Great Moments in Aluminum Can History

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The ring-pull tab on an aluminium drinking can.
Image via Wikipedia

A GREAT MOMENT IN HUMAN HISTORY (actually it was Jan. 22)

BEER CAN TIMELINE

* 1957: Engineers at Adolph Coors Co. begin researching the feasibility of a recyclable aluminum beer container.

* 1959: After numerous setbacks, company develops a seamless, two-piece impact extruded aluminum can. The 7-ounce container is made up of the can itself and the lid. Company sells the cans in eight-packs in Colorado, promising a penny for every can returned to the brewery.

* 1959: Modern Metals magazine names Bill Coors "Man of the Year" for the aluminum can.

* 1966: Adolph Coors Co. unveils production technology and process for manufacturing new aluminum cans from used ones. The new system continuously casts rigid sheet aluminum from molten aluminum.

* 1990: Adolph Coors Co. becomes first company to recycle more cans than it sells into the marketplace.

Beer drinkers around the globe can hoist their beer cans in a celebratory toast to a milestone that began in Golden half a century ago. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the old Adolph Coors Co. unveiling the U.S. beer industry's first seamless, recyclable aluminum beer can.

That can ultimately spelled the demise of the tin beverage can developed in the mid-1800s. Industry officials say the development of the Coors aluminum can forever changed the way people drink beer and other beverages.

It also opened a new market for sheet aluminum and, eventually, for aluminum recycling.

"The aluminum can that Coors developed provided an impetus to do recycling," said Chester Van Tyne, professor of metalworking at the Colorado School of Mines.

"It's a significant step forward in packaging in general," he added. "The aluminum can that Coors developed is now being used for other food products like tuna fish and canned vegetables."

To mark the 50th anniversary, the Materials Information Society will confer historical landmark status today at the site where the first aluminum can was produced and shipped: 600 Ninth St. in Golden.

"Over the following 25 years, aluminum would eventually replace steel as the material of choice . . . and cans would replace bottles as our favorite containers," George Krauss, past president of the Materials Information Society, said.

Beer magnate Bill Coors spearheaded the company's effort to develop the aluminum can, helped by a man he hired for the job named Ruben Hartmeister.

The duo traveled to Europe on a fact- finding tour and returned with suitcases full of tools, machinery pieces and other items to get the job done.

The site in Golden where work on the aluminum can was performed currently is home to a facility operated by CoorsTek, the privately held industrial- components manufacturer.

Bill Coors, for his part, didn't think much of the tin can as a beer container.

"The tin-plated can was probably the worst container that anybody ever developed for beer," Coors told the Rocky last year. "You had lead solder on the seams. You had the tin plate. Steel base. Steel body of the can."

The Coors family argued that the metal can was bad for beer: It produced a lousy aftertaste. What's more, Bill Coors reasoned, the metal cans were littering America's landscape. They weren't easily recycled.

"The can was marketed by the industry - and, of course, by the container people - as a throw-away can. And there were just tin cans all over the landscape," said Coors.

Scrap steel was plentiful. Scrap steel prices were low. So there was little incentive for Boy Scout troops and others to organize recycling drives for metal cans.

Recycled aluminum, by contrast, was much cheaper for companies to process than making the metal from scratch using bauxite ore.

"There was enough intrinsic value in the metal, the aluminum, to justify people picking them up and recycling," recalled Coors.

At the time, Bill Coors also was keen to do away with pasteurization - a process he believed affected beer's taste.

"You needed a container that was clean on the inside that could be easily rinsed out and sterilized," Coors told the Rocky Mountain News. "It was impossible with the old can."

He and company engineers began researching the possibility of producing a recyclable aluminum can in 1957. It was a tedious process, with plenty of failures. Aluminum manufacturers voiced doubts.

What's more, the tin can industry vehemently opposed the idea. And the brewing industry wasn't keen on the concept of recycling.

"I got myself into a pack of trouble with the United States Brewers Association," Bill Coors recalled.

He added that the brewers association "was adamantly opposed to any of the brewers - and this included the soft-drink people - taking any responsibility for their empty containers. It wasn't our fault that they were spread all over the ground."

In his book Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, author Dan Baum recounted how Hartmeister "had no idea what he was doing." But Hartmeister - who died in 2007 at age 96 - had a "passion for experimentation."

"After several months of tinkering, Hartmeister came to Bill's office with a crude aluminum can," Baum wrote. "Bill carried it around the brewery like the grail of Christ."

Adolph Coors Co. introduced a 7-ounce aluminum can that Bill Coors told an interviewer was "perfect for the ladies, who loved it." The can forever changed brewing and the container business.

Other brewers adopted the aluminum can. And Baum, in his book, noted the can "rendered the entire steel beverage-can industry obsolete."

"American Can, Continental Can and all of Coors' beer competitors had to come hat-in-hand to Golden to buy the technology," Baum wrote. "By 1990, Coors was operating the biggest aluminum can plant in the world - manufacturing 4 billion cans a year."

Today, even craft brewers - who've long preferred bottles - have begun to turn to aluminum cans because of their recyclability and cheaper cost of transport.

Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons was the first to do so, hand-canning its beers in November 2002.

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