Here for the beer

Brew­e­ri­ana col­lec­tors — who fo­cus on beer mem­o­ra­bilia — will gather Satur­day in North Lit­tle Rock

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - SHEA STE­WART ARKANSAS DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE

The beer cans are empty. The brew­eries they rep­re­sent are shut­tered or con­sol­i­dated.

Now all that re­main are the cans, steel and alu­minum memo­ri­als to a quench­ing long since spent, dis­played on a shelf in Kenn Flem­mons’ west Lit­tle Rock home.

Here lies an At­lantic can, pro­claim­ing it­self “The Beer of the South” and once con­tain­ing “12 fluid ounces of fine South­ern beer.” Then there’s a can with a sil­hou­ette of Andrew Jack­son on horse­back on its front: a Jax Spe­cial Pale Brew from the now-folded Jack­son Brew­ing Co. in New Or­leans whose for­mer brew­ery in the French Quar­ter is now a mall.

Across most of the top shelf are perched Flem­mons’ fa­vorites, a col­lec­tion of cans from beers brewed at the one-time Ten­nessee Brew­ing Co. in Mem­phis, in­clud­ing Gold­crest 51, an “ex­tra aged, taste de­light­ing; bal­anced fla­vor, so de­light­ing” beer, as it so claimed.

In all, Flem­mons has dozens and dozens of cans in this small, win­dow­less room filled with other beer-re­lated ar­ti­facts, from a Pearl

Brew­ing Co. clock to lithogra­phies ad­ver­tis­ing beer.

This tiny room in the house he shares with Mari, his wife of 35 years, is filled with Flem­mons’ brew­e­ri­ana, the

col­lect­ing of vir­tu­ally any­thing with a brewer’s name on it, from cans, bot­tles, bot­tle caps and la­bels to trays, open­ers, coast­ers, neon signs and more — even brew­ery stock cer­tifi­cates and 78 rpm records con­tain­ing brew­ery jin­gles.

Flem­mons is one of thou­sands around the coun­try who col­lect brew­e­ri­ana. And yes, there’s a club for th­ese peo­ple: the Brew­ery Col­lectibles Club of Amer­ica. The club has about 3,200 mem­bers in all 50 states and about two dozen for­eign coun­tries, says Tom Legeret, the cur­rent pres­i­dent of the na­tional club, but there are prob­a­bly thou­sands more who col­lect brew­e­ri­ana.

“Peo­ple are prob­a­bly col­lect­ing and don’t even know they are col­lect­ing,” Legeret says.

The statewide Ar-Can-Sas Brew­ery Col­lectibles Club, founded in 1978, has about 50 mem­bers, says Flem­mons, the lo­cal club’s trea­surer whose day job is as pres­i­dent of South­ern Barter Ex­change Inc.

SIX SHOWS A YEAR

The Ar-Can-Sas Brew­ery Col­lectibles Club hosts about six shows a year where peo­ple buy, sell and trade brew­e­ri­ana. The club’s big an­nual con­ven­tion, their 41st an­nual Siz­zle ’N Sweat, is this Satur­day at Burns Park in North Lit­tle Rock.

Flem­mons, 60, started col­lect­ing brew­e­ri­ana in 1976 with beer cans af­ter a road trip to Ohio. He joined the na­tional club in 1980 and served as na­tional club pres­i­dent in 2001.

“I think when you start col­lect­ing, you are re­ally more into the quan­tity,” Flem­mons says. “You’re try­ing to get ev­ery can ever made. Well, guess what? You can’t. That’s not pos­si­ble. So, at some point, you de­cide you have to spe­cial­ize and fo­cus on some­thing a lit­tle more nar­row. For me, that was Gold­crest 51 out of Mem­phis. They only made 10 cans to­tal in the his­tory of the brew­ery. Once you get all 10, now what? Then I re­al­ized they made signs and they made la­bels and they made boxes and they did other things. Then I got in­ter­ested in the his­tory side of it.”

At one time Flem­mons’ col­lec­tion num­bered in the thou­sands — mostly cans — but it is now in the more man­age­able hun­dreds, with cans, bot­tles, signs, open­ers and even a slice of a cypress ag­ing tank from the Ten­nessee Brew­ing Co.

Flem­mons, who grew up in Green­wood, Miss., is so en­grossed in the story of Gold­crest 51 that in 2003 he self-pub­lished a book, Gold­crest 51 Beer: Finest Beer You Ever Tasted, a his­tory of the Ten­nessee Brew­ing Co.

And, in April 2015, he started Gold­crest Brew­ing. The craft-brewed lager, which is con­tract brewed at Blue Pants Brew­ery in Madi­son, Ala., and Med­dle­some Brew­ing Co. in the Mem­phis sub­urb of Cor­dova, Tenn., is dis­trib­uted in Arkansas and west­ern Ten­nessee.

Of course, not all brew­e­ri­ana col­lec­tors get into a beer or brew­ery as much as Flem­mons. He’ll ad­mit that, say­ing it’s in his per­son­al­ity that “when I find some­thing I like, I want to know ev­ery­thing there is to know about it.”

How far is Flem­mons will­ing to go in his pur­suit of Gold­crest 51? Ten­nessee Brew­ing Co. closed in Septem­ber 1954, nearly two years be­fore Flem­mons was born. A few years ago, though, he sam­pled an un­opened bot­tle of Gold­crest 51 from the orig­i­nal brew­ery.

“It was brown and not good,” he says, with the an­cient beer filled with “float­ies” and “chunkies.”

COL­LECT­ING CANS

Be­fore and af­ter Pro­hi­bi­tion there was a ro­bust re­gional brew­ery in­dus­try in the United States. Th­ese brew­eries were proud brew­ers and many show­cased their fierce re­gion­al­ism through their can art and de­sign.

With so many catchy and dec­o­rated cans, some peo­ple changed the rules of drink­ing beer. In­stead of open beer, drink beer, dis­card can, peo­ple started keep­ing the cans — be­cause of the art­work, be­cause of the story sur­round­ing a par­tic­u­lar drink­ing ses­sion or, just be­cause.

So, not long af­ter that first canned beer was dis­trib­uted — by G. Krueger Brew­ing Co. of Ne­wark, N.J., in Jan­uary 1935 — peo­ple started col­lect­ing th­ese cans.

By the early ’70s, a beer can-col­lect­ing in­dus­try had ap­peared. In April 1970, the Beer Can Col­lec­tors of Amer­ica, which be­came the Brew­ery Col­lectibles Club of Amer­ica, was formed. Near the end of the ’70s, the club had more than 12,000 mem­bers, but mem­ber­ship has de­clined since then.

Re­cently, the boom in craft brew­ers (the Brew­ers As­so­ci­a­tion says there were 5,301 U.S. brew­eries in 2016) has cer­tainly helped the na­tional club, says Legeret, who lives in Kala­ma­zoo, Mich., and joined the na­tional club in 1974.

“Craft cans started com­ing out and they had col­or­ful and neat names,” says Legeret, 61, who started col­lect­ing beer cans in 1969 af­ter walk­ing across a park, notic­ing two “neat” beer cans and ask­ing him­self: “Won­der what other cans I can col­lect?”

“All of a sud­den peo­ple started col­lect­ing craft cans. It in­vig­o­rated the hobby be­cause peo­ple started col­lect­ing and trad­ing craft cans.”

WORTH THOU­SANDS

Some of the older cans — and other brew­e­ri­ana — can sell for thou­sands of dol­lars through per­sonal sales be­tween col­lec­tors, on sites such as eBay or at col­lectible shows.

Legeret now has about 8,000 beer cans, mostly cans re­lated to Michi­gan or ones that are older or for­eign, and dis­plays about 3,000. As a child, Legeret col­lected a num­ber of things, in­clud­ing baseball cards, but for him the na­ture of col­lect­ing brew­e­ri­ana is less about the empty cans and more about the peo­ple.

“I go to a lot of shows, and see a lot of the same faces and have de­vel­oped such neat friend­ships,” he says. “I go to a show and it’s re­ally about see­ing a lot of the mem­bers I’ve known for all th­ese years.”

“You start out col­lect­ing stuff, and you end up col­lect­ing friends,” Flem­mons says. “It’s good get­ting stuff, but one of the things life teaches you is that there’s a whole lot more im­por­tant things than stuff. Some­times we have to live long enough to reach that point where we re­al­ized that. It’s nice hav­ing all th­ese things, but it’s be­cause of th­ese that I have the friends.”

Buddy Olsen, 54, is one of the Ar-Can-Sas Brew­ery Col­lectibles Club’s newer mem­bers, hav­ing joined about a year ago. A Maumelle res­i­dent, Olsen is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer at Hor­ti­care Land­scape Man­age­ment Co. in Lit­tle Rock but started col­lect­ing cans while grow­ing up in Con­necti­cut in the 1970s. In ju­nior high, he col­lected cans from Iron City Beer in Pitts­burgh be­cause they of­ten fea­tured his fa­vorite NFL team, the Steel­ers. His col­lec­tion grew to about 300 cans, but he didn’t dis­play many of them as an adult.

In Oc­to­ber, Olsen changed his game room above the garage of his home into his “ul­ti­mate man cave,” and once again he started dis­play­ing his beer cans. His brew­e­ri­ana col­lec­tion has grown to about 1,100 cans now, along with neon signs, coast­ers and more.

“I just thought it was a cheap way to dec­o­rate my walls,” he says. “I’m more into try­ing to find vari­a­tions of a can. It’s re­ally cool all the cans that are out there.”

Olsen him­self is “not a big beer man,” he says, but em­ploy­ees bring him beers and “friends know when they see cool ones” to bring them to him. He also buys cans from club mem­bers and from in­ter­net sites.

But while craft brew­ing has led to a boom in brew­e­ri­ana, the age of club mem­bers is creep­ing up­ward, says Jack Stowe, vice pres­i­dent of the Ar-Can-Sas Brew­ery Col­lectibles Club. That’s why col­lec­tors are look­ing to get younger peo­ple in­volved.

“We are older guys,” says Stowe, 62, and spe­cial projects man­ager for the city of Maumelle. “Most of us are baby boomers or near­ing re­tire­ment age. We’re try­ing to get younger peo­ple in­volved. With craft brew­ers, peo­ple are col­lect­ing more, and we’re al­ways look­ing to get peo­ple in­volved. It’s a fun thing to do. Beer items are ev­ery­where now.”

COL­LECT­ING STO­RIES

Peo­ple col­lect all man­ner of things: stamps, comic books, baseball cards, coins, art. It could be said ev­ery­one’s a col­lec­tor, even if it’s just mem­o­ries, which af­ter all are a col­lec­tion of say­ings, images and in­for­ma­tion ar­ranged by the brain in tow­er­ing stacks.

Some of th­ese col­lec­tors have a name for their col­lect­ing, like del­ti­ol­o­gists, who col­lect post­cards. Beer can col­lec­tors don’t get a cool name. There’s no true name for a brew­e­ri­ana col­lec­tor. A per­son who col­lects beer bot­tle la­bels is tagged a labol­o­gist or a labeor­philist (al­though the term also is used for a beer bot­tle col­lec­tor). A per­son who col­lects beer coast­ers is known as a tegestol­o­gist.

But a beer can col­lec­tor? Noth­ing. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a con­cern. Th­ese men and women don’t col­lect for a name.

Stowe started col­lect­ing in the ’70s, quit for a while and picked it up again in the ’90s. He “col­lects a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing,” but mostly Texas brew­e­ri­ana — Pearl, Lone Star, Blue­bon­net from the Dal­las-Fort Worth Brew­ing Co., items from the Galve­ston-Hous­ton Brew­eries — be­cause Texas is where he grew up.

Back then peo­ple drank beer at beer joints, he says. There were long-neck bot­tles with bar­rel beer glasses, and peo­ple drank their lo­cal beer. “It’s some­thing I re­mem­ber from my youth.”

For Flem­mons, col­lect­ing is about the sto­ries. He can pick up an olive drab Grand Prize beer — brewed by Gulf Brew­ing Co., which was owned by Howard Hughes — and tell a vis­i­tor it was a dull green color be­cause it was shipped over­seas to U.S. troops dur­ing World War II.

He can point to a NIB sign, and regale with the tale of how Ten­nessee Brew­ing Co. made this “non­in­tox­i­cat­ing bev­er­age” dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion.

Of­ten, he can tell you ex­actly where the item of brew­e­ri­ana came from. “There’s a story be­hind all of it,” Flem­mons says. “Where it was found. Who helped you find it.

“I have a lot of things that mean some­thing to me be­cause of the story be­hind them.”

Legeret also says his fa­vorite cans tell a story, such as a set of James Bond’s 007 Spe­cial Blend cans brewed by Na­tional Brew­ing Co. and con­tain­ing a “sub­tle blend” of premium beer and malt liquor. The beer was short­lived not be­cause of that “sub­tle blend,” but be­cause the brew­ery had no li­cense for the rights to James Bond.

There’s just an in­trigu­ing his­tory be­hind all this brew­e­ri­ana, Flem­mons says, just like with any other item peo­ple col­lect. Maybe that’s why peo­ple col­lect, be­cause th­ese items say a lot about who we are.

They also say a lot about who we were be­cause they’ve lasted through­out the years, even when they weren’t meant to last, like beer cans.

“There are not a lot of col­lectible items that were meant to be thrown away,” Flem­mons says. “The cans were never de­signed to stick around. They were de­signed to be emp­tied and chucked. To me, that makes it kind of fas­ci­nat­ing that they sur­vived.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL

Kenn Flem­mons’ brew­e­ri­ana col­lec­tion in­cluded thou­sands of items. Now he mostly con­cen­trates on items re­lated to Ten­nessee Brew­ing Co., a for­mer brew­ery in Mem­phis.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL

Kenn Flem­mons’ brew­e­ri­ana col­lec­tion in­cludes a num­ber of items re­lated to Ten­nessee Brew­ing Co.’s Gold­crest 51 beer.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL

were pop­u­lar with some brew­eries in the early days of can­ning beer.

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