Drinking As a Hobby

Vintage Beer Cans Photograph by Chris Andruskiewicz

When I was much younger, I discovered a fascination for beer cans and the brewing industry. Don’t ask me why: I don’t know. The fact is, I don’t even like beer, but following my dad through the liquor store to get a bottle of something, I stumbled across a refrigerated beer case with a dazzling array of six packs on display. I decided to start saving cans I found interesting, and my dad – who wasn’t a heavy drinker but enjoyed a beer now and then, was willing to help me out.

Soon, I was asking my dad to stop at liquor stores everywhere during our travels so I could see if they had anything interesting. I was surprised at how often the really obscure beers were available as single cans. Perhaps the store owner decided customers would be more willing to take a chance on one can rather than an entire six-pack. My dad jokingly complained that he’d had to drink a lot of crappy beer to help me with my new hobby.

One of the interesting things I discovered about the brewing industry in the United States was the ways companies got their beer into stores. One tactic was to acquire smaller breweries in the area and use them to also brew and sell your own brands. G. Heilemann was notable for this, having acquired dozens of small breweries across the US, making Old Style one of the most ubiquitous brands of its day. Eventually, G. Heilemann lost out to better marketing, and Miller and Budweiser became the real powerhouse brands among American beers. Consistent, predictable flavor was one of their hallmarks; another was high-volume production.

It’s interesting to note that beer, though brewed for millennia and in North America for centuries, truly became popular in the US with the wave of German immigrants in the mid-1800s, some of whom started their own small breweries to serve their cities, towns, and neighborhoods. These were gradually consolidated starting in the early 20th Century, until most of the family breweries were gone by the 1970s. Many closed due to prohibition,and never reopened. In 1980, there were only 8 such small breweries – known these days as “craft” breweries – left in the US, but as of 2017, there were over 6,000 with the explosion of interest in craft brewing. People didn’t like the crappy beer sold by the giant beer conglomerates; they wanted something better, and today, the varieties of beer styles and flavors is truly dizzying.

One of the things that changed in the 1980s and 1990s was the move from cans to bottles. Bottles didn’t affect the taste as much as cans did, and new developments in glass production meant that bottles were less vulnerable to breakage. However, when gasoline prices began to skyrocket in the 2000s, cans again became a viable option. They used space more efficiently so that more six-packs could occupy the same space, and new developments in chemistry meant cans had less effect on a beer’s flavor. Now, even many craft beers are sold in cans, though more than a few connoisseurs still believe the flavor of canned beer is inferior.

I still have most of my beer can collection, tucked away in boxes in the attic over our garage. Thanks to a break-in at our former storage locker, I lost the really rare ones – those before the advent of pull-tabs. They were shaped like bottles complete with bottle cap, (called “cone-tops”) and later came those with a completely flat top you needed to punch two holes in to drink (called “flat-tops”). They were antiques, and the thieves recognized that and took them along with other, less valuable stuff. Still, many other cans I have are also unusual and rare, and I have over a thousand of them. I have no idea what to do with them any more. A recent foray into a virtual beer tasting by T brought some interesting new cans into the house, but in truth, that isn’t a road I want to go down again. I’ve had my enjoyment from the hobby once; If I drank beer it would make sense to get into it again, but since I can’t stand the stuff, it seems foolish to try. Instead I hope to find a good home for my collection – maybe at a bar or brewery, where they can be admired and appreciated by real beer fans for years to come.

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