The Collecting Gene
Collectors are the people who find unappreciated value in the things others could, indeed, mistake for garbage. Most beer collectibles—known as breweriana—are ephemeral stuff the rest of us use and throw away: bottle tops, matchboxes or coasters. Other items were designed to promote brands of beer, and be discarded when the job was done. Still others come from the practical side of the brewing industry: brewery or tavern equipment for keeping or dispensing beer. Almost none of these was manufactured with the idea that anyone would keep these items—let alone devote time and money to tracking them down.
For those born without the collecting gene, collectors can seem like members of a different species living among us. But, to collectors, these everyday items are time machines, windows on the past. And a collector’s passionate attachment to a long gone brewery, a beloved region of the country, or a quirky brewery product may be the surest thing that connects the rest of us to brewing’s rich history.
Who Are These People?
CANvention is hosted by the BCCA—which stood for the Beer Can Collectors of America for its first 31 years, until the organization reinvented itself as the Brewery Collectibles Club of America six years ago, reflecting the expanding interests of members. If serious breweriana collectors keep a “bucket list,” then CANvention is on it.
For five days, several hundred collectors gather to sharpen their skills, expand their collections, unload their duplicates and renew old friendships. They attend seminars on prospecting, history, restoration, brewing and the beer industry. They trawl the Room to Room by night, looking for treasures. On the final three days, they pack the 30,000 square-foot trade floor, where over half the attendees book table space to showcase their wares for sale or trade—including a good number who also maintain hotel room shops in the Room to Room.
The event resembles a high-school reunion for far-flung collectors who may see one another only once a year. Most are members of the BCCA, whose local chapters host small shows during the year. But at the big deal in Denver, regional chapters mingled with those organized around themes.
The Tontine Chapter members are the collectors who have been to all 37 CANventions. (Echoing the historic tontine schemes in which a jointly-held account goes to the final surviving share-holder, the Tontine Chapter ejects members who miss a convention. Or will their aggregated breweriana collections pass to the last living member?) Because the second CANvention was held at the Playboy resort in Lake Geneva, WI, members who have attended all but the first convention belong to the Playboy Chapter.
The Merry Bocksters specialize in all forms of bock beer and its advertising. Some chapters are associated with a namesake brewing company: Schell’s or Ranier, for example.
But the most exotic chapter is probably the Rusty Bunch, the amateur archeologists of the BCCA who go “dumping” for long-lost cans. Dumpers search old refuse areas of campgrounds, fishing and resort areas—the modern middens where old cans and bottles were discarded. The less squeamish dumpers consider old privies ripe for excavating, as well.
Many of these collectors have simply been at the right place at the right time—the old train station, military barracks, derelict barn or house that happened to hold a stash of beer cans or other breweriana from the past. Every collector knows a story of the plumber or electrician who cut into a wall during a repair and out rolled a mint Schoenling Bock or Clipper Pale beer can.