It's hard to believe but some Australians are more interested in what's on the outside of the can rather than the inside, as Ian Kingham discovers...
For the essence of Australia look no further. No academic document can better reflect the framework of Australian social infrastructure than the humble beer can.
To really get a feel for the events that shaped the recent past visit a beer can collector and let them take you through
their collection. They will share with you cans that highlight times of turmoil, times of jubilation and times of plain bewilderment. One thing for sure is that the collection will give you a view of unwavering times and capture the honest, earthly values of Australia that only a beer can can. Of all the recorded packaging used to store beer from open-topped, earthenware pots to pewter jugs, wooden barrels to aluminium stubbies, the beer can has captured consumers imagination more than any other.
I was recently asked while attending the Hobart Beer Festival whether or not I thought the beer can was an endangered species. While it is true that there is a new wave of consumers who prefer to drink premium beers with quirky labels and abstract names, there is still an army of 500ml cans just waiting to let loose, not to mention the trend in Europe and the United States toward five-litre can consumption.
Strengthening my confidence in the survival of the beer can is a dedicated subculture creating a demand all of their own by trawling the shelves of retailers across Australia in the quest for just one more new can. I refer of course to the "beer can collector", our modern day social anthropologists who have more insight into Australia's cultural history than any other body of people.
Did you know in Australia today there are over 800 registered beer can collectors? It is also estimated that for every registered can collector, there are 100 others who continue to hoard beer cans above their bars, on bedroom shelves and on every available surface in their garages. Why? It's because an eclectic collection of good times, great people and fond memories has replaced the space in the can where the beer used to be. To throw the can away would be to risk having to live a life of far less pleasure.
Having spoken to beer can collectors from Europe, the America's, New Zealand, and Australia, there seems to be two key reasons for collecting beer cans: nostalgia and art. It is true when you walk along a displayed collection of cans you get a great sense of social history and vibrant colour, a true insight into Australia and its beer drinking culture.
As a museum captures changes in time, a good beer can collection similarly evolves and bends through localised events. So if you have a few cans at home, congratulations, in my opinion you have something far more valuable than a McCubbin or a Pro Hart - you have a piece of real Australian identity. And who knows, you may have a significant piece
of history as well?
Beer is the foundation stone of Australian social culture and the beer can is the iconic symbol we rally behind when we look for those deep Australian values, the larrikin, the good bloke, the mate, and the belief in a fair go. The Aussie beer can represents our fathers, standing in the back yard as the world's worst dressed men. It highlights our growing concern for the environment with its great recyclable qualities (even if the plastic that holds it together lets us down a little). It reminds us of a time where we could throw things in the crowd at the cricket and know that the more we drank the less damage it would do!
The beer can has the added benefits of being able to float in our sinking fishing boats and can be crushed and stored in our utes and saved for the 60 cents a kilo refund at specially constructed "Cash-a-Can" centres across the nation.
Maybe you have the odd can you've collected, or maybe you can remember humbly drinking one with a friend that
still acts as a touchstone to what makes you who you are today. To give you some insight into what I'm talking about, below is a range of cans that showcase some key Aussie events and remind us of a bygone era.
Tooth KB celebrated Dick Smith's inaugural flight to Antarctica and the launch of the TAA airbus, Tooth LA celebrated Qantas' first direct flight to Los Angeles (LA) in 1982 and Foster's celebrated 50 years of Ansett in 1986.
Commemorative Courage Crest cans were at the Sunbury music festival of 1975.
Cooper's Draught and Toohey's Extra Dry have been introducing us to bands through the Big Day Out rock concerts since the festival's inception.
Cooper's Grand Prix Lager of 1985 - 1992 reminds us that once upon a time Adelaide had a Grand Prix; Foster's commemorative Grand Prix cans remind us every year that people from overseas still have an interest in our forgotten iconic brand. Swan Export Lager takes us back to America's Cup 1983, when Alan Bond was a national hero. The Tooheys Draught St Kilda premiership can (produced and recalled in 1997) highlights just how much of an upset that Adelaide vs. St Kilda AFL grand final really was.
The XXXX Bitter Commonwealth Games can of 1982 still depicts a controversial Australian map that forgot to attach a little island called Tasmania to the bottom. A can of Tooheys Pilsener from the late 70s depicts a cricket test match between Australia and England with no crowd, and then later reproduced with a crowd! Australia even boasts the longest running collector series of cans in the world, (30 years 1977 - 2007), where every year a can of Cascade is produced, showing the winner of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race.
In cultural circles we have beer cans commemorating everything from the Glendi Greek Festival, to festivals of Bougainvilleas and Jacaranda trees.
The humble can commemorated the anniversaries of 75 years of the harbour bridge, 10 years of the Geelong Beer & Beef Club, 125 years of Perth, 50 years service of Noel Eastment and 50 years since the campaigns of our military forces in the Guadalcanal.
Phar Lap, Roy Cazaly, Qantas and David Boon have not escaped the attention of the can, nor has Bert Newton, Ian Healy, Wally Lewis or even David Hookes.
Birdsville Races, Kalgoorlie Cup, Broome Cup and Australian Beach Cricket all have a place on a can.
Santos mines, Australian National Shipping and the Tasman Ferry all get a mention on a can.
From the movie "Patriot Games" with Harrison Ford to Michael Douglas in "The Game", the list goes on, including the famous Duff cans from the TV show "The Simpsons", (while only worth about five dollars a can, Duff can still be found on eBay for $2,500 per can).
There are even cans whose artwork explains how to open the very can itself.
Careers have been wrecked by the beer can, including the marketing manager of Tooths KB (market leading beer in NSW 1978) who changed the well publicised and acclaimed "Cold Gold" can to a white one.
Then there was the brand manager of Carlton Premium Dry who produced Australia's first slim line can believing that it would appeal to the female market, even though 80 per cent of can drinkers are men.
The brilliant James Breheny, Carlton Draught's brand manager in the late eighties, still shares with me his bewilderment at how one pack change to a can helped throw in jeopardy three years of his tireless work. James had built a campaign called "Brewery Fresh" designed to bring customers back into hotel bars on the notion that the best way to enjoy a Carlton Draught was fresh on tap. After spending thousands of hours and dollars before finally watching his strategy working, one bright marketeer chose to label the Carlton Draught can as being as fresh as any beer from the brewery.
Careers have also been made by beer cans, including the marketeer in the UK who decided to put images of women on Tennent's cans in the 60s, and the genius from Guinness who invented the widget.
So much history and now the beer can enters the global market and computer age. An entire industry has been formed dedicated to collecting cans and beer memorabilia. Personalised eBay accounts, web site addresses and foreign contacts are now part and parcel of the can collector's network to achieve the impossible... collect every can of beer ever made!
All of this passion, all of this tension, all of this wonderful framework of Australian social history spun into cylinders and filled with beer. So I tell you, next time you are in a bottle shop, support the industry that has supported years of archived Australian history: buy just one can, consume it and place on your shelf.
In signing off I would like to make special mention of a great mate, Mr. Gary McNair (Victorian Division of the Australian Beer Can Collector's Association), for all his passion and support of collectors in Australia and abroad.
Should you wish to join one of Australia's most passionate beer clubs, the Australian Beer Can Collector's Association have a committee in every state of Australia. Join one, you know you can.
The Temple of Can
Neal Cameron stumbles upon a collection of 16,000 beer cans in Echuca, Northern Victoria, with a shed to match.
hob·by - noun: an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.
ob·ses·sion - noun: the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.
Beer. It's a pretty easy subject to get obsessed about, but you can't get away from the fact that there is more to the hold that beer has over us than simply alcohol. Our willingness to shell out ever-larger sums of money for specialist beers and the fact that Michael Jackson sold millions of books of what was essentially beer porn settles this without question.
Bearing all this in mind, entering the Great Aussie beer shed in Eucha, a pretty river port in north western Victoria, seems less like entering an obsessive's world. Instead, it allows you to simply marvel at the fact that another beer lover has allowed a hobby to grow unchecked and has consummated his love affair by building a shed, sorry, a Great Shed, to house his objects of desire.
No amount of pre-amble prepares you for walking into a 5,000 sq foot shed, and seeing 16,000 cans of beer lining the wall. It's overwhelming but the collection rewards a careful look with some of the earliest cans made dating back to 1934.
The rarest can, one of only six left in the world, is a can made to commemorate King George VI's coronation. You can rush up to date with a 1972 series of cans depicting AFL stars and enjoy the penguin shaped can made in Japan so as not to appeal to children. All drinkers with a little drinking history under their downward pointing belts will find a pang of nostalgia for some of the cans on show, no matter what their nationality.
Neil Thompson who has amassed this collection over the course of 30 years is a man at the top of his game when it comes to beer cans. He is the national president of those persons who collect beer cans, of which it would appear there are many. He has the wherewithal and energy to build an environment that showcases his collection well. For those with a broader interest in Australian history, there is no shortage of breweriana and Australiana on show as well. But it is the beer cans that make the journey worthwhile.
Neil will answer all your questions with the enthusiasm of someone that has not been asked the very same question a thousand times before. Yes, the cans are all empty, and no, he did not drink them all. One suspects, however, that a man with this much character must get his inspiration from somewhere?
Great Aussie Beer Shed
377 Mary Ann Road, Echuca
(03) 5480 6904
Not Just Cans
Sometimes a can collector's fair isn't the place to secure the good stuff. Rabbie Dudgeon got out and got his hands dirty to find this prize.
Rabbie has been collecting old beer bottles on and off for 20 years and his collection currently stands at about 1,200, about 60 per cent of which are old Victorian "King Browns" (1910 to 1950). He says they're a great long necked bottle, perfect for pouring. Some of his bottles even date back to the 1880s but he still uses them all for his home brewing.
Rabbie and a friend were in the Shepparton area and were directed to an old sawmill about 3 kilometres off the Shepparton - Euroa Road.
"We found the mill and after a while we found the sawdust pit where any empty bottles would have been chucked," he said.
"I used a steel probe about 1.5 metres long to push into the sawdust and see what could be found, after about 2 hours of probing and digging I had found 6 or 7 king browns.
"I was having a probe in another part of the pit when I found this bottle which to my amazement was full with the label intact.
Since I found it in about 1992 it has been in my brew shed and over the last couple of years I have tried to trace the brewery in England to get some idea of how it got to Australia and ended up where I found it."
Rabbie has so far been unsuccessful in his quest.
Hard To Put A Label On
by Tim Baker
When scanning a bottleshop's shelves to decide on a new beer to try there is no doubt that an eye catching label goes a long way. But for enthusiasts such as Rob Greenaway labels go much further than that.
Rob has been an employee of Carlton & United for over 40 years and has been president of the Victorian Beer Label Collectors Society for more than a decade.
Meeting once every two months the society boasts around 200 members, 60 per cent of those come from across Australia.
"There can be a whole range of reasons why you'd collect labels," says Rob. "But in my particular case I enjoy beer, I enjoy the different styles and I'm interested in brewing history."
Rob is predominantly attracted to Australian brewers, the history behind them and the development of the industry. For others pre-metric, international or specific microbrewery labels are highly sought after.
"Some will only collect labels from beer they've consumed," explains Rob. "There's some that only collect microbrewery labels and are interested in the emergence of the different breweries."
Rob maintains a vast collection of labels reaching into the thousands and keeps most in mint-condition. To do so, Rob says you must heat the bottle internally with boiling water thereby softening the label and making it easy to peel off.
As with anything collectible some labels have been known to become quite valuable over years especially those dating back almost 100 years.
"Some of them are quite expensive, particularly pre-war labels but it goes on rarity," Rob says. "They can be of some value ranging from one dollar to a couple of hundred dollars."
The society also receives support from the brewing industry by issuing new labels to members and in turn develops catalogues and provides historical facts that may have been previously overlooked.
"We can link into bottle collectors or label collectors and provide them with historical information that may be important to label design or legal type issues," adds Rob.
The Victorian society also runs a Label of the Year competition as voted by members of the society. Each year one major and one microbrewery is awarded, receiving a certificate with the winning label attached.
So, what characteristics does a label need to become Label of the Year?
"Artistic design, the novel approach by the brewer but that's more the micro side of things. In the major side the closer to an incoagulable design the better."
"Jamieson Brewery in North East Victoria make some magnificent labels. The other one is Beechworth Brewers with its Ned Kelly label that comes up very, very well. Boag's have done very well with their Honey Porter and Strong Arm over the years too."
Membership to the VBLCS is $20 a year with a $5 joining fee. Newsletters with 30-40 current labels from the main Australian breweries, Australian micros and a few overseas labels are distributed every two months between meetings.
For more information or to join check out www.vblcs.com .