Canned Beer Turns 75

Be sure to crack open a cold one on Jan. 24, the day canned beer celebrates its 75th birthday.

New Jersey's Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company churned out the world's first beer can in 1935, stocking select shelves in Richmond, Va., as a market test. The experiment took off and American drinkers haven't looked back since, nowadays choosing cans over bottles for the majority of the 22 gallons of beer they each drink per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Canned brewskies may have only hit shelves in 1935, but the drink's history goes back much further — at least 6,000 years, in fact, to ancient Iraq.

Though it is impossible to tell just how many important decisions in world history were lubricated by a pint or two, the potent potable has played a role in at least a few milestone events, from the plagues of medieval Europe to the founding of the United States.

Who drank the first fermented wheat?

Beer is nearly as old as civilization itself, historians believe, as the accidental fermentation of wheat or barley — which produces a rudimentary beer — almost certainly occurred soon after the advent of crop agriculture (the question becoming then who was the first to volunteer to drink a murky pool of wheat water?).

The first concrete archaeological evidence of the first beer comes from Iraq, where ancient Sumerians built the first agriculture-based cities approximately 6,000 years ago. A stone seal discovered and dated to that era actually details the beer-making process in a poem dedicated to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing.

Two millennia later, Babylonians living in the same area had perfected at least 20 different brews. Brewing was a highly regarded profession and almost the exclusive domain of the society's women, as females were also responsible for turning grain into bread.

Beer was enormously popular with the masses in all early civilizations, historians believe, since grain was readily available and the fermentation process relatively easy. It was also viewed as an important source of nutrition and often rationed as payment; the laborers that built the Great Pyramids in Cairo, for example, were paid partly in beer.

Egyptians didn't look down upon the drink, however. Pots of beer also accompanied pharaohs into the afterlife, along with other food, gold and priceless offerings placed in their tombs.

Medieval monks make money

During the Middle Ages, European monks began to make and drink their own stock during periods of fast as a way to avoid malnutrition.

The nutritional properties of beer remained important through the medieval period, when plagues made water sources questionable. Having gone through a cooking and boiling process, beer was considered a trusted alternative, offering some cherished calories to boot.

Though many households did their own brewing, monastic beers were generally far superior and led many townspeople to visit their local monasteries for a mug of beer and a meal. The bed-and-brew houses that monks opened to accommodate pilgrims traveling through are considered the precursor to the modern hospitality industry, historians say.

In addition to helping many medieval Europeans through times of famine and sickness, beer may have been partially responsible for populating the New World a few centuries later.

The pilgrims sailing from England to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620 originally intended to land at Virginia, but arrived badly off course in Cape Cod instead. Realizing their mistake, they debated continuing on to their original destination, but ruled against it due to a general lack of rations and especially beer, according to historical documents. The colony of Plymouth, where pilgrims shared beer produced from barley crops during the first Thanksgiving, was the result.

Prohibition shapes American tastes

Beer-making got a major boost during the Industrial Revolution, when steam power and artificial cooling made beers quicker to produce and easier to store. Breweries subsequently became a big business across Europe and the United States — stymied there only temporarily during the Prohibition years of 1919 to 1933.

Ironically, it was the Prohibition that ultimately shaped the American population's taste for beer. The stronger beer that was the norm before Prohibition gave way to much weaker varieties afterwards, as people had become accustomed to bootlegged brews, which were always watered down for maximum profit.

The Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company capitalized on the reintroduction of alcohol in the United States in short order, introducing their beers in cans rather than bottles in stores in 1935.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.