Graham Reeks heads to Brisbane to meet Jim Whittle, a veteran collector of Australian breweriana.
In a peaceful north Brisbane suburb beneath bright subtropical sun, Jim Whittle, breweriana collector par excellence, is showing me some fang marks on the cyclone fence that surrounds his Queenslander home – they are about waist height.
The wire-chewing beast which made the marks is safely stowed away for my visit, but Jim clearly wants me to know the contents of his hallowed pool room are well protected. He leads me under the house, opens the door into a pitch-black room, and then fl icks on the lights.
Every inch of space is fi lled with cans, key rings, tap tops, coasters, trays, ashtrays and stubby holders -- all embellished with logos of the nation’s breweries.
Thick curtains are drawn to prevent the sun from fading the bright colours of the collection. In the middle of the room is a clue to what started this epic collection: a pool table covered in a sheet.
Back in the 1980s one of Jim’s mates brought some Lion Lager round to a Kelly pool night. The cans were from the African wildlife series, featuring images of exotic savannah beasts.
The empty cans were placed on the beam above the pool table. And so it began. A quarter of a century later Jim has more cans than he cares to count, reckoning around the 4500 mark, but the Lion cans remain the only foreign cans in the collection.
Jim, a painting contractor, joined the Australian Beer Can Collectors Association (ABCCA) in the late 1990s, and was for a while the Queensland secretary. He enjoys the camaraderie of the club and shows me boxes of items he’s collected in other states. Looking around the room I’m constantly distracted by different objects catching my eye. Jim stops at a solid but ancient looking cylinder, barely recognisable as a beer can by modern standards.
“It was made for the Carlton charity ball in 1968,” he says. “That’s the very fi rst commemorative can. Very few collectors have it.”
I notice the trail of cans leads out into the garage, where even more shelves have been fi lled, but Jim has now expanded his collection to include tap tops, key rings and labels.
“As the cans got slower to obtain, because I’m only missing nine commemorative cans, I diversifi ed,” he says.
And he hasn’t stopped. The key rings, hanging above the bar, are organised into sections by brewery: Cairns Draught, Carlton, Cascade, Castlemaine, Coopers. I’ve never paid much attention to beer key rings, but it’s remarkable how many each brewery produces. Jim has almost 1000 and 90 of them are XXXX!
But Jim is most animated talking about the cans, especially the rare Foster’s can made for Australian Forces overseas which he found by chance after painting a house and seeing some collectable Burt Newton cans on show. The client refused Jim’s request to have a Bert Newton one, but offered him some Australian Forces cans instead. “The Forces
can is regarded as the second hardest can to get,” he says.
Personally, I’m drawn to the products that never made it to market. It’s almost like an alternative history – like the cans made to celebrate the North Queensland Cowboys and St Kilda’s premiership victories, even though they didn’t win. And there are the Bush Survival series of cans that CUB never released.
Jim is pleased with the surge in microbreweries the last few years. It means there’s more and more to collect, but he thinks it must be hard for them to cope with the demand from collectors.
“They get fl ooded with emails from everywhere over the world, and they’re not asking to pay for them. They want them sent free and not only do they ask for, say, one of each label, they want a bar thing, the tap tops. They want everything for nothing.”
Not Jim, though. He says he’s always prepared to pay. And yes, there are some hard to fi nd cans out there. He only needs David Clarke and Gary Dempsey to complete the Courage Football Stars collection made between 1968 and 1972 and has been trying to track them down for years. Perhaps you can help?