Today’s aluminum beverage can represents the apex of long development in the canning process. Though we take the technology for granted, it began as a quest to prevent malnutrition — and even starvation. The science took time to perfect and, in its earliest stages, would barely be recognized as what we would consider canning.
The Invention of Canning
During the earliest of the conflicts that would later be known as the Napoleonic Wars, the French military saw as many casualties from poor nutrition and outright starvation as they did from combat. Supply lines stretched across vast distances and were vulnerable to enemy attack and disruption virtually along their entire length.
Napoleon decreed a 12,000-franc reward would be granted to anyone who developed a safe, effective, and affordable way to preserve large quantities of food. It might seem like a no-brainer now, but the technology didn’t exist at the time, and it took over a decade for a solution to be invented.
The earliest examples of what we would consider canning likely looked more like very slow bottle lines. The first canning process used glass jars, but these had the same problems then that they do now — they were heavy and fragile, and the tops were prone to becoming unfastened, allowing the contents of the jars to spoil.
The quest for improved canning continued, this time by the English military. They sought a solution to the issues that made transporting preserved goods in glass jars difficult and unreliable. The answer this time was the tin can. The process was slow and expensive — each can had to be painstakingly made and sealed by hand by skilled craftsmen.
Even the most adept could only produce around 60 of the large, cylindrical cans each day, making the process so expensive that it became a status symbol among the wealthy. It would take nearly another 50 years to make the method cheap enough to allow for mass production.
Faster, Better Canning: Advances in Beverage Technology
In the middle of the 19th century, a die was invented that allowed cans to be stamped out in one piece and then formed by hand, a change in the canning process that meant workers could produce 10 times as many cans in an average 10- to 12-hour workday. A few years later, another industrious inventor would devise a way to automate the procedure.
The technology was used mainly to preserve food until nearly 80 years later. In the 1930s, beverages started being made available in cans, with canned beer being commonplace by 1935, followed shortly by carbonated beverages. The canned aluminum beverage was still yet to be. These were still cans made of tin, which often reacted with the stored beverages, especially when they were alcoholic drinks.
Perhaps the most significant advance of these times was the can liner, a film of wax or other inert material intended to offset the metallic taste that beverages could develop over time as metals in the can leached out.
Aluminum: Lighter Cans, Tastier Beverages
These early beverage cans were funny-looking affairs — a cylinder with a sort of peaked “hat” or cone of metal that would allow the beverage to be poured out easily, sort of like a built-in funnel. Cans were also produced this way because existing bottle lines could be used to fill them, thanks to the bottle-like shape. These cone-topped cans were standard until the churchkey was invented.
It was new technology that allowed a flat-topped can to be easily opened by a can opener-like device that peeled the top back. It wasn’t the end of the line — the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company introduced a “soft-top” can crowned with aluminum rather than made entirely of tin. Aluminum wasn’t only softer, allowing for more effortless opening, but it significantly decreased the weight of the can as well.
Easy-Open Beverage Cans
Fully aluminum cans would be introduced toward the end of the 1950s, followed closely by the pull tab. The tab was built into the can, requiring no separate tool to open, but it introduced new problems. People would either discard the used pull tabs on the ground — which drastically increased incidences of littering — or would peel the tab off and drop it into the can, where it could easily become a choking hazard.
The problem would exist for 40 years until the push tab design was perfected for soft drinks. It soon became available in canned beer, and another “beer only” advance occurred a few years later, in 1992, with the development of widget technology.
The Guinness brewing company invented the plastic ball-shaped widgets for beer that would pour — and taste — like draft beer. They were soon adopted by other beer makers, as well as makers of hard cider and other alcoholic drinks.
From Churchkeys to Passwords: The Future of Beverage Canning Technology
Canning technology continues to improve. Recent innovations include the use of alloy metals and special materials to keep beverages cold longer and virtual and augmented reality apps that allow promotional material or other content to be accessed via scanning a code on the can with a smartphone.
Whatever advances the future brings, canning beverages in lightweight, recyclable aluminum cans is a tried-and-true solution perfect for beer, hard cider, hard seltzer, and other alcoholic drinks, as well as coffee, fruit, or other non-carbonated and non-alcoholic beverages.