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Can I Get a Witness?

Canned beer has come a long way

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Craft beer has made many transformations in the past 10 years, but one of the biggest—other than putting mass-producers on edge—is the rise of the can over the bottle. According to the Brewers Association, nearly 30 percent of all packaged craft beer is canned. It’s a large proportion, exponentially larger than it was just 16 years ago, when Oskar Blues Brewery (Dale’s Pale Ale, anyone?) became one of the first craft breweries to put their product in cans.

The origin of the beer can goes back much further than that. The can concept was conceived in 1909, though the first can of beer wasn’t sold until 1935.

In early 20th-century Washington, German immigrant and Olympia Brewing Company head honcho Leopold Schmidt was looking for a more convenient way for his customers to be able to take beer home from the brewery. After much thought, he looked to the canning industry. He approached the San Francisco-based American Canning Company, but after conducting research, he determined that the 80psi pressures involved in the pasteurization of beer were too great for the technology of the time. (The cans of the day maxed out at 24 to 35psi.)

Just a few years after Schmidt’s unsuccessful attempt, Prohibition became the law of the land. The entire beer industry shut down overnight. The search for a way to can beer was shelved until 1925, when American Can finally developed a pressurized tin can with an internal coating that prevented the metal from contaminating the beer inside.

By 1933, American Can had entered into a test deal with Newark, New Jersey-based beer manufacturer Krueger Brewing Company. In the test, 2,000 cans of Krueger’s Special Beer were sent to 500 families, who were then asked to complete a questionnaire about the new packaging. The result that came back to American Can and Krueger was an astounding 91-percent approval rating.

Krueger refined the canning process for another year-and-a-half before releasing the first cans of beer for public consumption in 1935. Within just a matter of months, the large breweries of the day—Pabst, Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch—adopted the use of beer cans and the beer industry never looked back.

Canned beer became a mainstay of mass-produced beer. The vessels themselves evolved from flat-topped tin cans, requiring a church key to open, to cone-tops with screw-off metal lids, to pop-tops. There have been aluminum cans with wide-mouth tops and a smattering of other gimmicky openings as well.

For many craft brewers, the main vexation associated with canning beer is taste. Canned beer has long carried the stigma of having a tinny taste. Today, however, modern coating technology eliminates all metallic residues. Beer from a can is just as tasty as beer from a bottle.

Indeed, many craft brewers are espousing the can’s superior ability to protect its contents from the ravages of light and oxygen—two of beer’s chief flavor-destroying foes.

So the next time you grab a six-pack, don’t hesitate to reach for the cans. You’ll be helping the planet, since aluminum is far more recyclable than glass, and you’ll ensure you’re getting a tasty brew.

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