Written by Roger Baylor
I used to be a beer collector, but nowadays, I’d rather just drink a few good beers, tell stories, and listen to tales from other beer drinkers.
For me, living the dream means consciously refraining from any more documentation than owning a brewery already makes necessary, and overall, pursuing a drinking life more Homeric than bound by encyclopedic iPhone app.
Long before the instantaneous electronic communications helped enable a worldwide culture of beer ratings and trophy lists, there was a more palpably physical element to beer collecting.
Cans and bottles were the readiest targets of the hoarder’s impulse, including mine. You drained, and you kept it. This seemed like a practical strategy, given that there were far fewer types of beer to acquire during the nadir of American beer in the late 1970’s. I was looking ahead to having a house of my own, with a bar, and as many shelves as needed to display my spent vessels of drinking bouts past.
Alas, it didn’t work out that way.
In the run-up to my brilliant and consistently delayed future, the boxes began accumulating beyond any reasonable archival capacity. There weren’t as many U-Store-Its in those primitive times, and much to my shock, those few friends who could afford decent housing were oddly disinterested in roles as museum curators to my stash, as stacked dustily in their basements.
So it was that apart from a handful of sentimental favorites, the bulk of the collection was carted to the landfill, and a second simplified phase began, although a major jolt to my worldview was required to facilitate it.
Once I’d started lugging my backpack through Europe, it took precisely one hike from the train station to the hostel, a mere five uphill kilometers away on the other side of the city, to illustrate that packing light always is the best policy for the budget traveler. Three months or more with a handful of semi-clean personal belongings is not the best time to play pack rat.
Then, a night on the town somewhere in Switzerland established conclusively that food and drink were far cheaper when purchased from a supermarket than a bar or restaurant. Occasional on-premise splurges were permitted and encouraged, so long as farthings allowed, but day-to-day drinking increasingly was shifted to a commons area or a park bench, savoring bottled beers, a section of cheese and a hunk of bread, all purchased at a shop.
I noticed relatively quickly that irrespective of European locale, most bottles of beer came only after paying a deposit, meaning they were meant to be returned for refilling, and this provided my third and final revelation: When the brewery intends to clean a glass bottle for refilling, the previous labels are to be removed eventually, and if a brewery intends for labels to be removed, it does not use strong glue to affix them.
The labels would fall off after a few seconds soaking the empties in a sink. All I had to do was let them dry, place them between the pages of my guidebook, and a brand new collector’s hobby had come into being. Labels were light, easy to harvest, and evidence of wonderful times. With the help of running notations in a spiral-bound notebook, a list was born.
As my travels continued, so did my collecting of beer labels, but as time passed, my mode of travel veered ever more up-market. I had more money to spend, and so more beers were consumed at pubs and taverns, where one’s readily available souvenirs are beer mats/coasters, not labels. For reasons unknown, this shift in travel habits led to an alarming weight gain.
The more experienced I became in a world of beer, and the greater my knowledge of it, the less imperative it became for me to keep detailed lists, and to amass tangible evidence of the beer I’d enjoyed. Most of it tended to be thrown into banker’s boxes anyway, and seldom seen. At some point along the way, I realized that with age came an accumulated weight of experience and knowledge, something that isn’t quantifiable with mere slips of colored paper or hundreds of documented beer ratings.
I’ve consumed thousands of different beers in my life, and in some instances, thousands of the same beer. There isn’t a master listing, and undoubtedly the identity of many are lost forever, like that cool draft Helles from the tiny train station buffet in the Bavarian countryside back in the summer of 1985.
But even when you can’t remember their names, it doesn’t mean they didn’t show you a great time — while it lasted.