A concise history of beer packaging technology.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: August 5th, 2012
eer: for 6,000 years mankind has been imbibing in this yeast-fermented malt beverage. Beer has been celebrated in poetry, song, and The Simpsons. But from the earliest depiction of beer drinkers—a Sumerian stone carving of several people with reed straws drinking from a communal bowl—to today, the way in which we drink our beer has undergone many transformations. Here is a brief history.
The earliest beer drinkers likely supped from bowls or jugs. Remnants of 7,000-year-old pottery fragments found in what is now Iran showed chemical evidence of having once held beer. In ancient times beer was usually drunk through straws, to avoid ingesting the bitter brewing residue. For many years beer was mostly kept in corked jugs.
Begininng around 350 B.C., most beer was served from wooden casks or barrels. It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur invented his method of heating and then rapidly cooling liquids to kill microbial pathogens, that preserving beer in bottles became practical. Pasteurization was soon followed by carbonation in the late 1800s, and these two processes made the mass production of beer a possibility.
Many modern beer-packaging innovations have been little more than marketing ploys.
Bottled beer first began appearing around the 17th Century, but bottled beer was considered a luxury since it had to be bottled and corked by hand, which made it rather expensive. The screw top bottle didn’t appear until 1879.
One early experiment in bottling technology was the Codd-neck bottle, which featured a marble and rubber washer. The bottles were filled upside-down and the pressure from the gasses forced the marble against the washer, sealing in the liquid. Codd-necks were used for both soft drinks and beer, but their popularity waned after a few decades.
Bottled beer didn’t really take off until after the first World War, but became extremely popular in the post-war years and remained the dominant beer packaging choice throughout the 1950s.
Canned beer first appeared in 1935 but didn’t grow in popularity until the second World War, when millions of cans were shipped overseas for soldiers. After the war, beer makers and sellers began to take advantage of the stackability of cans, which made distribution and shelving easier. Canned beer also solved the problems of light damage and oxidation that could occur with bottled beer, but many beer drinkers disdained the metallic taste and stuck with bottles.
CONE-TOPS & PULL-TABS
The first beer cans had flat tops that needed to be punched open with a lever-type can opener known as a church key. In the mid 1930s the “cone-top,” a can with a cone-shaped top that allowed for a screw-top, was developed. But the flat-top can was easier to pack and ship, and in 1959 Ohioan Ermal Fraze invented the pull-tab, which allowed canned beer to grow in popularity.
The problem with the pull-tab was that once opened, the tab was usually tossed aside, creating a massive littering problem. This was soon solved by the invention of the “push-tab” in the 1970s, which allowed for the tab to remain on the can after it was opened.
This short-lived innovation was used by Coors in the 1970s and by Pepsi into the 1980s. The can top had two holes that could be pushed open: one for drinking and one for venting. The obvious problem with the press-button cans was the risk of cutting oneself, which was a common occurrence.
In an effort to duplicate the foamy head created by dispensing ale from a tap, Guinness developed the “floating widget,” a small plastic sphere through which the canned beer is forced when the can is open. The agitation caused by forcing the beer through the tiny hole in the widget causes the CO2 to form bubbles that make up the beer’s head.
Many modern beer-packaging innovations have been little more than marketing ploys, and Miller’s Vortex bottle was one of the sillier ones. It's a beer bottle with a grooved neck that creates a vortex as the beer is poured. This is somehow supposed to improve the taste of the beer, but of course it does nothing else than make the beer look cool coming out of the bottle.
COLD-ACTIVATED BOTTLES & CANS
Another silly marketing idea, this one is brought to us by Coors Light. Using special thermochromic ink on its labels, the mountains on the Coors label turn blue when the beer is cooled to a certain temperature. This technology was applied to cans and has proven especially popular among people who can’t judge a beer’s coldness simply by touch.
TASTE-PROTECTOR CAPS & CANS
Another odd marketing ploy that is supposed to protect the flavor of a beer with very little flavor to protect, “taste protector” caps are simply bottle caps with a plastic seal that keeps the beer from ever touching anything metal. In the cans, the same effect is produced by lining the cans.
The punch top is the newest gimmick, although it’s really just a revival of the old press-button cans.Only instead of using your finger to push in a perforated hole, the punch-top cans have tops that are easily perforated, allowing you to use any sharp object to punch a small vent hole in the top of the can. It’s perfect for shotgunning, but doesn’t do much to improve the taste of the beer.
The future of beer technology appears to lie with the swivel tab. Invented by Canadian entrepreneur Steve Archambault, the swivel tab is like a conventional push tab that can be swiveled around to cover the opening in the can, preventing debris or insects from getting into the beer. It also has a slightly curved end that will make it easy for women with long fingernails to use.