Coors and the Aluminum Can – Whys and Wherefores

Local press stories that covered Coors Brewery’s introduction of aluminum cans, with other sources, confirm and extend a complex story.

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

This January 1959 story in the Colorado Transcript details the research history (“4000 research headaches”), and rationale. In particular, the cans were much lighter than steel cans and would be recycled. Steel cans, at the time, were considered 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 came on stream. They were extruded in two pieces, body and lid, from a small disc that 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 subsequently only aluminium was used.

A September 1968 story in the same newspaper reported the progress in intervening years to replace the remaining steel at Coors. It noted that the initial plan to collect for one cent each, and recycle, the empty cans was abandoned in 1966. There had been problems with retailers collecting the cans and properly accounting for the deposits.

Also, in the mid-60s there wasn’t enough aluminum packaging yet available to recycle economically, but a recycling program was later restored and expanded by Coors.

The 1968 story states something I have never read elsewhere. Despite being lined – steel beer cans had used an epoxy-enamel or other internal coating from their first use in the 1930s – a “minute” amount of iron entered the beer. In deed it was 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.

The aluminum cans were also lined but clearly the issue affecting tinplate steel did not apply to aluminum. Why this was is a separate and interesting question, but it appears the contact of aluminum with beer has a neutral effect. The main reason a lining is still used is to regulate the discharge of carbon dioxide from the cans.

Hence, the lore among many consumers in the post-war era that beer from steel cans had a metallic taste may have been accurate.

Pasteurization, or rather its absence, is part of this story as well. Starting in 1959 Coors packaged in its new containers “asceptically”. This meant, using a sterile environment and fine filtration to eliminate yeast and bacteria in the finished beer. Hence, the beer 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 that “cooking” the beer with pasteurization, where temperature can reach 140 F in the tunnel used to sterilize cans and bottles, altered the flavour.

In this respect, Coors was always a traditionalist company.

Coors’ approach historically is worthy of respect, a vestige of its 19th-century, German-American roots.

For years Coors used cold packaging and distribution of fresh (unheated) beer to distinguish itself in the market. Its distribution arrangements, initially restricted to 11 Western states, reflected that as the beer had to be kept cold through the distribution chain.

These extracts from Federal Trade Commission hearings in 1973-1974 attest to the rigour with which Coors approached such brewing. Coors claimed in this period that its cost 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 costs. Coors was famous in those years for under-advertising. It relied mainly on market penetration, abetted by restrictive distribution arrangements that finally got it in trouble with anti-trust regulators. Word of mouth, in the era when Coors beer 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 eschew 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 it did formerly. But when it did, it showed that American beer, even in the 1970s when it was fairly uniform in palate, could be differentiated by other than just branding and smart ad copy.

Coors’ manufacturing and distribution methods meant something, and were responsible in good part I believe for the marked success of the beer then. There was no more hip or cult beer than Coors in the 1970s, everyone from actor Paul Newman to the Secret Service favoured it.

While regular Coors was light-bodied even before the introduction of Coors Light, the beer had a certain something by many accounts. Most 1970s reviewers gave it high marks. Michael Weiner in his (1977) The Taster’s Guide to Beer gave it a five star rating out of a 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. No form of beer is pathogenic, that is, where correctly manufactured.

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

…………………………..

*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

Comments are closed.