Collectors Raise A Hearty Toast To the Humble Can
At Blue and Gray Show, Beer Receptacles And Related Gadgets Draw Top Dollar
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2004; Page C05

Forget those tired old stereotypes -- the Budweiser-guzzling country boy and the raspberry-microbrew-sipping yuppie -- and enter a parallel beer universe where the most precious thing about the beverage is the can. In this universe, talking about beer is more likely to mean talking about "flattops" (they need an opener) and "cone-tops" (they're mounded like old oil cans) and which metal detector is best for finding cans buried underground and which acid soak is best for cleaning them up. This is a culture in which people own briefcases designed to hold multiple beer cans, and somebody recently bought a single one on eBay for $17,000.

For these people, this week is something akin to Christmas. As many as 1,000 of the most zealous beer can collectors from around the nation and the world will flock to the Ramada Inn South in Spotsylvania County on Thursday and do nothing for three days but talk cans. "It's can heaven," Jim Hailey, 39, a plumber from Weymouth, Mass., said of the annual Blue and Gray Show, a major event in beer-can collecting. Second in size only to the annual "CANvention" sponsored by the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, the Blue and Gray is considered the best of the best -- the one to which everyone brings their best stuff. "Everybody who is anybody is there," Hailey said.

Many of the participants come to buy, sell or trade cans to enhance their personal collections, most of which focus on cans from the World War II era, when the beer can was born. Back then, about 750 small, regional breweries were in business, and cans were made of steel and designed with bright colors, clever drawings or prose -- ditties, quizzes and horoscopes. Those are the cans most collectors want, and the window of opportunity is small, because by the early 1980s, only about a half-dozen regional breweries remained, using generic aluminum cans.

Almost all of the Ramada's 196 rooms are rented by collectors -- and some collectors spill into the Howard Johnson's across the road. They simply open their specially made suitcases and lay their best stuff on the bed, waiting for the people who shop room to room. Collections come in every sub-genre. Some people collect only cans from breweries in one region or one city. Others collect only flattops or cone-tops. Some people only want cans that were full when found, while others want cans in mint condition, or cans so old that they have instructions on the side on how to use an opener. Spinoff factions have developed over the years. Some people come to talk about drinking beer or to beef up their collection of "breweriana," including beer art, trays, coasters, bottle caps and openers. The openers crowd has its own association.

Possibly the quirkiest group of can collectors are "dumpers," who take pride in acquiring their cans not from flea markets, can shows or eBay but by unearthing them. Dumpers look for evidence of long-abandoned or long-gone homes, bars, motorcycle tracks and farms and use historic maps, hunters, wardens and building contractors to find them. Because people used to bury their  trash, a good tip and a metal detector (or a shovel, in parts of the country where the ground is too hard for a detector to work) are all a dumper needs to find what are formally called "outdoor cans."

A dumper is equal parts historian, geologist, explorer and gopher. A photo of Falls Church dumper Mark Benbow, 44, grinning and filthy as he emerges from a huge hole in the ground in a Massachusetts forest, makes clear that this hobby isn't for neat freaks. "You look where there were old campsites, then look for depressions and walk around with metal detectors," said Steve Fernandes, 45, of Austin. "And it will sing when you go by an outhouse with old beer cans."  Fernandes, who is starting a graphics business, said he often researches the historical borders between wet and dry counties, because bars -- and bar dumps -- typically were just on the wet side of the line.

Two recent discoveries made big news at this year's show. One is a cache of 1,056 cans Hailey found in a Vermont barn, with help from a contractor friend. The cans are from the heyday -- the 1930s and 1940s -- and all once held ale. News of the find in October rocketed Hailey to fame in the can-collecting world. The second find, in North Carolina, belonged to a relative of a former employee of one of the country's first can companies who kept examples of each can the company made. Can collectors say the joy they take in their hobby is totally different from that of collecting stamps or baseball cards, because the cans were supposed to be thrown away. They say it's as if they beat the system. "I don't want to collect things made for collecting, like Beanie Babies. It's an artificial scarcity," said Benbow, a historian whose expertise is Woodrow Wilson and who runs an online bookstore specializing in used academic books. "I'm not collecting something that some marketing person thought up to separate me from my money."

For dumpers, that thrill is direct and literal. But sometimes, that sentiment roams into the spiritual. "Every can we dig up lives again!" reads the latest issue of Rustlings, the newsletter of a 250-member group of dumpers called the Rusty Bunch. In it, a dumper writes of "murdering a couple of killer cans" -- meaning that he found them. Rusty Bunchers reflect a dying attitude in the hobby, which used to forbid buying and selling. "We didn't want it to be where the people who had the best collections were the ones with the most money," said Benbow, whose basement is lined with 10 shelves of cans -- only part of his 2,000-can collection -- and equipped with a dehumidifier to protect them. Some of them are so rusted they look like they have boils. There are crates full of more beer cans on the floor -- and this is a man who doesn't drink. "I'm hypoglycemic," he said.

Although beer drinking isn't the point of the Blue and Gray, the collectors typically put away 35 to 40 kegs during the show. "This is not a stamp collection convention," joked Charlie Bacon, 55, a Treasury Department employee from Beverly, Mass., who helps run the show. The future of the hobby, which began in the early 1970s, is unclear. Much of the old stuff has been found and the new stuff -- aluminum cans and, increasingly, bottles -- doesn't hold the same allure. The collectors, mostly men in their forties and fifties, are graying. Many of them feel confident that the love of beer-can collecting will survive -- but they wonder if the cans will. "The one drawback is the old stuff rotting in the ground," Benbow said. "But we haven't given up on getting them, not yet."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company