January 24 is National Beer Can Appreciation Day
Looking for something to celebrate? How about singing the praises of National Beer Can Appreciation Day? Today is not just another generic “national day.” Jan. 24 is the very day that canned beer first hit the American market in 1935.
Prior to Prohibition, neighborhood saloons dealt with a different kind of “canned” beer. Many people routinely picked up a growler of beer in a metal pail to take home. For some families, “rushing the growler” was a daily task. But this beer was destined for immediate consumption. Truly canning beer was a different beast – a significant technical challenge that took decades to solve. Other foodstuffs had been successfully canned since the 1800s, but beer’s need for pressurized containers and the beverage’s chemical interaction with prolonged exposure to metal proved difficult to overcome. No one likes metallic-tasting suds.
By 1933, the American Can Company believed it had solved the technical issues and created a can that worked. (The new product, in development before Prohibition officially ended, symbolized how many companies as well as private citizens believed the 18th amendment and its grand social experiment were not long for America’s legal landscape.) The company reached a deal with the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company of Newark, N.J. to install an experimental production line in 1933. Test cans delivered to households in Richmond, Va. proved to be a resounding success: consumers actually liked the taste of beer in cans. In 1935, Krueger debuted the first commercially available canned beer.
It was an idea whose time had come. Cans were inexpensive, lighter to ship, easier to stack, took less time to get cold, and could be purchased by consumers without a deposit. By the summer of 1935, all three of the nation’s biggest can manufacturers were negotiating production contracts with large national breweries. By early July, The Pittsburgh Press reported that the Continental Can Company was “busy building machines for the manufacture of tin cans for beer.” Although the percentage of canned beer to bottles was still small, the popularity of the new delivery method took off so quickly that demand outstripped supply.
In Western Pennsylvania, the first full impact of the new beer delivery method was felt in area factories. By early August, The Pittsburgh Press noted that this “new use for tin plate—beer cans—has had a highly favorable effect on the tin plate makers, even surprising their executives.” From Canonsburg to Farrell, companies reported increased orders by October. Additional shifts were added to accommodate the demand. Rumors from U.S. Steel’s American Sheet & Tin Plate Company in Farrell suggested that an order for 7,000,000 beer cans in late October would put people to work in 30 mills throughout the company’s Steel Valley network, including Bessemer steel supplied by the Carnegie-Illinois plant in Mingo Junction, Ohio. While corporate officials refused to confirm such a huge order, they admitted a “steady improvement” in the business.
Not everyone was pleased with the new technology. In July 1935, members of the American Federation of Labor and the Brewery Worker’s Local Union in Pittsburgh decried the trend, fearing that it would displace workers in the bottling departments of breweries both regionally and nationwide, as well as disrupt the work of glass beer bottles made under Union contract. (The tin cans were not subject to Union conditions.) By October, The Daily Notes in Canonsburg reported that some bottlers, attempting to meet the challenge of the cans, were testing the production of thinner, non-returnable glass bottles. The newspaper itself was philosophical about the matter. It noted on Oct. 1, 1935, “Pretty soon, we suppose, they’ll be turning out beer cans at the local Continental Can plant. That means more business and more work for Canonsburg and as we have no glass bottle factories affected by such a change we cast our vote for the new article and declare ourselves in favor of more and bigger cans.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t the Unions or the bottle-makers who would decide. The Daily Notes admitted that “the American beer drinker . . . will have to make the decision.” But, the paper observed, “Somebody will lose a lot of money, whichever way he decides.” (Of course, women drinkers helped shaped that decision too.)
Today we know how the battle turned out. Canned beer became a staple of the American beverage industry. Pittsburgh even claimed its own share of beer can fame in 1962-1963, when Iron City Brewing made history with the debut of the self-opening can. A fitting ’Burgh innovation if ever there was one. A fun early television ad from Alcoa the following year illustrates what people liked about easy-open cans. (Watch the video.)
So, whether you opt for a can of IC Light or your favorite craft brew, take a moment to consider the container in your hand. Think back to that day when someone first quaffed a frothy brew from cold metal and realize that the local debate it triggered wasn’t just about the taste of that beer.
American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition brings the story of Prohibition vividly to life, from the dawn of the temperance movement, through the Roaring ’20s, to the unprecedented repeal of a constitutional amendment.
Leslie Przybylek is senior curator at the Heinz History Center.