Coors and the Aluminum Can – Whys and Wherefores

An uncovering of local press stories attending Coors Brewery’s introduction of aluminum cans, and other sources, confirm and extend a complex story.

Coors first used aluminum cans in 1959. They had been in development for years, in a company-funded, self-manufacturing scheme under its Porcelain Division, which made ceramic equipment used or sold by Coors including beer filters and lab vessels.

This January 1959 story in the Colorado Transcript gives some of the research history (“4000 research headaches”) and rationale, including that the cans were much lighter than steel cans and would be recycled. The story states that steel cans, at least at the time, were felt to have “no salvage value”.

The change did not occur overnight. In 1959, only a seven ounce can, or pony, was used for the new process, sold in eight-packs. Through the 1960s, cans in progressively larger sizes, extruded in two pieces (body and lid) from a small disc, replaced the tin-coated steel formerly in use. This 1970 governmental collection of environment studies, see from pg. 573, confirms that Coors still used some steel cans into 1971, but after that only aluminium was used.

A September 1968 story in the same newspaper reported on the progress in intervening years to replace all steel cans. It also noted that the initial plan to collect for one cent each and recycle empty cans was abandoned in 1966. There had been problems with retailers collecting the cans and accounting for the deposits. Also, in the mid-60s there wasn’t enough aluminum packaging yet in the market to recycle economically, but can recycling was later restored and expanded by Coors.

The 1968 story states something interesting I have never read elsewhere: despite being lined – steel beer cans used an epoxy-enamel or other internal coating from their inception in the 1930s – a “minute” amount of iron entered the beer, detectable by expert tasters. Coors wanted to preclude this effect, and aluminum was the answer. From the story (via Colorado Historic Newspapers):

Tinplated steel cans, in spite of the best of internal coatings, impart a minute iron content to beer. While perhaps only an expert beer taster can detect with certainty the effect of iron from a tinplate can on flavor, Coors always has taken whatever steps necessary to improve quality, and the minute amount of iron was not acceptable.

Aluminum cans are also lined, but clearly the issues attending tinplate steel were felt inapplicable to aluminum. (Why this is is a separate and interesting question, but I’ve read that aluminum is neutral on the beer. The main reason a lining is still used is to regulate the discharge of carbon dioxide from the cans. I may revisit this).

Hence, the lore among many consumers in the post-war era that steel cans imparted a “taste” to beer may have been accurate.

Pasteurization, or rather its absence, is part of this story as well, as from 1959 Coors packaged in the new containers “asceptically”. This meant using a sterile environment and fine filtration to eliminate yeast and bacteria from the finished beer. Hence it would not re-ferment or cause off-flavours.

As an alternative to pasteurization, end-to-end refrigeration was introduced, from fermentation through to deliveries at wholesale and retail, to maintain the integrity of the beer. The company felt (correctly IME) that “cooking” the beer in pasteurization, where temperatures can reach 140 F in the tunnels used to sterilize the cans and bottles, altered the flavour. In this respect Coors was always a traditionalist company.

Pasteurization still exercises the brewing community; there are views pro, con, and neutral on it. Coors’ approach historically is worthy of respect, a vestige of its 19th century, German-American roots.

For years Coors used its cold packaging and distribution of fresh (unheated) beer to distinguish itself in the market. Its distribution arrangements, initially restricted to 11 Western states, reflected this as the beer had to be kept cold through the distribution chain. These extracts from 1973-1974 Federal Trade Commission hearings attest to the rigour with which Coors approached its brewing under this discipline. Coors claimed in this period that its costs to manufacture, age, and ship beer exceeded those of any other brewer.

The extra expense, it was claimed, was off-set by lower advertising and marketing expenditures. Coors was famous in those years for under-advertising. It relied mainly on market penetration, abetted by restrictive distribution arrangements that got it in trouble with anti-trust regulators. Word of mouth, in the era when Coors was chic, helped as well.

As far as I know, Coors Light (introduced 1978) and Coors Banquet Beer remain, in 2020, cold-filtered and unpasteurized in the United States.* Today, a number of mass market beers eschews pasteurization, including Miller Genuine Draft which is also made by Molson-Coors Beverage Co. And most craft beer is unpasteurized regardless of package.

Hence, the advantage of selling canned and bottled unpasteurized beer no longer is unique to Coors, and it does not vaunt the process as formerly. But when it did, this showed that American beer, even in the 1970s when American beer was largely uniform in palate, could be differentiated by other than just branding and airy ad copy. Coors’ manufacturing and distribution methods meant something, and were responsible for the marked success of the beer then, at least in part.

There was no more hip or cult beer than Coors in the 70s, everyone from actor Paul Newman to the Secret Service favoured it. While light-bodied even before the introduction of Coors Light, Coors had a certain something, by many accounts. 1970s reviewers gave it high marks in general. Michael Weiner in his 1977 The Taster’s Guide to Beer gave it a five-mug rating out of a possible seven, and noted its “purity”.

There was the odd naysayer, but often on the East Coast where (at the time) Coors arrived in bootlegged form and was often too old.

As I read the history, the aluminum can was not tied as such to Coors’ decision in 1959 to abandon pasteurization for non-draft beer (draft was always unpasteurized). Rather, two “firsts”, in the language of the press stories, were accomplished: the aluminum can, and packaging beer unpasteurized.

(For those not aware, unpasteurized beer is not dangerous to health. The taste may alter in time, but the beer, due to the alcohol content, is not considered harmful to human organisms. In other words, no form of beer is pathogenic, where otherwise correctly manufactured).

Coors was a pioneer in introducing aluminum cans to the brewing industry, and no less a pioneer in packaging beer unpasteurized. It must be credited for that and its environmental foresight, which stretches way back to the Eisenhower era and Rachel Carson.

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*Coors Original, mentioned in my previous post, is now brewed in Canada for the Canadian market. It replaced the Coors Banquet previously imported from Colorado. Interestingly, it seems Coors Original is pasteurized. We thank Canadian beer authority Jordan St. John for that information, who tapped his industry contacts. I’d think the Coors Banquet formerly imported to Canada was also pasteurized, as exported beer usually is, apart some craft beer. Hence, for Canadians, the question of any effect on palate likely is moot.

 

3 thoughts on “Coors and the Aluminum Can – Whys and Wherefores

  1. A follow up thought, viz. the airy ad formulas mentioned. This way of advertising beer was legion in the great days of American adjunct lager, and is far from extinct. As to Coors, it wasn’t exempt from bruiting the merits of its water, and Rocky Mountain Spring Water became part of the legend of Coors. Still, over the years the appeal must have lessened, as the new Canadian-made Coors Banquet can’t of course trumpet that advantage. And Coors Light, brewed in Canada since 1984, never did. A vague appeal to being born in Golden Colorado is printed on the Coors Original can, and it is left at that.

  2. Hi Gary,
    Alcan made aluminum for beer cans at our KIngston facilities back in the 80’s.
    Our R&D arm, also based in Kingston, would have tastings on Friday afternoons to ensure that no flavor was imparted to products we knew were packaged from our mill.

    One of the better perks I’d say ( I did participate one time )
    Cheers

    • Hi Mark:

      Thanks for all this, I remember now your background in the industry. I’ll try to find the source again that suggested no taste is imparted by aluminum, but rather the coatings used today have some kind of impact on the CO2 to let it be discharged “normally” into the glass with the beer, whereas the pure aluminum would have it (the gas) all gush out, too fast that is.

      It’s something to do with the relative size and number of the apertures in the metal and the linings, that trap the bubbles. After all too, aluminum beer kegs aren’t lined, at least not to my knowledge (happy to be corrected by readers who know otherwise).

      I remember when Canada adopted aluminum cans for beer, it came later, I think in the 1980s, the era you mentioned.

      But I found the 1968 story very interesting for conveying that bit of corporate information about some iron entering the beer from steel cans (steel is an alloy of iron of course). For years I had accepted the party line of the industry so to speak that the linings of beer cans completely precluded any effect of the steel on the beer. That seems clearly not to have been true.

      Hope all is well, was good to see you not long ago.

      Gary

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