It all started for the can, as you might expect, in America.
Brewer Gottfried Kreuger, of Newark, New Jersey, made a major breakthrough in packaging two beers in metal cans on January 24, 1935. The American Can Company supplied the packs but had actually started working on trying to package beer in metal 26 years earlier.
The first European brewer to successfully package beer in cans was the Welsh brewer Felinfoel, less than a year after Kreuger’s pioneering work, using cans supplied by Metal Box.
The early cans had completely flat tops that had to be opened with a can opener, or a sardine can-style hook. United Kingdom partygoers were still having to hack cans open with old-fashioned openers, screwdrivers or chisels, the same with seven-pint party packs in the 1960s and 1970s. Although nostalgically linked with Watney’s and its Party Seven brand in many older drinkers minds, the seven-pint can, and a sister four-pint version, were first launched by Ansells in the 1970s.
Such mucking about had already become largely unnecessary with smaller cans with the emergence of the ring-pull. The first ring-pulls were invented by Ernie Fraze of the Dayton Reliable Tool Co and introduced by Schlitz in 1963.
Schlitz had been there at the start. Back in 1928, the company, along with Anheuser-Busch and Pabst, had experimented with canning “near beer,” the low and noalcoholic products produced by brewers during Prohibition. But when “light” beer was legalised under a modification to Prohibition in 1933, it was Kreuger who was first on the case with a 2,000- can test run. It was more than a year after Prohibition officially ended, in December 1933, until Kreuger’s first canned beers were launched commercially, in Richmond, Virgina.
Pabst and Schlitz quickly followed Kreuger with packaged beers later in 1935. Felinfoel just pipped Tennent’s to become the first European canned beer producer, using steel cans with cone-shaped tops, sealed with crown corks, which were seen until the late-1960s. Because it was more akin to a bottle shape it could be filled using the existing equipment for bottles.
Twenty-three British brewers were using these cans before the Second World War. The United States-style flat-topped beer cans didn’t appear in Britain until the 1950s.
Today’s standard-sized 16oz, or 440ml, can was first introduced in Britain in the mid-1950s by Tennent’s.
Multipacks are now the stock in trade of the supermarket industry as far as beer goes, but the first six-packs didn’t make an appearance in the US in 1938. Since then, beer drinkers have graduated to eight-packs, 12s, 16s, 30s and 24s. By 2004, 12 per cent of the beer drunk at home in the UK was bought in 24-packs, though the trusty four-pack still accounted for almost a third of sales.
But the first six-packs had a relatively short lived existence, as the arrival of the Second World War meant that raw materials were more usefully redeployed into making ships and aircraft, and the canning of beer for the civilian market ended, not to resume until 1947.
The next leap forward for the beer can came in 1958, when the first aluminium can was produced by the Primo brewery in Hawaii. It was 1967 before the ring-pull made it to the UK. The first two-piece aluminium can (a top made from a separate piece of metal to the cylinder) was developed in 1964.
British beer and cider makers got through 4.2 billion cans in 2005, an increase of 1.4 per cent on the previous year, according to industry body the Can Makers. Cans account for 69 per cent of beer drunk in the home in the UK. The UK recycling rate for drinks cans was just 41 per cent.
Across Europe, almost 21 billion cans were consumed. The American Can Manufacturers Institute’s figures show that beer can sales rose from 19.9 billion in 1970 to 32.9 billion by 2000.
The two-piece can remains pretty much the blueprint for beer cans to the current day, but can design has continued to evolve.
The stay-on ring-pull arrived in 1990 and the widget two years. This device, which stores a tiny amount of gas that is released into the beer when the can is opened, to form a creamy head, was arguably the biggest innovation in the packaged bitter and stout markets in the second half of the 20th century.
Less successful were attempts by Tennent’s and Guinness – with its Enigma brand – to package lager in widget cans. Both quickly discovered that drinkers like lager to come with a fizz rather than a dollop of cream.
Another innovation that failed to capture the hearts and minds of the beer-drinking public was a tear-strip opener running around the can a centimetre or so below the lid. This was produced by the Japanese brewer Sapporo in the late 1980s but withdrawn amid concerns that discarded cans might injure children and wildlife.
For beer purists, the mini-keg is the next generation Party Seven but with a tap to pour it and a more inviting liquid inside. Developed by Charles Wells for its Bombardier ale, it put cask ale in over-sized cans and has been adopted by a number of smaller British brewers
The Holy Grail of the canned beer world remains the self-chilling can. There have been numerous prototypes and false dawns but the cost of production remains a barrier to commercial production, although the Canadian brewer Labatts’s launched a can with an insulated shrink wrap label to keep beer cooler for longer in 2005.
Nothing yet appears to have come of development work at St Andrew’s university in 2002 which promised a future of LED screens on cans displaying recipes and football scores.
Beer cans have become prized among collectors of breweriana.
If you want to get your collection off to a flying start you can buy an empty 2003 Heineken Rugby Union World Cup can be bought on eBay for £2.49.
But it’s probably cheaper and more fun to start with a full can and take it from there.