Artful Openings: A Celebration of Beer’s Many Tabs
Every time a can of beer is cracked open, it spits out a little bit of history. The can—our handy, standard, aluminum homie—has enjoyed a long and manifold history. But the story of the can holds within it another story altogether; a story of a struggle fueled by a single, pressing question:
“How do I get the beer out?”
The beer can rolled onto the scene in 1935 thanks to the Gottfried Krueger Brewery of Newark, New Jersey, instantly making a bother of itself by requiring the use of a church key (believed to refer to the locked-away stashes of early monastic brewers), much like today’s giant cans of pineapple juice.
By September of the same year, the cone-top can started making appearances: first at the G. Heileman Brewing Company in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and then overseas at the Felinfoel Brewery of Llanelli, Dyfed, in Wales. The advantage to the cone-top was that curious brewers didn’t need to overhaul their bottling operations to switch over to newfangled tin cans; and while there were many variations on the specifics of the closure, most were sealed by an easily popped cap. The disadvantage was that the cans were quite heavy, the beer tasted vaguely tinny, and, from a distance, one appeared to be chugging brake fluid.
From this point forth, the pursuit of the perfect seal was a matter of staying on the cutting edge without actually being a cutting edge. Soft-top cans debuted, which were easier to punch through, but they only hinted at the paradigm shift that was a-brew.
In 1959, when tool manufacturer Ermal Fraze was forced to crack beers on his car’s bumper after forgetting his church key, he was moved to action. His first attempts at can innovation sported an attached lever (simulating a church key), which punched a jaggy notch into the lid. Many bloody lips followed.
While the forms for US Patent #3,349,949 (his subsequent pull-top can) cleverly work the child-safety angle (“A given tab may … prove hazardous when frictionally gripped by the smaller and weaker fingers of children.”), he didn’t quite address the hundreds of thousands of tiny aluminum ninja-blades left in the wake of a nation’s pull-tops. They posed a serious threat to pets, oblivious drinkers, dorm-room décor standards (remember those curtains?) and, most famously, Jimmy Buffet’s pasty white foot in “Margaritaville.”
Despite this trail of tears, and in concert with the ascent of lightweight and frugally produced aluminum cans, 75 percent of American beers were ardently rocking the pull-top by 1967.
It’s popularity seemed unstoppable. Until the wily Daniel Cudzik came along.
A worker for Reynolds Metals, Cudzik was one of hundreds of engineers doting on the problem of the pull-top—even Fraze was still at it, though his push-in-and-fold-back offering kind of sucked. The idea for the stay-tab struck Cudzik the way most good ideas strike beer drinkers—while zoning out on television. A prototype was banged out the following day and from the point in 1975 when the ailing Falls City Brewing Company picked up on the new tabs for cans of Drummond Bros. right up to the present day, stay-tabs have ruled. In 2004, the Museum of Modern Art treated Cudzik’s Beverage Can with Non-Removable Pull-Tab Opener as a full-fledged work of art in their Humble Masterpieces exhibition. Additionally, a study by the International Institute for Environment and Development estimates that Cudzik’s invention has since saved 3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and prevented the discharge of 900,000 pounds of carbon monoxide. Not too shabby.
Most importantly, it’s really easy to open a beer now—though it’s a little tough not to hear “BUSCHHHHH” in your head as you do it. Regardless of one’s feelings toward canned beer in general, the tops must be given props; for the easier a beer is to get into, the easier beer is to get into. ■