Here for the beer
Breweriana collectors — who focus on beer memorabilia — will gather Saturday in North Little Rock
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Kenn Flemmons’ breweriana collection included thousands of items. Now he mostly concentrates on items related to Tennessee Brewing Co., a former brewery in Memphis.
Kenn Flemmons’ breweriana collection includes a number of items related to Tennessee Brewing Co.’s Goldcrest 51 beer.
were popular with some breweries in the early days of canning beer.