Canned Beer Week: More from Bob Skilnik

Canned Beer WeekMore from Bob Skilnik:

One more thing to help give you more perspective on the origins of canned beer from my latest book, Beer & Food: An American History;

Packaged Beer

On January 24, 1935, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company in Newark, New Jersey introduced the so-called "Keglined" can. This non-returnable container, manufactured by the American Can Company, offered a number of advantages over breakable deposit bottles. Retailers and tavern owners liked them since a twenty-four-can case weighed about half as much as a case of bottled beer, took up less shelf space, were easily stackable and offered some control over employee pilferage over draft products. Beer drinkers took notice of the fact that canned beer took up less room in household refrigerators, mechanical dwarves at the time in comparison with today’s giants. For those brewers who could afford canning machines, the lighter canned beers gave them a lower-cost alternative in shipping their beers into distant markets. American Can’s efforts were soon duplicated by the National Can Company and the Continental Can Company. Although the use of these dinosaurs of beer packaging was phased out by 1970, their lasting legacy is the pointed can opener, nicknamed a "church key," that’s still employed in today’s kitchens to open some canned fruit and vegetable juices.

The cost of a canning line, however, was more than many of the smaller breweries could afford. A conical-shaped can offered an alternative for those breweries with bottling lines; the coned cans could also be run through the same lines. Regional brewery G. Heileman of La Crosse, Wisconsin was the first brewery to use conicals, with Schlitz following soon after. In addition to the newly introduced flat and coned cans, stubby-shaped, non-returnable bottles called "steinies" were introduced, lighter in weight than standard beer bottles, but still no match for cans’ retail advantages. By the beginning of World War II, packaged beer had surpassed sales of draft beer, 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent. For those breweries that had settled on the distribution of draft beer after Repeal, the continued shift to drinking at home and the introduction of these new containers now made the purchase of a bottling or canning line imperative for breweries.

Beer and War

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and our treaty obligations to our allies in Europe, the war brought a two-sided front, and with it, the need again for conservation of food stuffs and raw materials at home. Nervous brewers nationwide kept a wary eye on Washington, willing to accept grain restrictions and any other reasonable sacrifices that might be asked of the industry, but ready to challenge any potential attempts by prohibitionists to once again implement a moratorium on brewing operations. The painful lessons of grain rationing during WW I and its backdoor use by drys to institute National Prohibition had not been forgotten by the brewing industry.

On March 31, 1942, the use of tin for the civilian production of beer cans was prohibited. A few months later, tin plate for crown caps was reduced to 70 percent of 1941 allotments.

Because of the shortage of bottle caps, the industry actively promoted the civilian use of the metal-conserving quart and cumbersome, half-gallon "picnic" bottles. These 64-ounce goliaths utilized a single crown cap versus five crowns for five 12-ounce bottles.

When America went to war in 1941, G.I.s found conditions much different than their Doughboy counterparts did in WW I. Beer was no longer banned on military posts as it had been in the "Great War"; it was actually encouraged. Mindful of the problems that had arisen from National Prohibition, the Feds decided in 1943 that beer was now a morale booster and decreed that all U.S. breweries must allocate 15 percent of their production for the enjoyment of the Armed Services personnel, mostly in the form of canned beer. While the packaging of beer in metal cans on the home front was prohibited, servicemen continued to enjoy canned beer while serving overseas. Many of the cans were colored in camouflage green, including the tops and bottoms. This was done to lessen the possibility that moonlight reflecting off the bottom of a can during the evening might give an alert sniper the chance to make that final swig of canned beer a G.I.’s last one.