How This Beer Can Bug Won His Wings - by J.S
My beer can collection is one I am proud of but hardly satisfied with. On my wish list are 20 or so cans I've wanted ever since I got into the hobby: a mint condition West Virginia cone-top being at the top of that list. And yet, it's not just about what cans I have or how many. Collecting to me has always been a celebration of the culture surrounding beer and the people involved in brewing it.
I started when I was a kid growing up in Huntington, West Virginia and never lost interest - even when I had little or no room to put up a display. I currently have about 1,600 different cans, a small collection considering how long I've been in the hobby. As a certified "beer geek", my beer refrigerator is usually stocked with: IPA, Pale Ale, Porter, and Pilsner; plus a couple of specialty and seasonal beers. Naturally I find it amusing that 95% of my cans represent basically one style of beer: American Lager, the fizzy, pale-yellow (usually adjunct-filled) derivative of Pilsner-Lager that has dominated American beer consumption for decades, and probably always will.
My friend Chuck Dandelet got me interested in beer cans after he started a collection with the help of his cousin from Cincinnati. My old man had a fit, but I persisted. Later I found a book at the library called "The Beer Can," written by members of the Beer Can Collectors of America. I learned from reading it that my hometown had a brewery at one time and it produced beer cans. From that moment forward, nothing was going to keep me out of the hobby, not even my dad blowing his stack. When I told my parents about my amazing discovery, they had some bad news: the brewery had been torn down some years ago.
Not long after showing the book to Chuck, we were out one day hunting for cans and he found a West Virginia Light flat top [gold bands] under about 6 inches of snow. He busted my chops the rest of the day! Soon all our friends started collecting and it got really competitive.
West Virginia Light flat top, identical to Chuck Dandelet's can.
We had considerable success hunting for beer cans as kids, particularly at the Lover's Lane dump, located on a steep hillside about 2 miles from where we lived. I still have a lot of the cans I found there. Repeated attempts to revisit the dump in late 2005 and early 2006 proved to be fruitless. The cans are still there, but they're buried under fallen trees, glass, and years of growth. The amount of broken bottles there is staggering, but "staggering" is not something you want to do around all that glass, 90% of which is hidden just below the surface. With the hillside as steep as it is, the possibility of serious injury is increased ten-fold. One wrong move and you could be sliced to shreds! We may try to go there again soon but my music career normally keeps me too busy to do things like that.
I have enough display space for 3,000 beer cans. I can't imagine displaying too many more than that. Somewhere along the line, every serious collector is forced to answer the age-old question: How many cans are enough? While some make a conscious decision to impose limits on size, others are in full-on expansion mode 24/7. For many though, the best choice is to "control" the growth, like branching out into other types of breweriana; or narrowing the focus to one or more areas of specialization - such as a local brewery, relative to the space they have available.
With lots of room to grow at this point, my answer to the question above is more schizophrenic. I've imposed a limit on size (3,000), and yet I've got a long way to go before I reach that milestone, so I'm always in the mood to add more cans. I've also chosen to "stunt" the collection's growth by focusing on hard-to-get breweriana from the Fesenmeier and Little Switzerland breweries, as well as beer cans from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with their superior label-graphics and sturdy construction. Although I have many fine examples of cans from this time period, the majority of mine were produced from the early 1960s through the late 1980s. Filling out the remainder of my space with the older cans will give the collection some much needed balance.
Micro Brewed Beer in Cans
This has turned out to be yet another area in which my collection is slowly expanding. As the craft beer movement continues to grow, many micro brewers have chosen to use cans as the primary vessel in which to bring their grog to the masses. In the face of opposition from craft beer aficionados who frown at seeing their favorite beverage in cans, small companies are producing the most beautiful label-designs to appear on store shelves in decades, creating a coast-to-coast renaissance of sorts for the beleaguered beer can.
Click Photos to Enlarge
Photo Date: Early 2006. As you might expect, the collection has grown since then.
Look for updated photos very soon.
Gallery ONE - 1-4 / Gallery TWO - 5-7
Best Collecting Memories
My favorite collecting memories come from my childhood. This is due in large part to the amount of time I had to spend on the hobby back then; walking the roadsides, rummaging through dumps, nagging my folks to buy a certain beer in order to get a desired can, etc. I have a few more of these that I'll add in the future.
1. Finding my first cone top (pictured here). I was 11 years old and it was about lunch-time on an overcast and somewhat warm Christmas Eve. My friend Kevin Conn and I crawled through an open window into the basement of a mausoleum in a nearby cemetery. After finding several old beer bottles, many of them from Fesenmeier, I started looking for cans. It was really dark in there but I managed to find two Duquesne "Can-o'-Beer" cones, definitely not the prettiest beer can in the world but I didn't care.To say I was elated is an understatement. I gave one to Kevin and kept the other. We went back a few years later with the permission of the caretaker (my friend Steve Sumpter's dad) and came away with four Hudephol cone tops.
2. Visiting MarK C. Ferguson's (BCCA # 5836) house in Huntington with my oldest brother, Ernie and his girlfriend. Mark was highly regarded in the BCCA back then. It was a bit like meeting a rock star. I drank my first beer there, a Sparkling Champale in the green can which I still have. I also came home with a bunch of cans for my collection and all of these I still have.
3. Finding the Lover's Lane dump. We hit it about 20 times over several years and probably didn't even make a dent in it.
4. Going to Martha's Vineyard as a kid for the first time with my parents and visiting Al's Package Store "Liquors, Wines, & Beers" in Edgartown. I was in heaven. Suddenly, here was a bunch of beer you couldn't get in West Virginia! We bought a six of Milwaukee brand beer, and some loose cans: Narragansett, Rheingold, and Schaefer Cream Ale among others. Al was always there back in those days. He was intrigued that I was so young and yet I collected beer cans. He let me have as many decals with the store's name on them as I wanted; being the savvy businessman of course! The decal pictured here is plastered on one of my guitar cases.
5. The day I got my Zodiac Malt Liquor can (pictured here). My Mom and I were in downtown Huntington and we walked past this car that had a strange beer can dangling from the rear view mirror on a string. There was a fake cheese wedge on the end of the string and it was stuffed down into the opening of the can. We left a note on the car and walked down the street, when all of a sudden, the owners of the car came back. It was three or four black guys and they were reading the note as they got in the car. We walked back and told them we had left the note. They got a big kick out of me and gave me the can. Today it sits proudly on my shelf.
6. Going with my Parents to the local beer distributors to get signs to augment my collection. A faint smell of beer and cardboard pleasantly permeated the air. The people were always friendly and never let me leave empty-handed. I still have most of the signs.
The Lover's Lane Dump
Ah yes, the infamous "Lover's Lane" dump. Chuck Dandelet and I discovered it and at first we didn't tell anyone because we were all so competitive. In the end it mattered little. Everyone found out about it anyway.
The dump was about 150-feet over a steep hillside below a "lover's lane" and you literally had to climb down the hill to get to the cans where we would be knee-deep in them! But alas, we were also in West Virginia, where for more than 45 years beginning in 1934, the state endured a ridiculous 3.2% alcohol limit in beer that resulted in fewer available brands. A lot of what we found at the dump was the 3.2% stuff like: Falls City, Stroh's, Budweiser, Busch, Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, Black Label, Blatz, Hudepohl, Iron City, Falstaff, etc. etc. blah blah blah. Fortunately, there were more exotic, sought-after things in that dump as well.
Huntington is a border-city. Many folks drove right across the river to South Point, Ohio and brought back "high-powered" beer. So we also found things like: Kentucky Malt Liquor, Goebel, Hop n' Gator, Burger, Schmidt, Big Cat Malt Liquor, Old German, Rheingold, Hamm's, Weideman, Duke, Gambrinus, Red Lion, Genesee and Schaefer.
Before you laugh, I realize most of these aren't such tough, exotic cans. But I once read that "any can you don't have in your collection is a tough can." To us back then, these were tough and exotic!
We never pulled any good cone-tops out of there, and not too many flat-tops. Most seemed to be in bad shape. I soaked a few flats in oxalic-acid with decent results. Trouble is, I didn't soak enough of them. As kids, we weren't as good at judging a can worthy of restoration. We undoubtedly passed over thousands of restorable gems, cones and flats alike!
GREAT MOMENTS IN BEER HISTORY
A Milestone: My First Real Beer
This is the first can of beer I ever legitimately drank, the milestone occuring at the house of Mark Ferguson (BCCA #5836). I probably didn't get through the whole thing. True, I had "tasted" beer on many occasions; but this was a far cry from those unpleasant sips of beer from the past. And yes, we opened it from the bottom!
I came away with this and 35 other generously donated cans, all of which remain in my collection. Later I would return this favor to other up and coming collectors. I only had around 100 or so cans prior to meeting Mark. Nothing could have prepared me for walking in and seeing 2,000+ different beer cans.
It was that same kind of feeling you get when you go to a sports stadium and walk out through a sparsely populated tunnel into an ocean of people.
It sure would be good to talk to Mark again. If you know him, please have him contact us.