The rise of the beer can

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Aluminum revolutionized America’s beverage industry, but at what environmental cost?

The history of the beer can is a deeply American one. Adopted nationally in the 1930s after Prohibition, the beer can began as an icon of mass production: It allowed American beer to quickly saturate the global market, and paved the way for other beverage industries that later took up the vessel to do the same. But the growing popularity of the craft beer movement, which first arose in the late 1970s, is changing the beer can’s significance. There has been a slow drive amongst craft brewers, spearheaded by Oskar Blues in 2002 but gathering speed in the last several years, to claim cans as their own.

Beer is ancient, and humans have been storing it for millennia. “In antiquity,” according to The Oxford Companion to Beer, “beer was a flat beverage that was simply served in amphorae, crocks, buckets, leather sacks,” and often drunk shortly after its fermentation in anticipation of spoilage. Sometime in the first century B.C.E., glass-blowing made the production of bottles much more efficient than the previous techniques of grinding and casting. However, glass bottles remained a luxury throughout the Middle Ages, whose contributions to beer containment technology included oak barrels and gravity casks. Mechanical refrigeration was invented in 1873 on behalf of the Spaten Brewing Company, and in 1900 Michael Joseph Owens invented the first automated glass bottle manufacturing machine, making home consumption more efficient.  

While the first patent for the tin can was awarded in 1810, engineering problems would delay the realization of the beer can for more than a century. Beer can exert more than 80 pounds per square inch of pressure, which led to ruptures, and lining had yet been optimized to prevent the taste of metal from leaching into the fluid. The American Can Company managed to solve the first two problems by 1923, three years after the Volstead Act put an end to selling beer in any form, and it was their cans that were used for the first 2,000-can run of Krueger’s Finest a decade later. (These were sold in Virginia, as Krueger didn’t want to damage his brand in his home state if the experiment failed.) Eighty-five percent of surveyed consumers said that canned beer was closer to draft in taste than bottled beer, and the ease of transport endeared the format to brewers.

Because beer takes up a lot of space, its distribution has typically been limited to regions nearby its location of production. As Liesbeth Colen and Johan F. M. Swinnen wrote in an anthology article, “Beer Drinking Nations: The Determinants of Global Beer Consumption,” brewers expand “mostly through mergers and acquisitions and brewing licenses for in-country production of foreign beers rather than actual trade of beer.” This is fine for Budweiser, which can just open a new brewery geographically close to whichever market it wants to break into. But craft brewers are often deeply invested in their own regionality, if perhaps more for leveraging identity than quality control. (This is a quandary Lagunitas and Ballast Point will be facing imminently, after their respective high-profile purchasing by Heineken and Constellation, respectively.)

In 1969, canned beer sales first surpassed bottled.

In 1935, Pabst became the first large brewery to can, producing the earliest iteration of what is probably canned beer’s most famous image, as well as an early hipster fetish-object. These original beer cans were heavy; they first were tin, later steel, then eventually incorporated aluminum sides. They were flat-topped and could only be opened by jabbing a hole in them with a church-key style tool.  

Production of beer cans halted during the Second World War, as metals were prioritized for the war effort. After the war, the Aluminum Corporation of America, otherwise known as Alcoa, helped drop the price of aluminum and broaden its market, which had been narrowed by wartime strictures. This push included Marianne Strengell’s Forecast Rug—a promotional rug made almost entirely of aluminum—recently on display at the Museum of Arts and Design.

When the Hawaii Brewing Company introduced the first all-aluminum beer can in 1958, it made the shift partly for weight savings. The aluminum slugs and tops transported from the mainland weighed far less than the materials necessary for the former tinplate cans (two pounds versus five, for every 24 cans). Structural issues, including inadequate lining, led to the cans being pulled, which seems to have been a factor in the brewery’s bankruptcy. In 1962, Iron City Beer of Pittsburgh (Alcoa’s hometown),introduced an easy-open can with an Alcoa opening tab. The next year, Schlitz would roll out this model nationally, and in 1965, the finger-loop was introduced. In 1969, canned beer sales first surpassed bottled.

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Aluminum is the product of refined bauxite, an ore found in abundance near the equator. Raw bauxite is subjected to the Bayer process, which produces alumina (otherwise known as aluminum oxide),which is further filtered, then powderized. This powder is electrified to make liquid aluminum. That aluminum is then cast into ingots. According to the A to Z of Materials, these ingots are subject to a process of “homogenisation, rolling and annealing cycles” to produce a 0.30mm thick sheet, which is used to make beer cans.

Since bauxite is found so close to the surface of the earth, it is most often strip-mined. For every two tons of bauxite, there is one ton of extremely alkaline residue (often referred to as “red mud”) produced by the refining process, hostile to growth and life. According to the January 1972 Environmental Protection Research Catalog (published by the EPA),over 65,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma have been contaminated by pits of waste water from bauxite mining; these man-made lakes are highly sulfuric, severely limiting animal life and vegetation for around 50 years. Arkansas, whose state rock is bauxite, provided about 90 percent of the U.S.’s production of bauxite during the 20th century, until largely tapping out in the early ’80s.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. consumed 9 million tons of bauxite in 2015, “nearly all of which was imported” which means we’re passing on the environmental burden onto other countries. Jamaica, Suriname, and Australia (which Alcoa helped open to bauxite mining in the early ’60s) are three of the top exporters of bauxite and alumina. China currently produces about the half the global yield of alumina. Even so, China uses so much aluminum that it has to import a massive amount of bauxite and alumina as well. In 2015, Malaysian production of bauxite jumped from 21.2 million tons to 3.26 million, almost all of which was exported to China. (The reason for this sudden up-tick was the Indonesian government’s ban on the exportation of bauxite, to aid in the development of its domestic aluminum-smelting industry.) The environmental damages are still being assessed, but the disruption of the landscape and way of life for large swathes of Malaysia are immense.

China also currently produces more beer than anywhere else in the world—approximately 340 million barrels in 2012.

While undoubtedly much of this aluminum is used for China’s high-profile construction and industrial projects, China also currently produces more beer than anywhere else in the world—approximately 340 million barrels in 2012, according to the Oxford Companion, compared to almost no beer consumption whatsoever in 1980. To get a good idea of the Chinese beer market: Snow beer, currently unavailable outside of China, is the bestselling beer in the world.

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As nouveau can-enthusiasts and aluminum producers’ marketing materials will inform you, aluminum can be recycled almost indefinitely, with very little loss of material. Glass is far less durable (and also takes a million years to decay, as opposite to aluminum’s 80 to 100). However, aluminum cans are not reusable (although Rexam is working on that). In some areas of the U.S., bars will often return bottles to the distributor to be washed and refilled, and in the Netherlands, aluminum beer bottles are pasteurized and reused. A 2009 Slate article attempts to assess the environmental impact of drinking bottled versus canned beer and becomes quickly ensnarled in generalizations. Your footprint invariably reflects the local systems of production, transport, and recycling practices of the brewer, distributor, and vendor.

These practices are often deliberately opaque. Environmental concerns are not the largest driver behind the adoption of beer cans by craft brewers; flavor is. Glass, especially clear or green, does not block sunlight. UV rays create a photo-oxidation in hops, which creates 3-MBT, the flavor that imparts skunkiness. (This reaction can happen in as little as ten seconds, for those of you enjoy brunching al fresco.) Further, the can itself offers wider acreage for branding purposes. The resulting intricate designs can border on hipster brinksmanship, which is nicely mirrored by Budweiser’s recent rebranding of itself as America, or America as itself.

As Ian Wiggins of Union Distribution told me, it’s very difficult to get a new brewery off the ground unless the design work, beer names, and general branding are emphasized as much the brewing itself. Despite the mass media narrative of craft beer as something independently wealthy hipsters do when they’re not waxing their beards, the intensely crowded market and extremely high mark-up cost, even for self-distributing breweries, creates serious hurdles for entry-level brewers. Wiggins says nascent brewers will often invest in a bottling line over a canning line, since many restaurants won’t carry cans.

Today, the beverage can accounts for the single largest use of aluminum in the world.

Finback Brewery, which opened five years ago without either, focused on kegging and hand-bottling. This is possible when 95 percent of your market is in New York City, which, as CEO Basil Lee says, is a “draft drinking culture.” However, Lee says, “the main reason we haven’t brewed in the last year is having a full tank.” The last stage of brewing is the bright tank, where the beer is carbonated, which remains occupied until the beer is kegged, bottled, or canned. If you’re dependent on kegging, then you have no control whether bars go through those kegs in a day, or a week, or even two. Finback’s solution is a portable canning line, owned and set up by Iron Heart, which can empty a bright tank in under a day. (Other reports from craft brewers have not been as optimistic about canning, citing competition for cans, shortages, and prohibitive prices.) As Lee points out, if you’re drinking in a bar, your only real exposure to a beer’s brand, outside of the liquid itself, is a little write-up on a bar menu, a twenty second conversation with a bartender (if you’re lucky),and maybe a glimpse of a tap handle. Cans are physical manifestations of a brand, at a time when the act of branding is, conversely, becoming less and less attached to objects themselves.

Today, the beverage can accounts for the single largest use of aluminum in the world. Even Europe, where the consumption of real ale comprises a political statement and the purity of German beer subject to state law, the beer can is finally experiencing a (gradual) growth. As always, Capital contorts to assume whatever position is most advantageous. The European Union recently approved Ball’s attempt to acquire Rexam, which would decrease the number of major can producers in Europe from four to three. Meanwhile, Alcoa split itself in two in the beginning of the year, attempting to perform better in the face of the slowdown in the Chinese economy. (Splitting up Alcoa is something even FDR famously failed to do.)

Others, as ever, seek to be disruptors. Carlsberg, a Danish mega-brewer, claims it is developing a “Green Fiber Bottle,” both biodegradable and lighter than glass. In 2013, BBC Marketplace suggested that recycling methods are improving so vastly that soon we will no longer have to mine bauxite anymore—we’ll just keeping recycling the same aluminum.

Until one of these fantasies of speculative futurism come to pass, every time you crack a cold one, no matter how limited its run, you’re still going to be drinking out of a vessel lined with BPA and comprised of strip-mined metal.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.

The rise of the beer can