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.
Left: Can collectors from across the country gather at the 2018 Spring Thaw Brewery Collectables Show at the Radisson Park Inn in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Right: Cans are put on display outside a hotel room. | (Amanda Berg/Courtesy Narratively)
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.
Left: Cans and other collectables on display inside a hotel room during the show. Right: Attendees go from room to room to view the collections. | (Amanda Berg/Courtesy Narratively)
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.