still so new that many came with instructions.
The cone-top beer can, which G. Heilemann Brewing of La Crosse, Wis., introduced regionally in September 1935 and Schlitz took national, had a funnel-top design similar to brake-fluid cans; they were sealed like bottles, with a crimped metal “crown.” Cone-top cans appealed to smaller breweries because they could be filled on the same line used for bottles. But they couldn’t be stacked and had less appeal for retailers. By the 1960s, the Kessler Brewery in Montana was the lone cone-top holdout.
Returning GIs who’d gotten used to beer in cans during World War II boosted demand. But the steel cans, marketed as throwaway containers, proved as bad for the beer as they were for the environment—at least that’s what beer magnate Bill Coors believed.
“The tin-plated can was probably the worst container that anybody ever developed for beer,” he told the Rocky Mountain News. Besides the metallic aftertaste, Coors resented pasteurization, which he thought also affected the taste: “You needed a container that was clean on the inside that could be easily rinsed out and sterilized. It was impossible with the old can.”
So he hired Ruben Hartmeister and, in 1957, began research on an aluminum beer can. Coors and Hartmeister went on a fact-finding tour to Europe and came home with suitcases full of tools and machine parts. In Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty (William Morrow), author Dan Baum writes, “After several months of tinkering, Hartmeister came to Bill’s office with a crude aluminum can. Bill carried it around the brewery like the grail of Christ.”
Initially the company could make only 7-ounce aluminum cans, which Coors rationalized as “perfect for the ladies.” Coors introduced the cans in eight-packs in Colorado, promising to pay a penny for every recycled can.
In 1963, Reynolds Metal introduced the modern “drawing and ironing” process for making aluminum beverage cans. Coors and Hamms quickly adopted the new can for beer. In 1964, Royal Crown Cola was first to sell soda in aluminum cans; Coke and Pepsi switched in 1967. Today, the United States produces 100 billion aluminum beverage cans a year—nearly one per American each day.
Quench your thirst for knowledge with these resources:
Beer Can Museum
387 Pleasant St., Northampton, MA, 01060, (413) 585-0990
747 Merus Court, Fenton, MO 63026
Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer by Amy Mittelman (Algora)
13th and Ford streets, Golden, CO 80401, (866) 812-2337
For God, Country and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergrast (BasicBooks)
A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage (Walker)
Petretti’s Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide, 12th edition, by Allan Petretti (Krause Publications)
121 Baker St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30313, (800) 676-2653
1782 Aluminum identified as an element
1850s In France, aluminum is more fashionable than gold for jewelry and utensils
1886 Charles Mann Hall perfects smelting of aluminum
1935 Beer is first sold in cans
1936 Shasta sells soda in cans
1959 Coors develops the aluminum beverage can
1963 “Drawing and ironing” process improves aluminum cans
1965 Vending machines start selling soda cans
1966 Coors introduces process for making new cans from recycled ones
2007 Aluminum beverage can inventor Ruben Hartmeister dies at age 96
From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine