When I was five living in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, my two older brothers already had several near-complete coin collection books. I gave coin collection a go. Eh, I had a need to be different, so with a mini rock hammer began collecting rocks. That lasted a couple weeks before a brother with a “valuable” coin collection told me my rocks were worthless. They were. They were only landscaping rocks some dump truck poured out onto our condo lot when the development was built a couple years prior.
I don’t know the first beer can I ever collected, but living next to a recreation area where grown men played in softball leagues, and at a time when you could drink beer, smoke cigars, or chew tobacco out in the open, once I had a few cans on display, it was off to the races. 1976. The Bicentennial, and yes, while the current craft beer mindset would look at that year as smack dab in the Dark Ages, it was also a Golden Age of beautifully packaged, mass produced American Lager. Budweiser, Genessee Cream Ale, Blatz, Busch, Schlitz, Olympia, Hamms, … Tall Boys, short cans, old church key cans, pull tabs… I had them all. I can still smell the stale beer and chewed tobacco smell of being arm deep in trash barrels to fish out an unadulterated can while my dad was on the mound pitching softball under the lights.
Once at my aunt’s house down in Youngstown I nearly flipped my lid when discovering a buried TROVE of real old beer cans with conical tops and the old style Budweiser lettering. When packaging changed, I had to have the old as well as new.
Like cigarette packaging, I was mesmerized by the colors, the names of beers: Milwaukee’s Best, Colt 45, Rolling Rock, and Olympia. Each summer we would go on fishing trips to Canada, sometimes way up in Quebec, and on those long drives my eyes would be peeled for cans along the road, Molson, Labatts, and Moosehead. Each brewery put out two or three products, and sometimes in unique sizes. My beer can collection grew into a beautiful pyramid, rising up against my bedroom wall. Breweriana ran in my veins. This despite my dad never being much of a beer drinker at all. The only time I recall seeing beer in the house was for a party after his softball team won a championship.
My white whale for some reason was to find a can of Carling’s Black Label that was in good condition. Something about that red can with the black field, and the name, “Black Label” as if it were the finest product that could be produced, made it the can to get. I had everything else I could get my hands on by picking them out of the trash or on the side of the road, but I could never get that one can of Black Label.
This went on for years, not months. When I was 8, my mother decided that living on the same side of the Rockies as my father did was not going to work. She decided that we would move to San Diego, CA. Our belongings were packed up for a Mayflower van, and essentials loaded into the car. The details of the fate of my beer can collection are lost, but needless to say it didn’t make it. Somewhere 80 feet below some Cleveland dump, my flattened, partially dissolved collection returns minerals to Earth.
I am SO freaking tempted to buy beer can collections on Ebay, discard the cans I never had, and slowly recreate my masterpiece. I would know though that I had cheated. They wouldn’t be my cans that I slowly gathered like a curator at the Smithsonian. And besides, it’s not like I would add on to it. With half those brands gone by the wayside, or worse, “Iced” and “Lime-A-Rita-ed,” maybe it’s best to leave my collection where it rests today, like a rock star who went out at the peak of fame.
Certainly there’s no need to be nostalgic for the product itself as it’s still on the shelves and serves its purpose. But even with the new drive for microbreweries canning their beer, and admittedly with some occasionally good packaging, it’s not the same. Breweriana is nostalgia. Maybe in 20 years I’ll be kicking myself.
Then again, wait till I show you my coaster collection.