A CAN-DO ATTITUDE
Beer can collectors making headlines as national association's 50th nears
By Ossie Bladine
In 2020, the Brewery Collectibles Club of America will celebrate its 50th anniversary, which could draw extra attention to its largest annual event, the CANvention, scheduled for Sept. 10-12 in downtown St. Louis.
This year’s CANvention actually garnered plenty of press itself. The Associated Press ran a story in August about the event held in Albuquerque, “Beer can enthusiasts head to New Mexico for ‘CANvention’.”
In the Northwest, the biggest recent headline in the beer can collecting world -- and for can collectors of all types -- was “The Great Boeing Wind Tunnel Find” (title of the cover story of the September-October issue of Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles magazine).
In 2016, a crew was hired to demolish a wind tunnel that had just been decommissioned. It was the testing site for military technology in the mid-1950s. Part of the facility was two spheres, each 38 feet in diameter and 25 feet tall. They would fill with pressurized air, which then would blast out through a small tunnel during testing.
One of many problems engineers faced was that condensation would build up and then hit the models at supersonic speeds. The remedy, it turned out, was to fill the spheres with cans -- millions of cans.
“Any round cans could be used to fill the order — including misprints and other rejects. I can imagine the American Can Co. salesman being the hero and getting a nice Christmas bonus that year,” wrote Carl Scheurman, author of the magazine article.
When the demolition company made the find, Boeing agreed to salvage and sell the cans with a profit-share. Local collectors were contacted and an auction was planned. There were thousands of soda and soup cans in the spheres, as well, but about 80 percent of the 3 million cans were for beer, including Olympia, Heidelberg, Lucky Lager and many more, according to the magazine article.
But the gem of the find was about 225 variations of Rainier Jubilees, totaling about 40,000 cans.
“Up until 2016, nice condition versions of these cans would sell for up to $100 to $300 apiece,” wrote Tim Hoffman, treasurer for the Rainier chapter of the BCCA, on his website rainierbeercans.com. “There would be a huge commotion if somebody brought even a few of these cans into one of our local Seattle Rainier Chapter of the Brewery Collectible Club of America shows.”
Scheurman, Hoffman and eight other collectors pooled their resources and came away with most of the collectible beer cans. The demolition company put them in boxes, about 1,000 to a box, Hoffman said. The winning collectors went to the holding site, held their own lottery to decide in what order they would choose, and then started making their selections.
Hoffman launched his website, and began taking some of the cans to the many collector’s shows he attends each year. He said he ended up selling a large share of them to a new microbrewery.
“Sometime in the next year will see a microbrewery with a wall of Rainier Jubilee beer cans,” he said.
Michael Boardman, liaison to the BCCA for the Cascade chapter based in Portland, was one of the follow-up purchasers from Hoffman and crew.
“I wanted one of each color of the find,” he said, noting that unlike more “purist” collectors, he didn’t care which brewery was labeled on the can. The nuances of labeling is what got many excited. “There were cans no one has ever seen,” Boardman added. “To the average person they’re the same, but to the collector they are different.”
Like Hoffman, Boardman has been collecting since the 1970s. He said his collection is at around 4,000, with 2,500 of them on display in a room of his home.
“It was cool because you could get a couple cans and put them on your shelf, kind of like your own wallpaper,” Boardman said of his collector beginnings.
“Back then, collecting was a big fad,” Hoffman added.
Both noted how beer can collectors are, as Hoffman put it, “becoming antiques ourselves,” following the same pattern as many other hobbies. However, they also said that both chapter continue to attract new members. The microbrew boom of recent years helps attract younger collectors and breweriana enthusiasts.
Hoffman said the most interesting finds are the mid-1930s cans that didn’t have pull tabs and required instructions printed on the can explain how to open it. He also noted post-Prohibition cone top cans that mimicked the shape of bottles.
But it’s not just decades-old cans that collectors seek. Boardman collects new cans -- or at least he did.
“The craft can movement has been going crazy for a while,” he said. “Fifteen years ago I started trading with guys back east. There’s so many great labels and great beers, as a collector you have to pick and choose. The sheer number has gotten to become overwhelming.”
Some only collect what they drink, while others strive to acquire them all, said Boardman, who also has around 600 taps and plenty of other breweriana memorabilia.
Both the Rainier and Cascade chapters hold multiple events of their own each year. The last one of 2019 is the Turkey Pluckoff Show at the Eagles Hall North Portland, 7611 N Exeter St., Nov. 9-10 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Entry is free; tables are $10.
“Collectors get together to see who might have a new find, hopefully try to bring new stuff,” said Boardman, describing it as part swap meet, part social event. He said some members of the Seattle chapter usually come down and hang out, too, and they encourage noncollectors to attend as well.
“It lets members of the public come in with questions, who maybe found some old cans in the attic or something,” Boardman said. “We’re really just trying to promote the hobby.”
And, they’re there to wonder when and where the next big find will occur.
“I think everybody is now saying, ‘Are there other wind tunnels with the same thing?’” Hoffman said. “I think the answer is yes, but probably not one with the variety like (the Boeing wind tunnel find).”
A similar find, at least in size, was made in the Los Angeles area a few years before the Seattle one. Such occasions cause a great buzz, but also can disrupt prices.
“That’s an extreme example of flooding the market,” Boardman said.
Scheurman addressed that in his article:
"When someone asks me what this find will do to the value of the Rainier Jubilees, I say this is a whole new class of Jubilees with a different price point. These cans are accessible to the average collector, where a grade 1 all original Jubilee may not be. There are thousands of different Rainier Jubilees, and this find included only about 225 of them. It’s just as important to remember what was not found in the wind tunnel (no Brewery Series, no 15/16oz cans, no Christmas Jubilees and none from the first sets).”
For more information about the Cascade Breweriana Association, visit www.cascadebeer.com or email email@example.com.
For information on the Rainier Chapter of the BCCA, email firstname.lastname@example.org or find the “Rainier Chapter BCCA” page on Facebook.