Part I: From Bottle to Can

By: Vince Pecoraro


The first of a three-part series about canning: its origins and emergence into the world of craft brewing.

Up until the 20th century, beer was almost exclusively stored in barrels and bottles. If you wanted to pick up something to drink at home, you’d have to walk down to your local brewpub and fill your bottle or pail with whatever your brewer had available.

This was how things were before widespread canning and bottling, before pasteurization and refrigeration took off, back when brewers only used casks to store their beer and you could expect it to spoil in just a couple of weeks.

While glass bottles have existed for millennia, bottling lines started to crop up around the turn of the century after the advent of industrial glass production. Before mass production, breweries would only lend their bottles out on deposit, which is why some antique beer bottles bear the message “THIS BOTTLE IS NEVER SOLD” or something similar etched on the side. Common practice until the 1970s, deposits are now only taken for bottles in ten states and Guam.

Canning first came into play in 1935, when the Krueger Brewing Company out of Richmond, Virginia started canning its Finest Beer and Cream Ale. At first, Krueger was skeptical of whether the brew would taste as good from a metallic container and only ordered 2,000 cans to be distributed among its drinkers. They took a poll of what their fans thought and found that 91 percent of drinkers approved of the new packaging.

Later that year, the Pabst Brewing Company became the first major brewery to start canning. This expanded the shelf life of beer and started the age of massive brewing operations and widespread distribution. Local brewpubs couldn’t compete with the competition and over the next several decades larger, national brands started to dominate the market. Cans became the norm and bottles were slowly phased out.

And why not? Environmentally, cans have a much better record than glass. In 2012, the EPA reported that 55 percent of aluminum cans were recycled while only 28 percent for glass. Glass is much easier to produce than aluminum, however, as it is made from the widely abundant silica, while the primary source of aluminum is bauxite, an ore that is found on the earth’s surface and strip-mined.

But all recycled glass is crushed, melted down, and reformed into bottles; while this is a more energy and resource efficient process than making glass from new silica it is not more efficient than simply re-using glass bottles. Recycled aluminum must be melted down, as it would not be possible to remove the crimped lid without damaging the can.

Cans do have some advantages over bottles: they use less material, are easier to stack and transport, and are quicker to produce than bottled beer. Plus, aluminum gets colder faster than glass, you don’t need an opener to get into them, and they’re allowed at festivals, beaches, and other spots that ban glass bottles for safety reasons.

Most canned beer today is synonymous with multi-million dollar breweries that pump out a high volume of beer, names like Coors, Busch, and Budweiser, brands I like to call “Dad Beer.” Nostalgic as drinking one may be, most lack any remote sense of taste. Luckily for craft fans, many smaller breweries have recently jumped on board.

Coming up next … Part II: The Advent of the Craft Revolution