Amundson's boyhood hobby has become his adult livelihood, recycling of the highest sort: He buys and sells old beer cans and other relics from America's beer-rich past. "It's a pretty cool way to make a living," says Amundson, who lives in Boulder. "I feel like I have not grown up at all."
This Saturday, Amundson and his breweriana-collecting colleagues will host a swap-and-sales meet that's open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Grizzly Rose, where they'll ogle, trade and buy. The event is hosted by the Columbine Chapter of the American Breweriana Association, a national organization of collectors that got its start in Colorado.
"We used to meet at flea markets while searching for beer stuff," recalls Stan Galloway, a Pueblo resident and one of the ABA's five founding members. "We got together one day and said, 'Hey, there ought to be a group for people like us.'" That was back in 1979; today the ABA has about 3,000 members across the United States and around the globe.
"We collect things that we grew up with that, in many cases, are no longer around. And if you collect beer, obviously you have an affinity for the beverage," Galloway notes. "But we have a lot of members who don't even drink. They like the history and the nostalgia."
Membership in the ABA (www.americanbreweriana.org) offers other benefits. The group's magazine, American Breweriana, published every other month, is a well-written slick edited by Galloway, a former Navy journalist and retired history teacher. It's loaded with interesting stories of defunct breweries and the artifacts that beer-makers left behind; each issue includes a label-and-coaster exchange that allows members to swap surplus stock. The ABA's lending library includes about 400 volumes, and members are raising money to build a breweriana museum to house the library. The fund contains over $250,000, but the ABA will need considerably more to create a permanent home. "We had hoped to buy one of these free-standing bar buildings in some little Colorado town and put in a small museum," Galloway says. And the ABA wouldn't be averse to this beer-blessed state helping out on that preservation project.
Galloway got hooked on breweriana when he and his wife found an old bottle from the Walter Brewing Company, once the brewing pride of Pueblo. In the '40s, Galloway had enjoyed plenty of beer from Walter, which closed in 1972. Today his collection focuses on vintage Walter stuff (and Coors commemorative pieces), which helps satisfy his thirst for a beer he can never again have.
Bill Besfer, another member of the Columbine chapter, got hooked in 1970 while serving in the Navy in Japan. His wife brought home a beer can commemorating Expo '70, and that started Besfer's collection. When he returned to the States a few years later, he found that his cans and bar accessories had become valuable. So Besfer began making weekly visits to Boulder's Liquor Mart, buying one of each can that struck his fancy.
"I wound up with about 300 cans," Besfer says, "and thought, 'Man, this is really cool.' Then I ran into somebody who had 3,000 cans and heard about organized groups of collectors. And I thought I was the only one collecting cans!" (The Beer Can Collectors of America is a popular group for those who focus on cans alone.)
Today Besfer's collection centers on artfully designed Japanese cans and American breweriana with a pinup flavor. "It could qualify as art," Besfer says of the Japanese cans. "The packaging led the way for packaging we see now." The lure of the other half of his collection is more obvious: "Girls."
Amundson finally collected his cans from the attic in 1991, then moved to Colorado and worked in book sales. Off the clock, he bought and sold cans. "I found myself making more at this part-time than I did in my full-time job," he recalls. So four years ago, he switched to selling beer artifacts as a career, peddling his wares at trade shows, on eBay and on his own Web site (www.investablerelics.com).
Amundson's collection stretches from common cans that sell for ten bucks to rare versions that go for over $3,000. He also collects and sells serving trays, tip trays, glassware, tap handles and other items, all of which reveal something about America. "You can really see the history of the U.S. through its attitude toward beer," Amundson says. Pre-Prohibition collectibles, for example, feature smiling Victorian ladies and messages about the healthful effects of alcohol -- messages aimed at fighting the growing temperance movement. Post-Prohibition, beer art and advertising celebrated the resurrected breweries and featured good-time images depicting the joys of knocking back a few legal cold ones.
Collectors still decry the effect of the Eighteenth Amendment. "The country had 1,100 breweries before Prohibition," Galloway notes. "Today, there's only three major brewers: Miller, Bud and Coors. There are very few brewers and brewery workers anymore." That hard reality adds a taste of bitterness to the thrill of finding items from long-gone brew houses. But the microbrew industry has sweetened the situation some. "The craft brewing industry's great," Galloway says, "because it's introducing people to what real beer tastes like."
And breweriana collectors are showing the world what beer is all about. "We're keepers of the history," Besfer says. "We tell the microbrewery people, 'Hey, we're the people that are recording this stuff; we're putting you in the history books.' That's why we collect this stuff."