Heady days of collecting are gone

SUN JOURNAL

Beer cans: Serious collectors remain, but their ranks are dwindling and the hobby is changing.

April 25, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Beer can collecting has gone stale.

Oh, there are still many serious collectors, people such as Jeff Lebo of York Haven, Pa., whose 50,000 cans (the world's second-largest collection) fill a two-story house.

The annual canvention is still well attended. This year's 34th gathering in Dearborn, Mich., in September will pretty much take over a 700-room Hyatt. There'll be plenty of room-to-room trading, ample display space and lounges for official and unofficial product sampling.

Beer can collecting is the most convivial of hobbies because the collectible is often emptied by the collector.

It's also an endangered hobby. The thousands of young men who could pick up a can in any vacant lot when the hobby was at its zenith in the 1970s have grown up. They haven't been replaced.

The hobby is the domain of men of middle age and older. Maybe it's the shape of the can, perhaps it's an association with sports and fast cars. Or maybe it's simply because beer, unlike wine and hard liquor, is the connecting river of men's social relationships.

"When I go to a canvention," says Laverne L. Oliver of Golden, Mo., "everybody in there is older than 50." Oliver, too; he was born in 1933, two years before the G. Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, N.J., rolled out America's first beer can.

The owner of one of those cans would be advised to keep it under lock and key. Thirty years ago, can hobbyists built their collections by trading. They ran ads in the beer can collectors' magazine: my Great Falls Select for your Gunther, my Old India for your Cape Cod, my Griesedieck for two Kessler cone tops. That no money changed hands was a matter of pride, and anyone with just a few rare cans could build a decent collection if he had the patience.

"That's all changed," says Marcia Butterbaugh, of Kearney, Mo., the only woman ever to have headed the Beer Can Collectors of America. "Back in the 1970s, when I started, you could walk down any street and find decent cans. Now it takes money."

Like many collectors, Butterbaugh, 61, trades on eBay, where a Clipper pale ale from Santa Rosa, Calif., circa 1940, sold last year for a record $19,000 (only 12 are known to exist in good condition), and where five-figure sales are common.

Veteran collectors have mixed emotions about eBay, says Butterbaugh. If anyone doubted that it takes money to collect cans, eBay dispelled the doubt.

"EBay makes it possible to have instant gratification when it comes to collecting cans," says Butterbaugh, "but it's also brought out a lot of cans that have been hidden in attics for years. In that respect it's been good for the hobby."

Lawrence F. Handy Jr. of Allentown, Pa., says the hobby "is in decline. It's not the fad it was in the late '70s, when I went to several junior high schools as a guest speaker to talk about can collecting. Handy, too, uses eBay, although he had to drop out of the bidding recently on a Gretz ale can that eventually sold for $7,300.

"It was agony," says Handy, 48, "because I specialize" in cans from the old Philadelphia brewery.

"Most true collectors don't fool around with current cans," says John W. Vetter of Fairfax, Va., who has been attending trading shows since 1971. The number of standard brewers has declined from 600 before Prohibition to about 30, and the new microbrews come in bottles, not cans. Small breweries that once produced speciality cans for collectors - Billy Beer was an overnight sensation some years ago - have gone out of business.

Budweiser, which has 49 percent of the domestic market in the United States, fills 2,000 aluminum cans a minute at its huge plant here, and almost all - 18 billion a year - are recycled. America's vacant lots and roadsides are cleaner, but "there's no longer the serendipity of finding a can you didn't have that someone just discarded," says Handy.

Attempting to boost membership, the Beer Can Collectors of America, headquartered in a dreary industrial park in the St. Louis suburb of Fenton, recently changed its name (but not its initials) to the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, a move this year's president, Lea W. Colvin of Indianapolis, says "more accurately reflects the true nature of the hobby."

Colvin notes that most serious collectors eventually specialize, concentrating, for example, on cone tops, cans from one brewery, cans from a single state, foreign cans, cans featuring scantily clad women or those featuring sports teams.

And many have spread out from cans to "breweriana," the collection of anything having to do with beer - trays, bottle caps, church keys, plastic cups, coasters, labels, signs.

Although the BCCA roster has 32,000 names, fewer than 4,000 are dues-paying members, says Colvin. "We're doing everything we can to increase membership and interest," he says, "but we're not sure what the problem is. At our last board meeting we decided to put the problem to marketing classes at one or two universities and see what they come up with."

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