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Brewing an Impressive Collection of Beer Cans and Memorabilia

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Co-Editor 2/20/2018 8:03:58 AM

A surge in beer can and memorabilia collecting first took place in the United States in the 1970s, with the industry capitalizing on its popularity by creating specialty cans like Billy Beer, J.R. Beer and M*A*S*H* Beer to market to collectors. With a growth in the popularity of micro-breweries, there was a resurgence in the hobby in the 1990s and interest in collecting was again rekindled across the nation.

Aric Lee began collecting beer cans and memorabilia in 2000 as way to carry on the hobby started by his grandfather. “I started collecting at the age of 20, when my mother’s dad, James Johnson, lost his battle with cancer. He asked if I would like his beer collection and I said I would be honored to carry it on.”

He inherited a collection of 220 cans and bottles, as well as 30 mugs and glasses. “When I went to my grandparent’s place as a little kid, he had a pool table and bar with shelves of beer cans behind it in the basement,” he continues. “I can remember looking at the cans and thinking they were so neat even back then. If you look at the older cans, they really are a piece of art.” 

Lee’s collection has since grown to include more than 5,000 cans and bottles, along with an estimated 3,000 additional duplicate cans, as well as signs, lights, glasses, mugs and other memorabilia. “In North Dakota, I would unofficially say I have the most beer cans and bottles.”

A Growing Collection

While Lee says he has a hard time narrowing down his favorite item, he points to a group of collectibles with ties to the state. “The Dakota Beer items I have found are my favorite, because they were made for a brewery that was in Bismarck in the early 1960s.”

Dakota Malting and Brewing Co. operated on the corner of Main Street and 26th Avenue in Bismarck from 1961-1965. The collectibles highlighting the company’s flagship product, Dakota Beer, remain popular and sought after by collectors today. Among Lee’s Dakota Beer items are a variety of cans and signs, as well as some of the rarest items in his collection, the Dakota Beer chalk hand and a lighted Dakota Beer six pack. 

Cone top cans also pique Lee’s interest. “I am always looking for cans I don’t have, and cone top and flat top cans are items I always look for,” he says.

The cone top can was named for its funnel-like top and was first produced in the 1930s. They were popular with small producers because the cans could be filled on existing bottling lines. This type of can was produced until the 1960s, when many small brewers went out of business.

Among his most valuable items are a Hamms Beer Scene-o-Rama sign. “It is not a very rare sign, but it is very sought after,” Lee says. “The Hamm’s advertising was a hit even when it first came out, and the motion signs are probably my favorite to collect.”

In Lee’s collection is also a cone top beer can that was sent to U.S. soldiers during WWII. “It is called an ‘Olive Drab Can’ or a ‘War Can,’ because it was made to match the military colors.”

The can, now valued at $600-$700, was made without a shiny or reflective finish to keep soldiers safe from snipers on the battlegrounds, says Lee.

Pre-Prohibition items are among the oldest in his collection. “These are getting harder and harder to find,” he notes, adding his collection also includes items from the Prohibition era, with bottles labeled “Malt Tonic” and bottles with labels listing the “health-related benefits” of their contents.

Much of Lee’s collection is displayed in his home’s basement, but he admits many cans, signs and collectibles are also stored in boxes, closets and his garage. While the collection hasn’t been officially assessed, Lee estimates a value of close to $65,000 on his whole collection. “It would be almost impossible to replace,” he notes. 

A Network of Collectors

Lee says he builds his collection by posting adds online, attending auction and rummage sales, visiting antique stores, and attending beer trade shows. “If I am traveling, I research before I go to see if there are antique stores along the way.”

Each October, Lee attends the Guzzle & Twirl Beer Collectibles Show in St. Paul, Minn. The annual show has been held more than 40 years and is the largest show in the Midwest. “These shows span across the country and I try to attend one show annually,” he says. 

There are no trade shows held in North Dakota, but Lee hopes to one day bring a show to the state. “I would like to organize and host a show in Bismarck someday.”

The Brewery Collectibles Club of America (BCCA) is also a popular organization for collectors to network, Lee notes. Started in 1970 as the Beer Can Collectors of America, today the organization has 3,500 active members from all 50 states and 27 foreign countries. The BCCA doesn’t have a chapter in North Dakota, but Lee says, there are other collectors he has met from across the state. “They have some very rare and valuable things,” he says. “I have really enjoyed meeting people. I have learned so much from those that have collected before me and I appreciate all the knowledge they have shared with me. It’s a lot of fun.”

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