How to Determine the Date Beer Cans Were Produced
In a few rare cases, brewers stamped the actual date of production on beer cans (some Rainer cans and other Western brewers did this). Unfortunately, the vast majority of beer cans are not dated so it takes a little digging around to establish the approximate date of most cans. Below we will show how to narrow down the age of beer cans, by (A) surveying the big picture-more obvious considerations, (B) reviewing relevant publications, (C) delving into the can manufacturer's logos and codes, and, finally, (D) walking through an example.
A. Big Picture Considerations
First check out the obvious features and characteristics of the beer can:
1. Internal Revenue Tax Statement
A statement like "Internal Revenue Tax Paid" was required to appear on beer cans from June 01, 1935 through March 30, 1950. A few cans were filled prior to June 01, 1935 (like the very rare pre-tax Kreuger Ale & Beer set acquired by Breweriana.com in January, 2007). However, it is overwhelmingly likely that the appearance of the tax statement places the can between 1935 and 1950 and the lack of such a statement places the can after March 30, 1950. US beer cans exported oversees during World War II had a statement like "Withdrawn Free of Internal Revenue Tax for Exportation."
2. Weight/Gauge of Metal
Older cans (1935 to mid-1940s) were made of a thicker gauge steel. As time passed and manufacturing processes improved, the gauge and weight of cans decreased. Cans were made (mostly) of steel from 1935 through about 1980. With many exceptions, steel cans generally date between 1935 and 1980 and aluminum cans date after 1980.
3. Graphic Design/Information on CanWhen beer in cans was first introduced, the public had to be sold on the benefits of beer in cans. Early (mostly 1930s) cans have extensive text on a back side extolling the virtues of cans as a vessel for beer. Consumers also had to be educated on how to open the early flat tops so earlier (mostly from 1935 through about 1950) flat top cans had instructions on how to open the cans on the back. The first such "instructionals" often featured a picture of a churchkey opener that vertically spanned from the top to the bottom of the can. Since beer in cans was new, breweries also opted to display the type of beer in very prominent (sometimes more prominent than the brand of beer) letters. Early cans tend to have "Ale," "Beer," "Bock," or "Lager" in very large letters. Early flat tops often displayed a "Cool Before Serving" line on the front of the can or "Keglined" on the front of the can.
4. Dating by Types of Cans
For an explanation of the types of beer cans below, see "Types of Beer Cans."
- Cone Top, Low Profile w/ Inverted Ribs and Flat Bottoms- late 1935 through early 1936.
- Cone Top, Low Profile w/ Raised Ribs and Concave Bottoms- mostly 1936 through 1942.
- Cone Top, J-Spout w/ Flat Bottoms- 1937.
- Cone Top, J-Spout w/ Concave Bottoms- 1938-1942.
- Cone Top, High Profile- about 1942 through mid-1950s.
- Cone Top, Crowntainers- early 1940s to mid-1950s.
- Cone Top, Quart-Sized- June, 1937 to late 1950s.
- Flat Tops, Instructionals- 1935 to early 1950s.
- Flat Tops, Non-Instructionals- 1938 to 1970.
- Gallons- early 1960s to early 1970s.
- Self-Opening, Zip Tops, Sharp Edges- about 1962
- Self-Opening, Zip Tops, Rounded Edges- 1963 to 1964
- Self-Opening, Pull Rings- about 1965 to 1975
- Self-Opening, Sta-Tabs- about 1975 to present
- Aluminum Bottles ("Cabottles")- 2004 to present
B. Reviewing Publications
Publications can be helpful in establishing the date of cans:
"American Breweries II" by Dale Van Wieren: this book is a listing of all known American Breweries, their formal titles, addresses and dates of operation.
"Beer Can Collector's Bible": by Jack Martells has photographs and approximate dates of thousands of beer cans.
"United States Beer Cans, Vol I": by the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, discusses methods of dating flat top and cone top beer cans.
"United States Beer Cans, Vol II": by the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, discusses methods of dating self-opening beer cans.
"United States Beer Cans with Opening Instructions": by Kevin Lilek, detailed discussion of dating cans, especially instructionals.
US Patent and Trademark Office: online, searcable database.
"Who's Who in Brew": this is a listing of all known brands of American beer and their approximate dates of production from 1933 through 1978. The author acknowledges that the dates are as accurate as possible but can be off by years in some cases.
Other: Old magazines and newspapers feature beer ads which display cans. Brewers Journals are an excellent resource. Back-issues of the BCCA's magazines have a wealth of information.
C. Fine Tuning Dates by Can Manufacturer Logos and Codes
1. American Can Co.
American Can Co. cans are easily spotted by their "Keglined" trademark. The Keglined trademark was followed by patent information which changed over the years. We can narrow the date the can was produced by interpreting this patent information as follows:
1935 - 1937: "Patents Pending"
1938 - Mid-1940s: "Pats., 1,625,229 - 2,064,537 others pending"
1947 - Mid-1950s: "Pats., 2,064,537, 2,259,498 - 2,178,618" printed across a full length, vertical panel.
Mid - Late 1950s: "Pats., 2,064,537, 2,259,498 - 2,178,618" printed near the seam in small font.
1950s - Early 1960s: "Keglined" in a small oval.
To further narrow down the date of American Can Co. cans, we can interpret the Manufacturer's Printing Code. American Can Co. produced cans with a small code on the back of the beer can, indicating not only the manufacturer but also the physical plant location and the date/year in which the can sheet was printed. This code is called a Manufacturer's Printing Code (or "MPC" for short).
Interpreting the MPC is a lot easier than it may appear (see the example below).
2. Cans Inc.
3. Continental Can Company
4. Crown Cork & Seal
5. Heekin Can
6. National Can Company
7. Pacific Can Company
D. An Example: Dating an Edel Brau Ale Can
The American Can Co. MPC code research for this article was performed by Bob Porter and Kevin Lilek. Randy Karasek created the MPC illustrations above. Thanks Kevin, Bob and Randy!