A Brief History of the Beer Can

istock.com/SlobodanMiljevic
istock.com/SlobodanMiljevic

National Beer Can Appreciation Day is your day to celebrate the blood, sweat, tears, and ingenuity that went into you being able to crack open a cold one.

Before Prohibition, the main vessels for consuming beer were bottles and glasses used to down draft suds. But Pabst and Anheuser-Busch knew there was a better way, so they attempted to engineer a functional beer can in the 1920s. Unfortunately, their plans fizzled in the wake of the 18th Amendment.

In the early 1930s, just before Prohibition was officially repealed, the American Can Company created a usable beer can prototype that New Jersey's Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company tested with just 2000 cans of their Krueger’s Special Beer. The 12-ounce cans offered the highest alcohol content possible at the time—3.2 percent—and received rave reviews from 91 percent of those dedicated drinkers who were invited to partake in the first batch, with the vast majority of them saying it tasted more like draft beer than its bottled counterpart (which was a good thing).

Given the production and shipping costs for heavy bottles, canned beer was financially smarter for breweries in the 1930s, too. Bottles were also returnable at the time, which not only added another shipping cost for breweries, but necessitated more man-power for inspection of whether or not a bottle was fit for reuse. Which is why the invention of the beer can was so revolutionary—and why it has an official holiday on the calendar (January 24).

Since its invention in 1933, the beer can has undergone several remodels and tweaks.

The Flat-Top Can

Beer cans started with a flat-top design, where you needed to puncture holes in two opposite sides of the top for the beer to pour out properly. Although it was just a standard cylinder, these cans were almost unwieldy. They were originally made from tin, then steel, which made them tall and heavy; switching to aluminum eventually made them more manageable. Pabst popularized the flat-top can in 1935 as the first large brewing company to distribute canned beer.

The Cone-Top Can

Also in 1935, the G. Heilemann Brewing Company and Schlitz switched to a cone-top (or spout-top) style of canning. After some dissatisfaction with the flat-top, the spout-top offered a more convenient way to swig suds; its opening resembled the opening of a bottle, but with the promised quality of a can. Cone-top cans were embraced by smaller brewing companies because their factories were better-suited to cone-top production. As breweries continued to upgrade, though, cone-tops cans went nearly entirely out of production by around 1960.

The Pull-Tab Can

It wasn’t until 1963 that the beer can underwent its most revolutionary—and lasting—change. The Pittsburgh Brewing Company began canning their beloved Iron City Beer with a then-brand-new pull-tab style can. The pull tab-style can (also known as a tab top or pop top) required no accessory other than your hand to be opened. Just pull the tap to rip open the spout and enjoy a crisp, cold beverage. Shortly thereafter, Schlitz switched over to the pull-tab, and by 1965 it was the can standard among breweries big and small.

The Stay-Tab Can

What the pull-tab can offered in convenience, it lacked in waste efficiency. The pulled tabs often ended up on the ground, causing litter and some significant environmental issues. Animals—both wild and the domesticated kind—regularly attempted to snack on the shiny (and sharp) metal tabs they'd find, and ended up choking on them. When dropped in places where people often went shoe-less, like the beach or a backyard, they were a hazard to bare feet. Then along came the stay-tab.

Introduced in 1975 by Kentucky's Falls City Brewing Company, the stay-tab can is the one we use today—the kind of can that you can pop open without fear of a stray tab wreaking havoc on your feet, or your dog. Which is yet one more thing to be grateful for on National Beer Can Appreciation Day.

The Mental Floss Store Is Back!

Mental Floss Store
Mental Floss Store

You've been asking about it for months, and today we can finally confirm that the Mental Floss Store is back up and running! Simply head here to find dozens of T-shirts with all sorts of unique designs to choose from, whether you’re in the market for a pi pun, a risqué grammar joke, or something only your fellow bookworms will appreciate. You can even use your new Mental Floss shirt to teach your friends all about scurvy.

Mental Floss Store

If you’re just in the mood to express your love of all things Mental Floss, you can also get our darling little logo on phone cases, tote bags, mugs, baby bibs, and more.

Mental Floss Store

Head on over to the Mental Floss Store to see our entire collection. And if you use the code FLOSSERS, you'll get 20 percent off your order. 

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

Remembering the Deadly London Beer Flood of 1814

London's Horseshoe Brewery
London's Horseshoe Brewery
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1814, one of history's most bizarre disasters befell London when a 15-foot wave of beer flooded an entire neighborhood and left eight people dead.

The Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road in London boasted a massive 22-foot-tall vat that held some 160,000 gallons of dark porter. On October 17, 1814, one of the metal hoops meant to secure it snapped, and the wooden vat succumbed to the immense pressure of all that fermenting brew. The gushing beer smashed open the brewery's other vats, resulting in a raging sea of beer that burst forth from the building.

Over 1 million liters of beer flooded out onto the road and raced through the St. Giles neighborhood. The area was crammed with crowded slums, and many inhabitants couldn't escape in time. According to The Independent: "Hannah Banfield, a little girl, was taking tea with her mother, Mary, at their house in New Street when the deluge hit. Both were swept away in the current, and perished."

Others who were gathered in a cellar for a wake were caught by surprise by the flood and drowned in beer. A wall of a nearby pub crumbled and crushed a 14-year-old girl who was standing next to it. In total, eight people perished in the accident.

Unsubstantiated rumors persist that rowdy locals brought pots and pans to the river of beer in an attempt to round up free drinks. In reality though, the citizens of St. Giles were lauded in the press for their help with the rescue efforts, keeping quiet in the aftermath in order to help listen for the screams of their trapped neighbors.

This story has been updated for 2020.