The Comeback of the Aluminum Can, Part 1


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Summer’s here and the time is right for cracking open an ice-cold can of one’s favorite brew. For those who imbibe, nothing goes better with a day at the beach, on the links, or behind the mower than a cold beer. And for the past 60 summers, millions of beer lovers have been quaffing the golden elixir from 12-oz aluminum pop-top cans.

As we commemorate the aluminum beverage can’s 1958 debut, several factors are shaking up the current can market. On the up side, a growing embrace of cans by the nation’s surging craft brewing industry is driving sales of high-end microbrews and recycling the beer can’s low-brow public image. On the uncertain side, new U.S. tariffs on imported aluminum sheet are causing the brewing industry to predict widespread job losses, brewery failures, and higher prices. We can’t foretell the future, but we can take a look back at engineering’s role in the evolution of America’s iconic beer cans.

Cans at a Glance

Those born after a certain date might not recognize this aluminum can pull tab. Image: Wikimedia Commons
 

Beer has been packaged in metal cans since the end of Prohibition. The first company to make the switch was Richmond, VA-based Gottfried Krueger Brewery, which in 1935 started selling two of its varieties in heavy-gauge steel cans weighing nearly 4 oz. Later that year, Pabst would take the can national, and the other major brewers swiftly followed suit. To open these early cans required the drinker to keep handy a church key, a once-familiar gadget with a pointed metal tip used to punch drinking and ventilation holes in the can top. To work around that inconvenience, later brewers developed cone-topped cans that were capped and could be opened like traditional bottles. However, the conical shape of the container made it more difficult than a flat top can for shipping and stacking and cone tops fizzled out by the end of the 1950s.

For You: New Twist on an Old Tool

A quantum shift in beer can production occurred in 1963 with the introduction of the self-opening pull tab can by Pittsburgh Brewing, maker of Iron City beer. The pull-tab caught on quickly and dominated the industry for at least 10 years. The only drawback: what to do with the sharp-edged metal ring-tab assembly once the can was opened? Many people simply tossed them aside, leading to concerns over litter and the risk of injury. The industry responded with safer, litter-free opening technologies such as Coors’ push-button can and today’s standard stay-tab design. 

All In for Aluminum

Aluminum’s introduction to the canned beer market in 1958 was less than smooth. To commemorate Hawaii’s impending statehood in 1959, Honolulu-based Hawaii Brewing Company decided to introduce a canned version of its Primo beer. The company grew interested in aluminum because the raw material was much lighter than steel and therefore cheaper to ship in from the mainland. The company invested in the earliest aluminum filling and packing equipment and successfully produced some 23,000 cases of 11-oz cans of Primo. However, according to Rustycans.com, a website for collectors, the company used a can-lining process that failed to block interaction between the beer and surrounding metal, effectively spoiling the contents. Reportedly unable even to give the skunked swill away, the company issued a recall and lurched toward its eventually bankruptcy. But this was merely a hiccup in aluminum’s inevitable rise to dominance after Coors brought all-aluminum packaging into the mainstream in 1959. 

Aluminum cans help protect the beer’s quality and increase its shelf life because they were better than bottles at blocking out light and oxygen. Cans are also much cheaper to produce, store, and ship – and are getting better all the time. For example, can-maker Ball Corporation (Broomfield, CO) says its cans now contain 40% less metal than they did in 1970, and about 70% of that is recycled material. Consumers like cans because they chill quickly, are easier to haul around, and are more convenient to recycle than glass bottles. And more recently, small regional craft brewers have readily embraced cans as a cost-effective means of expanding their market reach. In the process, they are helping to recycle canned beer’s low-brow public image as the drink of choice for Homer Simpson types who prize quantity over quality. Today’s world-wide tipplers go through about 200 million aluminum cans a year. That’s a lot of dead soldiers. Brewers, however, promote aluminum as a more sustainable packaging choice than glass. According the Aluminum Association, used aluminum cans are nearly twice as likely to be recycled than glass or plastic containers.

Read Part 2 of “The Comeback of the Aluminum Can” to learn more about the production process and new technologies surrounding aluminum cans.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

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Today’s world-wide tipplers go through about 200 million aluminum cans a year.

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August 2018

by Michael MacRae, ASME.org