I’m on a hike with my husband along the C&O Canal in Washington, D.C., when he leaps off the path, slides down an incline, and begins digging through the dark, wet leaves near the water’s edge. As oncoming hikers approach he surfaces with a rusty can, dirt clinging to its sides.
“Black Label, about 1965!” he exclaims, walking up to the path from the muck.
The hikers pass. I cringe and avoid eye contact.
“The can has ants on it,” I say. “Is it coming in the car with us?”
Inside the Ziploc bag, ants crawl in and out of the holes in the old can. That Black Label specimen will become his “gateway beer can” to reclaiming 1,000 cans from storage and diving back into the weird world of beer can collector conventions.
As I have since learned, beer can collectors meet up in hotels across America at “canventions” to trade, sell, and buy cans. The Brewery Collectibles Club of America (BCCA), one of the main membership organizations for breweriana collectors, consists of 100 chapters with members in all 50 states and 27 other countries. At one point in the 1970s, the BCCA claimed 12,000 members. According to the group’s website, interest declined and then grew again as microbreweries became popular, and collectors from the ’70s and ’80s, like my husband, rejoined the hobby. And while they connect online, the internet has not replaced the thrill of meeting other obsessive collectors in-person.
We’re at the Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Park Inn by Radisson. Collectors from around the United States have gathered to trade, buy and sell beer cans at the annual Spring Thaw Brewery Collectibles Show — also referred to as “Spring Thaw,” “Canvention,” or “Crownvention” — crown being slang for a beer bottle cap. When I ask a group of collectors why caps are called crowns, one tells me that the answer is obvious: “It looks like a crown.”
As the collectors arrive at their hotel rooms, they spread items for sale across the beds, TV stands, desks, and windowsills. Collectors stroll by looking for open doors and anything they “need” to add to their collections.
Although some women collect breweriana, most of the collectors and attendees at this show are men of a certain age. “It’s the most diverse group of over-50 white men you might ever find,” jokes Matt Menke, who began collecting as a kid when he discovered he could sell aluminum cans to buy candy.
The diversity Menke mentions refers to professions and political views. In a time when America is increasingly divided, a shared interest in collecting draws together Republicans and Democrats, and people from all walks of life. Those I met include a plumber, an ex-Army drill sergeant, an engineer, a subway track mechanic, a pawn shop manager, a retired Army colonel, an eco-entrepreneur, and a banker. My husband is a novelist and English professor.
All of them eagerly talk of how collecting drew them in, and how the community keeps them showing up, even as the depth, breadth, and specialization of their collections varied.
Steve Savoca, a crown collector, attended Spring Thaw for the first time 15 years ago. He stayed in the hotel across the street to be on the safe side, because he found the idea of buying and selling crowns in hotel rooms strange. Since then, he’s warmed up to the community.
“A lot of people have become friends,” he says. “It’s such an odd hobby and there are few collectors.” He’s stayed in the main hotel ever since.
As evening falls, neon beer signs hanging in the room windows color the sidewalk blue and red. In the hospitality room, men in sweatshirts and jeans stand around the beer kegs and eat chicken wings, sausages and chips from paper plates. The main show floor is only open Saturday morning, but on Thursday and Friday, the trading is room to room. I walk until I find an open door. Inside, five men stand around a bed, looking down at an array of shallow rectangular frames filled with colorful bottle caps. They are crown collectors. They’re deep in conversation, so I circle the other bed and take photos of the crowns. They are clean, unused.
Kevin Kirk introduces himself. He began collecting in 2011 while on disability. He’d been scrolling through eBay and found someone selling a batch of 1,000 crowns. He couldn’t imagine who would want them, but an internet search led him to collectors.
Curious and bored, he bid on the collection, which he won. The crowns appeared a few weeks later. He noticed others online selling unused crowns and figured breweries must provide them. He visited the Flying Fish and River Horse breweries in New Jersey. To his great surprise, workers at each happily gave him a large bag of crowns to take away. When other collectors told Kirk he’d better focus his collection to keep it from getting too big, he told them he’d specialize in animals. But today he admits to collecting “more than just that.”
Like many of the collectors, he jokes that he has a problem. “I have to downsize,” Kirk tells me. The collection has taken over too much of his house. But he’s here at the Crownvention and, as far as I can tell, shows no signs of stopping.
“Do you want some bottle caps?” he asks.
“Really?” I ask.
“Sure. My wife would be grateful!”
I’m tempted to accept. They’re bright, shiny, tastefully designed. But I decline and say goodbye to the room of crown collectors. Before I leave, Joe Roberts asks Kirk to add me to their Facebook group, because “you never know who might be able to help you get good crowns.”
Between crownventions and canventions, collectors stay connected via online forums, eBay, and Facebook. Some of them meet in person at informal “can nights” held in private homes. Others meet up around the country to dig in wooded areas looking for cans or other antique items, like old car hood ornaments.
Jeff Lebo, a Pennsylvania-based entrepreneur and co-organizer of the show, began collecting when he was a teenager. With more than 89,000 cans of all different types, he has the largest known collection in the world. Most of it is housed in the Brewhouse Mountain Eco-Inn, which Lebo built with help from his dad, other family members, and friends, specifically to house the beer cans. He and his wife now rent out the can-lined rooms to travelers visiting Pennsylvania attractions.
Outside his hotel room here in Mechanicsburg sits a two-wheeled auto trailer with “I Want Your Old Beer Cans” written in large gold letters along with photos of Meister Brau, Horton Beer, and Scheidt’s Rams Head Ale cans.
One of Lebo’s favorite finds came from a website lead. An 85-year-old New Yorker had 300 cans to sell. He’d worked for the Continental Can Company in the 1950s, and would pull unusual cans off the line to keep. In time, the man had 600 cans.
After several years, his wife persuaded him to get rid of them. He threw out most of them, but he searched the internet before throwing out the last box and found Lebo’s website.
Lebo bought them all, including a rare Malta Dukesa flat top.
Photo by BONUS: For more photos of this beer can-lined hotel, follow Narratively on Instagram
“I collect because I am a collector,” Charlie Bacon says. “It’s a genetic thing.”
Savoca, one of the crown collectors, mentions an article that stated people collect whenever there’s diversity in a group of objects: coins, rocks, beer cans.
“The collection becomes a mini-museum,” he says. “You see this with can collectors. It’s about the history.”
“When you go to a digger’s house, you pull a can off the shelf and get a story with it,” Glenn Pasquinelli says.
The can collectors I’ve met love to share stories of the hunt. Steve Gordon, who runs the website BeerCanMan.com and, as a pawn shop manager, has developed an eye for good deals, spent several years trying to acquire another collector’s vintage 1930s cans.
Gordon vacations in New York, where the seller lived, and would contact him before each trip. They met up once and Gordon tried to buy the cans, but the seller didn’t want to accept a check. Gordon left forlorn. On future trips, the seller could never make time to meet him — out of town, sick kids, too busy. No deal. A friend of Gordon’s even sent the seller a custom-made postcard to express Gordon’s ongoing interest, to no avail.
At the five-year mark, Gordon mailed a batch of crab balls with a note that he’d be happy to buy the collection. The balls did the trick. The seller called to thank Gordon and told him he was ready to strike a deal.
This time Gordon stuffed his pockets with cash — no checks — and took Menke along as security. The wind turned out to be more of a criminal than any human. It blew some of the money out of his pockets, so Gordon had to chase $100 bills around a parking lot. Eventually, he walked home with the cans, which he says looked even better than they had the first time.
Dave Larrazolo, an ex-Army drill sergeant, is wearing a bumblebee costume and adjusting his antennae when I speak with him at the canvention. He explains that he doesn’t bother with “rust,” which refers to rusty beer cans. Another collector tells me Larrazolo’s collection is known to be “squeaky clean.”
Despite the group’s communal nature, friendly divisions exist: rusty cans versus clean, new crowns versus old, plastic-lined versus vinyl-lined crowns. Other collectors specialize by geography, brand, or type — West Virginia or California, Ballantine’s Beer or Hamm’s, quarts or 12-ounce size. There are accessories, too, like can openers referred to as “I-7s.”
Alan Paschedag, an engineer and former president of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, currently focuses on collecting Rheingold cans, and has acquired almost 300.
“If you’ve been doing this a while, you collect too much,” he tells me.
He says he’s collected baseball cards, soda cans, and wives. “I still have some,” he quips.
One collector, who specializes in the I-7 “church-key” openers, made to punch triangular drinking holes in the earliest generation of beer cans, tells me he has an example from nearly every brewery that made them.
“What will you do when you get them all?” I ask.
“Oh, I’ll find something else to collect,” he says. “There’s always something else.”
For the past two years, Pasquinelli has met up with collector friends from Virginia, Florida, and Pennsylvania to search for dumps around old summer cabins in Maine. A favorite find was a pre-war Krueger can.
Pasquinelli notes that, as a plumber, he spends his workdays traveling to jobs in heavy traffic in the city. When he’s in the woods digging, he enjoys the break from regular life.
Spring Thaw allows collectors to leave normal life behind, too, and it’s sometimes hard to return.
“I’m always depressed after these shows,” says one collector.
“Why?” I ask.
“You can come here and be yourself. Now I have to return to work.”
Deborah Ager is a Maryland-based writer. She’s received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Rivendell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and received a Maryland State Arts Council Award for fiction. Her writing has appeared before in The Rumpus, Greatist, Modern Loss, and elsewhere. She founded her company, Radiant Media Labs, to help business leaders clarify their message and finish their books.