If you go look in your fridge right now, what are you going to find? If you’re a craft beer lover like me, you’re going to see lots of cans of beer. These days, it seems that almost every craft brewery is distributing in beautifully designed cans, and we have two companies to thank for that. No, Oskar Blues, who many credit as the first craft beer ever sold to the masses in cans, is not one of them. I’m talking about the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company and the American Can Company, who came together on this day, January 24, in 1935 to sell the world’s first canned beers.
In 1909, beer came in bottles or kegs. That might have been good enough for most people, but not the American Can Company. With their eyes on the future of beer, the New York-based tin can manufacturer began developing methods for canning the imparing liquid. Unfortunately, at the time, they lacked the technique and materials with which to pull it all off.
Early prototypes couldn’t handle the pressure—literally. They exploded when the pressurized suds were sealed inside. This trial and error approach went on for years, until the 18th Amendment—that’s Prohibition for you non-history buffs—pretty much put the kibosh on anyone’s beer-related research and development in 1919. The idea of canned beer stayed lifeless and flat for nearly two decades.
In 1932, President Roosevelt repealed the Volstead Act, making it legal for Americans to purchase beer again, providing they had a lower than 3.2% ABV. This gave the American Can Company a second chance to try their canned beer experiments. This time, they were ready.
They developed a technique called “keg lining,” which involved lining the inside of the cans with brewers’ pitch—a blend of pine and other resins used to provide a food-safe, water-tight coating for wood or metal containers. That coating did the trick, keeping the beer inside fresh, tasty, metal-free and out of danger from pressure explosions. Now, they just needed a brewery to let them try it out!
Enter the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company. In 1853, a teenaged Gottfried Krueger emigrated to Newark, New Jersey from his home in Germany. Newark was home to dozens of breweries at the time, including Adams & Laible, at which Gottfried’s uncle was the brewmaster. The young immigrant landed a job as his uncle’s apprentice, started honing his craft, and eventually became brewmaster himself. In 1865, Krueger bought the brewery in partnership with Gottlieb Hill. Within 10 years, business had increased six fold. Hill retired, leaving Krueger as the sole owner.
The company continued to grow steadily for the next several decades. Eventually, Krueger owned a string of breweries in the area… that is, until those wacky temperance movement ladies got the entire country to ban alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the way they fought for, and accomplished, their goals, but damn! No beer?! Why?! Anyway, all but one of Krueger’s breweries closed when the hammer came down. They survived by brewing soft drinks and something called “near beer,” which was less than 0.5% alcohol, but those were some pretty lean times for the Kruegers (and everyone else who made their living on the booze train).
As we mentioned before, FDR came to his senses in 1932, and taps across America, including Krueger’s, ran like rivers once more. Big, raging, drink-till-you-forget-you-couldn’t-drink-for-12-years type rivers. Remember American Can Company? Well they came calling, looking for a guinea pig for their great can experiment. At first, executives at Krueger were less than excited about the notion. Not only had nobody canned beer before, but the prospective cost of installing all that new canning equipment seemed very risky. When American Can offered to cover all the installation costs, removing any risk from Krueger’s end, the board members collectively un-clutched their pearls and went all in.
In September of 1933, the new partners sent out 2,000 cans (4 each to 500 families), along with mail-in questionnaires about the new beer containers. Amazingly, 91% of the reviews were positive, and everyone prepared to go into full production. Two-handed handshakes for all! The time for canned beer was upon us!
In January of 1935, Krueger and ACC hit the market with not one, but two varieties of canned brews: Krueger’s Finest Beer, and Krueger’s Cream Ale. To call the new packaging a hit is the understatement of the 20th century. Compared to glass bottles, the cans were cheaper to produce, lighter, and easier to stack, ship and store. They also kept beer fresher for longer periods of time. Better yet, consumers didn’t have to pay a deposit for the bottles, or return the cans for a refund. Sales shot up 550% by March, and over 80% of distributors were carrying Krueger’s cans. Krueger was even chewing into the market share of the “big three” breweries—Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Schlitz!
Once competitors saw the success Krueger was having, they soon followed. By the end of the year, 200 million cans had been sold by companies all over the United States. Cans became a staple of every brewery, and Americans gobbled them down by the caseload. Not too long after, World War II erupted, and if there’s one thing American soldiers needed on the battlefront, it was canned beer. The brewing industry was never the same.
Interestingly enough, craft beer heads were some of the last people to come around to the aluminum containers. Many connoisseurs (you can say it, “hipsters”) viewed cans as carriers of cheap-costing and cheap-tasting beer. Here’s where I will credit Oskar Blues, as their Dale’s Pale Ale made canned beer cool again, when they started using the packaging exclusively in 2002. Craft beer junkies got their noses out of the air, and into their delicious canned Imperial IPAs. Thank God!
Look… I know someone else would have eventually invented the canned beer, but they didn’t. So today, let’s remember these two pioneers, and toast them with a nice craft beer… in a can, of course!
Photo Credit: (C-Monster/Flickr)
Jan. 24, 1935: First Canned Beer Sold – Wired.com
An Illustrated History of the American Beer Can – Keglined.com
First Canned Beer Goes on Sale – This Day in History – History.com
Canned Beer Is the Future of Good Beer – io9.com
The Man Who Made Canned Craft Beer Cool – CNBC.com
Gottfried Krueger: Epitome of a German-American Brewer – BeerHistory.com