Love of a Good Beer

Is it the love of a good beer, the fascination with brewery, or the original and eclectic art work adorning rare beer cans that makes them hot collector's items? For "breweriana" fans, the images on beer cans reflect something of the flavor of days gone by.

The Beer Can Collectors of America has over 5,000 members nation-wide that make beer cans their passion. The group was founded in St. Louis in 1970 and holds regular "Canventions" that draw more than 1,000 collectors and over one million cans. Some enthusiasts have collected as many as 12,000 vintage beer cans.

Scarce brands are particularly valuable. In the 1970s, a collector paid $6,000 each for vintage cans of "Rosalie Pilsner" and "Tiger" beer, brewed in the '30s by the Manhattan Brewing Company of Chicago. Generally, short-lived brands with appealing graphics are the most popular. Imagine the labels, for example, for "Playmate Beer;" it folded after a lawsuit by Hugh Hefner. "Orbit Beer" was marketed in Florida in the 1960s hoping to capitalize on the nation's burgeoning space program—but it never took off. Even James Bond has his own brand, "007 Beer," a seven-can series featuring the villains and beauties of Bond films. And beer cans that commemorate an event can also make a collection. America's Bicentennial celebration in 1976 inspired 50 commemorative can designs.

Remember "Billy Beer" of the late 70s, fashioned after President Carter's brother? Too many cans were manufactured for this trendy brew to be of value for collectors today. But new and rare finds are being made everywhere—maybe even in your own home. The space behind the drywall in your house, where carpenters may have swept old cans during construction, is often a can collector's gold mine.

The first can of beer was sold January 24, 1935 in Richmond, Virginia. It was brewed by Kreuger Beer and came in a steel can made by the American Can Company. This tall cold one—a flat or punch top can—required a can opener. By August of that year, Pabst had become the first major brewer to add canned beer to its regular product line. And shortly thereafter, in September 1935, two beer makers, Schlitzlager and Heilman Lager, introduced the cone top can made by the Continental Can Company which, because it was similar in shape to a bottle, could be run through existing glass bottling lines. Schlitz had experimented with a barrel-shaped can, but introduced their beer in a spout-topped can that year as well.

The shift from bottles to cans was expensive and slow for brewers. But they would soon recoup their costs because of the can's distribution benefits. Delivery trucks could carry twice as many lightweight, stackable cans as bottles and distribute them much further. Returnable bottles could only be sold within 30 miles of the brewery, whereas cans could be sold as far away as 400 miles. Between 1942 and 1946, beer cans were used primarily by military forces in the war effort and were even protectively camouflaged in drab olive color so as not to reflect light. Soldiers appreciated the coldness and convenience of their canned beer and brought this preference home with them after the war. A 1947 study showed that families of veterans bought beer in cans at a rate 32 percent higher than the national average.

It didn't take long, however, for the popularity of canned beer to spread. While cans made up 26 percent of the packaged beer market in 1950, that share rose to 52 percent by 1970. This increase was no doubt due in part to convenient innovations in can making. In 1958 the first aluminum beer cans were sold and in 1959 the ring pull opener was invented by toolmaker Ermal Fraze. The ring pull proved so easy to use that the last cone topped can was filled in 1960 and this can design was retired for good. Once the aluminum can had proved its metal, the three-piece steel beer can was retired as well in 1984. The first non-detachable tab opener, which most beer cans feature today, was introduced in 1975 by the Falls Brewing Company. This important alteration cost a bit more in production but went a long way in reducing litter.

In an era of American history marked by a virtual explosion of improved and easy-to-use consumer products, the beer can revolutionized the way we package beverages. Lightweight, compact, durable, and quick-chilling—these features made the beer can a welcome invention over 60 years ago. The beer can provides the freshest product as the flavors is locked in due to the inability of light to penetrate the can and the tight seal. Cans are endlessly recyclable and composed of a high amount of recycled material causing them to be extremely environmentally friendly. As more and more craft brewers adopt the can as their package of choice, the proof is in the product. 

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