Before Prohibition, Americans toted beer home from local watering holes in small, galvanized pails called growlers. But in January 1935, 13 months after the teetotaling experiment was repealed, beer drinkers in Richmond, Va., ushered in a new era of portable potables when they snapped up the first canned beer sold in the U.S. The American Can Company, after years of trial and error, had perfected a can that could hold highly pressurized contents without leaking or, worse, exploding. More important for the discerning drinker was the can’s enamel and vinyl polymer lining, which preserved taste by preventing the beer from chemically reacting with the metal. Brewers nationwide remained skeptical that beer lovers would choose the canned variety over draft or even higher-priced bottled beer until the Krueger Brewing Company test marketed some cream ale in Richmond and was promptly rewarded with a 550 percent increase in sales. The rest of the industry piled on, and by the end of 1935, consumers had quaffed some 200 million cans of beer. Easy-to-pack, lightweight cans proved ideal for shipping across the country or around the world—a fact not lost on thirsty World War II troops whose beer arrived in olive-drab cans. Returning vets spiked demand after the war, ensuring that beer in a can became an American staple.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.