Since I’m hosting this month’s edition of The Session about Beer Collectibles and Breweriana, it seemed appropriate for me to explain, or rationalize, my own obsession. If you’re a beer nut like me you find ways to enjoy this wonderful substance even when you’re not consuming it. Some people read books and magazines or dabble in homebrewing. In addition to those pastimes, I decided to collect beer ephemera.
I started collecting Breweriana in the spring of 2010 when I attended the Vintage Paper Fair in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It was a quite Saturday afternoon and the event was within walking distance. I was curious. Would I find stacks of century old decorative paper, or posters, books and postcards? Thankfully, it was the latter.
As I wandered the isles dodging collectors who were rifling through hundreds of musty bins, I was struck by one stall filled with vintage fruit crate labels. The ads were playful, vivid and wonderfully creative. I had an empty kitchen wall at the time and they seemed like a perfect fit.
While I was rummaging for pieces that caught my eye I noticed a small cardboard box filled with beer labels. I flipped through the stack and was immediately drawn to an Acme Brewing label that contained a tiny bucolic beer garden rendered in rich color nestled inside gold trim. It was beautiful and only $7 bucks, so I snapped it up along with a few fruit labels that were also from the Bay Area.
The hunt was on. After that purchase I made a point of asking each vendor if they had any beer labels. Unfortunately there wasn’t much, but I did manage to find two more from Michigan; Old Craft Brewby the Menominee-Marinette Brewing and Altes Lager Beer by Tivoli Brewing Company. Since then these three labels have multiplied into over 200 in the last 12 months with help from eBay and collectors who’ve sold to me in bulk.
So why labels? Well, at the time my exploration of beer was just starting to go deeper then a casual appreciation. I found myself wanting to learn more about the various styles, producers and most importantly, it’s history beyond the likes of Miller, Budweiser and the craft breweries I already adored. Secondly, I’ve always admired the graphic design of beer’s packaging and advertising, which is full of artistry and interesting symbolism. As a trained artist I’m always scrutinizing the visual world and sometimes I’m compelled to own whatever strikes me. Finally, from a practical standpoint, they’re easy to store in a six hundred square foot apartment.
When I started combing the Internet for more I quickly realized the new habit had to be tempered. Labels from all over America and the world were begging to be purchased so I focused on Detroit breweries. Before moving to San Francisco I grew in neighboring Dearborn and was fascinated by Detroit’s architecture and cultural history, so the brewing industry was a natural extension, especially since so much of it has disappeared over the last sixty years. Detroit was once a beer Mecca and now only three breweries call it home. Label collecting became a way of preserving that history and it also keeps me connected to my home state.
A few months later I widened my search to labels from the entire state of Michigan and even started buying a few from San Francisco. Like any collector, sometimes I just couldn’t say no. My current goal is to own at least one label from every brewing company that bottled in Michigan since the industry’s infancy till 1950. It’s a tall order, but what the hell.
So that’s my story. Now it’s time for show and tell. Instead of just posting a bunch of cool labels, I chose four that allude to the turmoil of the era in which they were produced.
In the late 1930’s Goebel Brewing Company in Detroit was emerging out of prohibition as major regional producer. It was founded in 1873 by August Goebel, who like many of the era’s great beer barons had Germanic roots, which was proudly reflected in their brand. Europeans were pouring into America and longed for their homeland brew. Appealing to the huddled masses made sense.
After the repeal of prohibition Goebel started out with a fresh look. They chose to wrap their beer bottles and stamp their delivery trucks with angular German eagles dressed in red and black. The label is modern and bold, but by the late 1930’s was dramatically altered. The eagle needed to look more American. Hitler’s rise to power and impending war required the switch.
The new design was a simple change and they managed to maintain the brand’s visual integrity. It must have cost Goebel a fortune, but they didn’t have a choice.
A similar change took place at Eagle Brewing Company in San Francisco. They must have quickly realized that the swastika on their Mohawk beer was going to send mixed messages. So they simply stamped out the problem.