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From Church Key to Pop Top, a Look Back at Canned Beer

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To can or not to can? By all means, do can if you can.

Facebook/Steel Canvas Vintage Beer Cans

Until very recently, if one wanted to buy cheap beer, the solution was to visit a convenience store, reach for the bottom shelf, and buy Keystone Light or Milwaukee's Bestalways in a can.  Cheap equalled can.  But today, that dynamic has been totally turned on its head, with more than 500 craft breweries in over 40 U.S. states choosing to package their carefully created beers in a can. But how did beer end up canned in the first place? Why has canned beer been maligned for so long? And why are craft breweries now turning to cans, too?

Even though canned foods date back to 1813, the first successful attempt to put beer in a can wasn't accomplished until 1935 and was the offspring of a partnership between the American Can Company and the New Jersey-based Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company. Less than two years before that, the American Can Company managed to overcome two challenges which, until then, had precluded them from canning beerthe company successfully produced cans strong enough to hold the pressurized carbonated beverage and "keglined" the inside of the cans with a special coating that prevented any metallic taste from flavoring the beer. Krueger’s Finest Beer, Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Special Beer (all at 3.2 percent ABVthe highest legal level for beer at the time) became the first beers canned and about 4,000 were imbibed by the lucky few in Richmond, Virginia.

Though today beer cans are made from aluminum, those early cans were constructed out of heavy gauged steel coated with a thin layer of tin to prevent rusting. This tinning of steel cans became so ubiquitous that even today aluminum cans are still sometimes called "tin cans."

Facebook/Steel Canvas Vintage Beer Cans

The quality of the beer sealed in a can is identical to or even slightly better than the same beer in a bottle.

In 1958, Hawaii Brewing Company became the first brewery to store beer in aluminum cans. Fast forward to today, and now virtually all beer cans in this country are made out of an aluminum alloy, a metal brewers prefer thanks to its lighter weight and resistance to rusting.

In addition to its packaging material, the beer can's shape also changed over time. Though the first cans looked like cylinders with flat tops and bottoms, producers eventually introduced cans with cone tops. Cone topped cans became popular with small breweries because they were easier to fill and could be sealed with the same crown caps as glass bottles, and thus did not require a brewery to purchase new canning equipment.  By the late 1950s, however, cone top cans all but disappeared. Currently almost all beer cans are the classic cylinders with flat tops and bottoms.

While opening a can of beer these days is as simple as flipping a tab, original flat top beer cans required a device called a "church key" in order to access the brew inside. And printed on the can itself were instructions on how to open. Using the church key, an imbiber would puncture a triangular hole at the top of the beer from which he/she would drink, in addition to puncturing a smaller hole on the opposite side to let air into the can and facilitate the free flow of beer. Cone tops, on the other hand, could be opened with the same tool used for glass bottles.

Facebook/Steel Canvas Vintage Beer Cans

A major beer can breakthrough came in 1962 when Iron City, a brewing company in Pittsburg, used a self-opening can. The "zip top" can had a small flat tab riveted to the center of the can's top that one pulled back in order to puncture the can and then tear off the removable perforated piece.  Three years later, a pull ring replaced the flat tab (similar to how pet food cans open). While self-opening cans eliminated the need for a separate opening gadget, they introduced a new problemlittering. This environmental nuisance was fixed in 1975 when Reynolds Metals Company designed a stay-tab, which the company introduced to the public through Falls City Brewing Company in Kentucky. This stay-tab is currently used on virtually all beer and soda cans around the world.

Canned beer’s reputation as a poor quality and thus dirt cheap brew partly owes to the fact that until quite recently most canned beer fell to mass-produced lagers.

Canned beer’s reputation as a poor quality and thus dirt cheap brew partly owes to the fact that until quite recently most canned beer fell to mass-produced lagers. The cost of buying canning equipment and the high price of steeland then aluminumensured that only large breweries could afford the investment. Another reason for many to hold canned beer in low regard was the misconception that the can added a metallic taste to the drinkit didn't.

Nowadays, the stigma of canned beer is gone.  The metallic flavor myth has been thoroughly debunked and canning has become affordable even for small craft breweries. In 2002, Colorado brewery Oskar Blues boldly started canning their hoppy Dale's Pale Ale and the canned beer revolution was on, with craft breweries touting canned beer's more durable, more stackable, easier to stock, lighter weight, recyclable and opaque (sunlight is the mortal enemy of beer) attributes.

What's more, canned beer can be hermetically sealed, beer in cans cools faster than bottles and it is great for outdoor activities like camping, hiking, mountain climbing and fishing.  But the ultimate test for any beer drinker answers the question, "How does good beer in an aluminum can taste?" According to many a craft connoisseur, the quality of beer sealed in a can is identical to or even slightly better than the same beer in a bottle. In fact, many people, this beer writer included, can't tell the difference between craft beer in a can or craft beer from a bottle.