Collectors gather to celebrate beer trinkets, and help you sort out the suds from the duds

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Today we toast the beer can, a humble vessel that turned 80 years young earlier this year.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/10/2015 (2557 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Today we toast the beer can, a humble vessel that turned 80 years young earlier this year.

According to an article published in Time magazine, breweries south of the border began experimenting with canned suds versus the bottled variety around 1905. Problem was, nobody could figure out how to seal containers properly without the innards exploding, owing to inconsistent levels of carbonation.

Ale’s well that ends well: the American Can Company eventually solved the puzzle and in 1935 — much to the delight of beach-goers and backyard barbecuers everywhere — canned beer hit store shelves for the first time. (Because the only method of opening cans back then was by removing the entire lid, American Can also had to invent a device that punched a small, triangular hole in the top of a can. Until 1950 or so, cans of beer sold in the States came with printed directions telling imbibers how to use the contraption. Those cans, called instructionals, now command a pretty penny on the secondary market.)

Rob Horwood is the founder of the Great White North Brewerianists club - the group is hosting its annual show & sale on Oct 3 - we're talking beer cans - Rob has one wall in his basement lined with 100s of cans (all empty, sorry) - even better, the beer can turns 80 years young this year! (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

“Are you technically on the job? Can you have a beer?” asks Rob Horwood, fetching two cold ones out of the fridge — one for himself and another for a parched scribe.

Horwood is the co-founder of the Great White North Brewerianist Club, a Winnipeg-based organization dedicated to all manners of beer collectibles, including “stubbies,” tap handles, bar mirrors and, in Horwood’s case, cans. Today, the guild, which includes members from Saskatchewan, Minnesota and Ontario, is hosting its 27th annual show and sale at Anavets Assiniboia A.N.A.F. Unit 283, 3584 Portage Ave, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“It’s free parking, free admission and free advice,” Horwood says, taking a swig of his Sleeman Honey Brown Lager. “We definitely don’t want people getting into the hobby to pay more for something than it’s worth.”

Take Billy Beer, for example, a brand that came out in 1977 and was associated with Billy Carter, the infamous brother of then-U.S president Jimmy Carter. Horwood often spots blurbs on eBay advertising unopened cans of Billy Beer going for $100 and up.

“Even though (Billy Beer) was only around for a short while, so much of it was produced that individual cans aren’t rare at all — and definitely not worth more than a buck or two,” he cautions, mentioning a camouflage-coloured can of M*A*S*H* beer, named for the Emmy Award-winning sitcom, as another purchase to avoid.

On the other hand, if you own a full can of Clipper Pale that was put out by Grace Bros. Brewing Co. in 1941, make sure you don’t down it by mistake. A couple of years ago, a “virgin” can of Clipper Pale sold at auction for — hic — $19,300.

Forty years ago, back when the married father of two daughters was “younger and single,” Horwood used to travel quite regularly. Almost everywhere he went, he’d pick up a 12-pack of whatever regional beer caught his eye. If a can was particularly attractive, he would refrain from polishing off the entire case, saving one specimen to display in his basement. One exhibit beer led to 10, 10 to 100 and before you could say “bottoms up,” he had amassed a collection of 4,000-plus beer cans.

In 1988, Horwood was leafing through a publication issued by the beer industry. When he got to the classified section, he noticed an ad placed there by another Winnipegger named Wayne Leaf. Leaf was wondering if there were any others in this neck of the woods who collected beer paraphernalia.

“After I called Wayne, we said the same thing: ‘I thought I was the only one in town who was into this stuff,’ ” Horwood says.

They were both wrong; within a few years of co-founding the Great White North Brewerianist Club, membership had ballooned to close to 100, including a few individuals who didn’t even like the taste of beer.

“One of our early members was a minister from the Morris area who specialized in coasters,” Horwood says. “He never touched a drop but after his collection got too big, he dropped out, thinking if word got out in his clergy, it might reflect poorly on him.”

Deciding it was no longer feasible to collect anything and everything, Horwood began scaling his collection back about six years ago. He now concentrates strictly on Canadian cans, which he “files” in alphabetical order along one wall in his rec room, as well as special-edition ones bearing the Harley-Davidson logo. (No, he doesn’t own a hog. He just likes the look of the legendary motorcycle manufacturer’s logo, he explains.)

Hey, we like OV as much as the next guy, but we wondered why Horwood, who now collects labels as well, has what appear to be five identical cans of Old Vienna resting side-by-side on his shelves?

Nice cans! Rob Horwood, founder of the Great White North Brewerianists Club, shows off his collection of Canadian beer. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

“They look the same, you’re right, but there are subtle differences,” he says, listing alcohol content and the area of the country a specific can was brewed in as a couple of the variables he and his counterparts are on the lookout for. “That said there are some collectors who subscribe to what is referred to as the five-foot rule.”

The five-foot what?

“If you can’t tell the difference between two cans from five feet away, there’s no point in buying ’em both.”

Besides events such as the one going on today, Horwood and his fellow collectors gather monthly to touch base on whatever treasures they’ve lucked into lately. The troupe usually convenes at the Belgian Club on Provencher Boulevard, Horwood says, but every once in a while, they hook up at the tastings room at Half Pints Brewing Company on Roseberry Street or Fort Garry Brewing Company on Lowson Crescent.

“Both places have been really good to us, donating prizes and stuff for shows, and in turn, we do as much as we can to promote their beers,” Horwood says, noting when he and seven other club members head to Minneapolis in two weeks to attend a Brewery Collectibles Club of America event dubbed the Guzzle ‘n Twirl, they’ll be “armed” with a few cases of Fort Garry Dark and Half Pints St. James Pale Ale, as trade bait.

Horwood says the biggest concern facing him and his fellow collectors is what’s going to happen with their individual collections when they’re no longer around to enjoy them.

“Does the family want it? Do the kids want it? Most times the answer is ‘No, not interested,’ ” he says matter-of-factly. “So what we’ve done is kind of make a deal within the club. We’ve had a few people die through the years and what we’ve said to the surviving spouse is, ‘Let us take of your husband’s collection — we all know the proper value of what he had and we’ll make sure all the proceeds go to you and your kids.’

“One guy will be in charge of bottle caps, another guy will be in charge of neon signs, and so on and so forth. The thing is, we’d hate to see anybody get ripped off or, worst of all, any of this stuff end up in the garbage dump.”

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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