The aluminum beer can made it’s official entry into the world 52 years ago, on January 22, 1959. Here is it’s story, from conception to birth.By Terry Scullin #1041
By the dawn of the late 1950′s, Bill Coors had developed a real love/hate relationship with beer cans.
He loved them because they suited the outdoor lifestyle of his customers. Coors first canned as early as 1939, and a dozen years later 40% of the of the brewery’s production was going out the in the increasingly popular steel containers.
But Bill hated what the cans were doing to his beer. Contact with even the tiniest amount of steel or solder could eventually turn any beer cloudy and metallic-tasting, and Coors’ lighter formula was more sensitive than most. He also hated how pasteurization, necessary to sterilize cans, killed some of his beer’s full, fresh flavor. What’s more, it pained him to see his beloved Colorado countryside littered with empties.
In 1951, Coors did a favor for a long-time friend; little did he imagine where it would lead. Brown Cannon was the vice president of food industry giant Beatrice Foods, which had just purchased the Hawaiian Brewing Company, maker of Primo Beer. At Cannon’s request, Bill spent a week in Hawaii evaluating the brewery, submitting a report and then forgot about the whole thing.
Payback came in 1954, when the head of Primo’s operation sent Coors a visitor. Lou Bronstein was a classic dealmaker: nattily dressed, fast talking, frequently divorced and a man with a clear eye for the Big Idea.While fighting under General George Patton in Italy, he’d become so fascinated by the little aluminum drinking cups Italian soldiers carried the he proceeded to buy up thousands of them after the war and sell them immediately in New York.
Bronstein’s proposition to Bill Coors was a revelation. During his time in the army, Lou had managed to snoop around several European technical laboratories, where he ran across a process for making aluminum toothpaste tubes called “impact extrusion”. Simply put, you place a soft aluminum disk, or slug, in the bottom of a cylinder and whack it with a piston. The aluminum flows up around the punch and forms a seamless one-piece tube.
If it worked for making toothpaste tubes, Bronstein reasoned, it would work for making beer cans. Coors, no mean visionary himself, immediately saw the possibilities. Aluminum cans would be cheaper than steel cans, could be sterilized before being filled and could even be recycled.
Bill was in. And so was his buddy Brown Cannon; Beatrice was having some trouble keeping Primo supplied with cans, and the company was interested in the idea of aluminum aerosol cans for some of it’s food products.
Before you could say Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, Coors and Bronstein were on their way to Europe. Lou had done his homework and knew just which can plants had technical labs to visit. As they hopscotched from Frankfurt to Stuttgart to Mainz and other cities over the following five weeks, the wheels in Bill’s brain were turning in high gear. He watched how the Germans made aluminum cans and believed he could do it faster and cheaper.
Out came the checkbook, as Coors bought up used casting lines, rolling mill trimmers, presses, painters, washers and coaters and arranged to have them all shipped to Golden. Once home, he convinced the brewery’s board of directors – his father, two brothers and two uncles – that with another $250,000 he could have a pilot aluminum can line up and running in a year and a half.
To get the project of developing it’s first can off the ground, Coors entered into a partnership with Beatrice Foods and Bronstein called Aluminum International, Inc. Coors would handle the R & D and devise a pilot can production line for Primo as well as for itself. The effort would be housed at Coors Porcelain, a subsidiary created prior to WWI to provide an American source for chemical laboratory porcelain pottery.
SPRECHEN SIE DEUTSCH?
As 1955 approached, all Bill Coors really had was a vision about making an aluminum beer can. His used German machinery was still en route, there was no place to set it up when it arrived and nobody actually knew what to do with it. What he needed most urgently was an experienced aluminum engineer.
Others might have conducted a nationwide talent search; Bill found his man in the Denver Yellow Pages. Ruben Hartmeister had worked in rolling mills, aluminum foundries and tool and die shops. But the clincher was that, having been raised by a Lutheran minister, he knew enough German to read the machinery manuals!
Hartmeister was a mechanical genius, one of those rare souls with an uncanny instinct for how things work. He and Lou Bronstein soon headed to Europe for a repeat of the Coors/Bronstein tour the year before. Taking copious notes (he had a crummy memory) Ruben saw aerosol cans being necked, impact extrusion canmaking and the formation of aluminum into other cylindrical products like coffee cans. He returned to Colorado with 13 suitcases full of aluminum slugs, tools and extrusion oils, plus a raft of ideas.
Once back in Golden, Hartmeister started bolting machinery together – tinkering with this, modifying that, fine-tuning continuously, improvising when necessary, sketching concepts on old brewery invoices, and even manufacturing needed parts on his own lathe. Then came the day several months later when he presented Bill with a rudimentary aluminum can. According to Coors family chronicler Dan Baum, Coors “carried it around the brewery like the grail of Christ.”
As 1955 approached, all Bill and Ruben had proved was that they could make aluminum cans. Now came the hard part: how to make them economically. What the world didn’t need was a can that cost a bundle more to make than its steel counterpart.
Only pure aluminum was soft enough to flow up and around the piston during the impact extrusion process, and at that time Alcoa was the only source of pure aluminum slugs. However, when Coors asked for a quote on 10 to 15 tons of slugs a day, Alcoa came back with a price just shy of highway robbery. Bill summoned Hartmeister and told him to get out his wrenches; Coors would build a slug press of its own.
Making slugs didn’t prove to be an easy task. Sometimes the equipment jammed, and workers would have to grab 900° slabs of aluminum and rush them outside of the building to cool them down. And sometimes molten aluminum would splash. Said one casting line veteran, “Pretty soon you’d begin to smell smoke, because it was burning the cuffs right off your pants!”
It took Ruben and his mechanical legerdemain a year to get the continuous casting slug-making operation off the ground, but it proved so successful that Coors could produce pure aluminum slugs at less than half of Alcoa’s price – and even sell slugs to General Motors to be formed into speedometer tubes.
Having gotten raw materials under control, the next challenge Coors and Hartmeister faced was to soup up their canmaking operation to the point where it could produce cans at high enough production speeds to meet the demand for true automation. As Bill explained in a 1959 speech:
“Aluminum is so sticky a metal that conventional can conveying equipment just won’t work at all. In designing gravity runs, twisters, guide rails and accumulator table-tops, you have to be generous with Teflon or other antifriction materials or you just don’t operate.”
Then there was printing on the labels. The machine Hartmeister had devised could print only 180 cans a minute. So, starting on Thanksgiving Day, 1957, he set about creating a whole new printer. Seven months later, he flipped the switch on his new baby. Within one minute, 513 perfectly printed cans clattered all over the floor; he’d neglected to design a catcher for them!
THE PRIMO EXPERIMENT
The canmaking technology developed by Coors would have it’s first practical test run not in the foothills of the Rockies but in far-off Hawaii.
The Hawaiian Brewing Company, a Beatrice Foods subsidiary, had wanted to issue it’s popular Primo brand in cans. but the cost of shipping steel cans from the United States was prohibitive. Lighter weight aluminum seemed the perfect solution. Coors agreed to put in a pilot canning line at the Primo brewery, which would then form the cans from slugs of pure Kaiser aluminum provided by the Coors/Beatrice-owned Aluminum International, Inc.
The optimistic brewer placed an initial order of 250 tons of slugs and 50 tons of lids, and even began developing a new kind of opener that would remove the entire can lid, leaving a smooth edge so the can could be used as a glass! Primo was primed to pull off a packaging coup. The new cans, with wraparound laminated aluminum foil labels, were introduced in Hawaii on the beer-friendly Fourth of July weekend in 1958.
“Both the Primo and the Coors operations will be models of American ingenuity in automation,” predicted The Brewers Digest. But the devil is in the details. Primo’s canmaking equipment did everything right, but the design of the cans turned out to be all wrong. The beer went bad because the can lining didn’t protect it, and the concave top actually dipped into the beer, surprising the unexpecting drinker with a suds shower when the can was opened. On top of that, the church key often went through the side as well.
Over 23,000 cases of cans were recalled and dumped, and the brewery never recovered from the disaster, declaring bankruptcy before being purchased by Schlitz in 1963.
A STAR IS BORN
Ultimately, developing the aluminum beer can had taken $10 million and five years, much more than the $250,000 and 18 months that Bill Coors had originally predicted.
The final item on Bill’s to-do list was eliminating the need for pasteurization. During his 1954 European trip, he’d visited a small German brewery that was purifying it’s beer by running it at 32° through stainless steel-clad, manhole cover-sized pads of cotton and asbestos called Enzinger filters.
Cold filtering a million or two barrels of beer would take acres of these filters. In addition, the entire kegging, canning and bottling operation would have to be kept strictly sterile. Workers would have to scrub like surgeons, wear hair-nets and dip their shoes into disinfectant. Then the beer would have to be kept cold from the time it left the plant until the customer removed it from the retailer’s coolbox.
A tall order. Bill said, “Let’s do it.”
All of which brings us to January 22, 1959 (almost 24 years to the day that Krueger had introduced canned beer in Richmond, VA!) when a justifiably proud Bill Coors convened the first press conference in it’s company’s long history to announce that it was pouring real draft beer into seamless two-piece aluminum cans – an innovation that would change the packaging and brewing industries forever.
Bill’s new baby stood a mere 4.3 inches high, and it’s walls were so thick that it slightly outweighed a 12 oz steel can. It quickly proved to be more than a novelty; within a few months, the 7 oz aluminum can accounted for 20% of Coors” Denver market sales.
The wall thickness problem went away in 1963, when Coors switched from impact extrusion to the draw and iron canmaking process that had been perfected by Kaiser Aluminum – and which, because it required less metal, made scaling up to full-size cans economically feasible. Coors had proven not only that beer cans could be made out of aluminum, but also that a brewer could make them. By 1990 American Can Company and Continental Can Company were also-rans, while Coors was churning out four billion cans a year at the largest aluminum can plant in the world.
Coors filled its last steel can on November 12, 1971.
The author is indebted to two great books, Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty by Dan Baum, and A Catalyst for Change: The Pioneering of the Aluminum Can by Beth Mende Conny, for much of the information in this story. Photos courtesy of Miller/Coors. (Special thanks to the BCCA for allowing us to reprint this excellent article.)