Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oshkosh and the Dilemma of Canned Beer

Seventy-Six years ago this week, Americans began putting beer in cans. On January 24, 1935 Krueger Brewing of Newark, New Jersey became the first American brewery to can its beer. And by the 1940s, the Oshkosh Brewing Company was doing the same. Oshkosh Brewing was the first brewery in Oshkosh to can a portion of their beer, using cans with cone shaped tops. The protruding top of the can made it possible to fill them using modified bottling equipment and thus save the expense of a separate packing line for their canned beer.

For smaller, regional brewers such as those in Oshkosh, canned beer was something of a menace. It added additional expense to their operation and made it increasingly easier for larger breweries to flood their market with beer. Canned beer maintained its freshness longer and was cheaper to distribute than bottled beer, virtually eliminating the geographical advantages the small breweries relied upon for their survival.

By the 1950s canned beer was omnipresent. The brewers of Oshkosh had to either adapt fully or go under. In 1955 the Oshkosh Brewing Company took the plunge by purchasing a new canning line and converting to the more familiar flat-top can. A year later, The Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh, which never made the jump to cans, went out of business. The Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh would be a late adopter to canning, holding out until 1963 before introducing its beer in cans. But for the brewers of Oshkosh, canned beer was a losing proposition. In the end, it represented one more competitive advantage that the large beer makers used to drive under small, local breweries like those here.

There is a bright spot to the story of canned beer in Oshkosh, though. In June of 1991, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager by the Mid-Coast Brewing Company of Oshkosh became the first American craft beer packaged in cans. The beer was years ahead of a trend that is only now coming to prominence. There are now more than 100 American craft brewers canning their beer, but when Jeff Fulbright, President of Mid-Coast brewing, started the ball rolling 20 years ago, craft beer in a can was a hard sell. “Back then, the idea that great beer doesn't come in a can hurt me,” Fulbright says.

There were, however, others who appreciated Fulbright’s effort. In 1992 The Beer Can Collectors of America chose the handsome Chief Oshkosh Red Lager can as their can of the year. The beer may be gone, but the can still looks great today.


  1. Is Chief Oshkosh still produced at all? Are any of these original breweries still around? Anytime I think Oshkosh (I'm actually from Oshkosh) or hear from friends and family living there, they only talk about Fratello's and Fox River Brewery.

  2. Unfortunatley, all the old breweries are gone. The Oshkosh Brewing Company went down in 1971 and Peoples Brewing closed in 1972 (as mentioned in the post Rahr Brewing closed in 1956). Mid-Coast Brewing only lasted from 1991-1994. The company was located in Oshkosh, but brewed their beer at the Point Brewery. Fox River Brewing is going strong, though, and there’s a thriving homebrewing scene, so there’s still plenty of good beer being made here. If you want an overview of Oshkosh's brewing history there's one here:

    By the way, Lys, I saw your blog for the first time last November (pretty sure it was November). You do a really nice job with it. And the photography is incredible! Check it out at: