Charlie Staats from Texas stands in his hotel room at the Adam’s Mark in Denver, with the door propped open. He’s stashed the hotel trinkets in drawers, and every horizontal surface—the coffee table, the bed, the chairs, even the ironing board—has become display space for his collection of Texas brewery memorabilia. Staats specializes in anything from San Antonio. The room is filled with Lone Star and Pearl brewery signs and beer cans, ready for other collectors who drop in to buy or trade.
The lower tower of the Adam’s Mark was once a department store, before its eight floors were converted to hotel space. But on this evening in September, many of the rooms have reverted to their old retail role. For a few nights, each open room is a little antique shop dedicated to beer.
The hotel’s housekeeping staff is under strict orders not to make the beds, or clean off the counters or furniture. They know to leave the cans, bottles, openers and tap knobs alone. If it’s garbage, it’s in the garbage can.
Staats and about 800 others are in Denver for the annual CANvention, the biggest gathering of hobbyists who collect all things related to beer. It’s early in the week, before the main trade floor opens, and the action is in the hotel corridors, where the Room to Room (as it’s called) is in full swig. The room holders themselves are often away from their own rooms, getting another beer or checking out other displays, but the rule is “if the door’s open, the store’s open.”
A watering hole with a couple of tapped kegs is strategically located on each floor. The visitors can refill their plastic cups with beer as they migrate from one collector’s room to another, making a circuit of each floor before they wander down the stairs to the next floor.
Just who are these characters who have taken their beer passion to nearly obsessive levels? What makes the relics of beer’s past so compelling that enthusiasts will travel to all parts of the country, completely rearrange their homes around their hobby, or jeopardize marital harmony? Welcome to the world of the collector.
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.
On the Trade Floor
In the big hall of the hotel convention center, the tables of specialized collectors who only deal with coasters, crowns (bottle caps), glassware, tap handles or neons are scattered about the trade floor, like booths at a flea market. The crowd mills around, buying, selling and sometimes just trading.
There is no clear distinction between buyers and vendors—even members with displays on the trade floor attend the show with the primary goal of building their own core collections. A collector may arrive with a van or U-Haul full of treasures, unload half the contents, sell a share, then pack up an equivalent amount of new stuff. The new items will either join the permanent collection or reappear at a later show in another part of the country where the items will find a fresh audience. Through this gradual sifting process, great personal collections are built.
For the true collector, the Thursday opening of the trade floor is like the start of a big game safari or deep sea fishing expedition—the trophy for the wall is out there somewhere.
Each year, just about everyone finds that one piece that makes the whole show worthwhile. Some visitors complete a collection, finally acquiring that last Coors can or a missing bock label from the hometown brewery. The proud hunter will be spotted lugging a treasure around, sharing a view with colleagues and basking in their attention.
Even though, in the breweriana field, one man’s trash can literally be another man’s treasure, there are certain collectables that are universally appreciated.
“The stamp collectors have their inverted airplane, every hobby has something like that,” explains Dave Gausepohl, a life-long collector and one of the organizers of CANvention. “In breweriana, it’s probably the old factory scenes, the lithographs that the breweries would put out over the years. The breweries would produce a line drawing or watercolor of their facility, incredible paintings with lots going on, that were displayed in bars. Taverns weren’t all the dirty little place on the corner smelling of greasy cheeseburgers and cigarettes—there were a lot that were like an extension of your living room, and that’s where the breweries would have these displayed.” These scenes can sell for between $50,000 and $75,000—serious art money.
Then there’s the mint condition beer can that sold for $19,000 on e-bay in 2003—the most ever paid for a single can at that time. Known as the Clipper Pale, the 1940s-era steel flat top can from Grace Brothers Brewery in Santa Rosa, CA, depicts the Pan Am Clipper, a flying boat that carried its passengers in luxury from San Francisco to Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila and on to Macau.
A find nearly as impressive caused a stir at the Denver CANvention. A lucky collector had dropped by an antique store a few months earlier and, for a modest amount of money, obtained three valuable cans known as “crowntainers” (a special type of cone top) for Oertel’s Bock out of Louisville, KY. This alert customer paid less for all three than the usual asking price for a single can, normally around $1,200. **Steve Paddack Indiana
Gausepohl recalls “At CANvention, he was having his bragger’s day, not selling them. He had them in a nice case in his room, then on the trade floor. It’s kind of cool to see and share cans of that value.”
Given the value of some of these pieces, its not surprising that owners invest a fair amount in caring for them: with travel cases, display spaces, acid-free paper and museum-quality archival material for storage, as well as thousands spent on humidity control where the collection is displayed.
Also buzzing around the trade floor in Denver was the rumor that a very famous older collector was soon going to part with his cans. Sure enough, the collection sold shortly after CANvention, returning sought-after items into circulation. With many founding BCCA members growing older, collections that have taken a lifetime to build are now being dispersed, unless a younger relative has picked up the collecting bug.
When the commotion of the trade floor wears thin, but it’s too early for a beer, members can spend time in the more educational section of the convention, devoted to small, well thought-out exhibits.
From Thursday to Saturday, specialists set up displays that showcase the best of their personal collections, in friendly competition with one another. Given specific requirements regarding dimensions and overall theme, a collector or group of collectors assembles the best of the best.
One winner in this year’s context displayed a single item from each of the 25 original American micros, a tabletop history of the modern American brewing revolution that, fittingly, took place on the 30th anniversary of New Albion Brewing Co., the first of the 25.
Changing Trends in Collecting
There are fashions in breweriana, as in any other activity. New products come out, then seem to age into respectability as collectable items. At the Denver CANvention, publication of a new BCCA book, The Standard Reference of Tab Top Cans, gave these more modern cans a boost.
The tab top can, the universal style from 1963 to 1992, lies within living memory for anyone old enough to drink beer—perhaps one reason they were taken for granted until recently. But the collectors worked on the BCCA-funded book devoted eight years to photographing an example of every tab top made, over 7,300 in all. The book became a collaborative effort of the collectors’ network, with BCCA chapters notified when one of the authors would be in their area, and which tab tops they were still searching for.
The result is a comprehensive record of thirty years of one type of technology, from the early designs that could cut the drinker’s lip, to the easy-to-use but environmentally damaging ring top, to the stay tab that remained attached to the can. The book has led to an up-tick in interest and club membership.
So, this begs the question, what mundane daily item that we use today will inspire future collectors to spend their money, excavate latrines or travel the country to compile a catalogue? The proliferation of microbreweries and brewpubs in the past 20 years means that the selection of breweriana is probably bigger than it’s ever been in this country. An enthusiast could concentrate on, say, the modern beer bottles of California micros, or the coasters of Colorado brewpubs and have a demanding collecting task ahead. Or, given the recent growth in the number of micro-canneries, it’s a good bet that some can collectors have already put aside mint examples, in hopes that Dale’s Pale Ale will be tomorrow’s Clipper Pale.
It’s impossible to say which items will come to have historic and monetary value in the years ahead, but when you pull your next beer out of the refrigerator, consider rinsing the empty and tucking it away in your attic. A collector in the future might thank you.