Cheers to this hobby!

Brewing lore flows from the treasure of historic beer cans Dennis Grabow inherited from his father and is now displayed at the Grafton Library
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

A casual conversation at the Grafton public library led a village resident to relive cherished memories with his father, some more thirst-quenching than others.

Dennis Grabow, 70, resurrected his late father’s beer can collection and has a unique part of it on display at the library through the end of the month.

As interesting as the cans are themselves — collecting was a popular hobby decades ago, driving breweries to develop different designs — it’s the anecdotes behind the ales that has Grabow feeling nostalgic.

His father Donald began collecting through a friend who had cans of Schmidt beer from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Each can had a different picture, and Donald was intrigued.

The beer wasn’t available in Waukesha, where the Grabows lived, but college Dennis was in an area where it was sold. Donald asked his son bring a case with him when he came home from the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

They opened the beers from the bottom to preserve the cans for collecting. Just like with hobbies such as baseball card collecting, they traded their doubles with friends.

During summer, Donald and Dennis would visit liquor stores that catered to collectors. “Somehow, I think we stopped to sample some beers, too,” Dennis said.

Some were better than others.

During a hunting trip with his father, uncle and his father’s friend, the group was down to one beer after returning from a day in the woods. They drew straws for it, and the friend won. He took a swig and said,

“I’ll share,” Grabow said.

Each man took one swallow, and that was plenty.

“I can honestly say that is the only beer we’ve ever dumped out. It was that bad,” Grabow said. “Our standards for beer aren’t that high but that was one that got dumped.”

It was Hop’n Gator, which was a mix of beer and Gatorade made by Iron City Brewery in Pittsburgh.

Ruppert beer from New York City was the next worst.

“It wasn’t bad enough to dump out. We drank it, but would never buy it again,” Dennis said.

One of their favorites was Frothingslosh, also brewed by Iron City. Its name came from an old radio show and its marketing slogan was “the pale, stale ale with the foam on the bottom.”

“Any beer that puts that on the can can’t be bad,” Dennis said with a laugh, adding the beer cans were a different color each year.

A local favorite was Weber beer brewed in Waukesha. It came in a neck top can that allowed breweries to use the same piece of equipment to fill bottles and cans. That was an advantage for smaller breweries that couldn’t afford separate lines, Dennis said.

Some of the father-son duo’s collecting depended on their hydration levels.

“Sometimes, we were thirsty and we wouldn’t pop the bottom,” Dennis said.

His favorite beer is Guinness stout.

Collecting was a big deal from the 1970s into the early ’80s.

Beer collecting clubs formed and trade shows were held.

Huber Beer had 14 different cans to cater to the market, even though the company brewed only two beers.

Some of the cans were found when the well pump house of the City of Waukesha’s water utility, where Donald worked, was taken down. The building had been used for storage. Employees, including Donald, would visit during lunchtime and have a beer, Dennis said.

His father, who tended bar part time for extra cash, picked up some cans on the side of the road. Others he traded for. He had them on display in the family’s rec room in the basement.

Logos and tastes ran the gamut, and so did the way the cans opened.

Coors tried buttons but “you would cut your fingers,” Dennis said.

Blatz, he said, was one of the first to offer pop-tops.

Dennis has the familiar tool known as a church key to open cans as well.

His occupation helped support the hobby. Dennis worked in quality control at Stainless Foundry and Engineering in Milwaukee for nearly 40 years. Most of the company’s valve and pump parts went to the military or nuclear power plants, but “at one point a lot of breweries had our parts,” he said.
Donald’s beer can collection grew to nearly 700. Dennis inherited it in 2001 when his father died. He isn’t searching for cans to add to the lot.
“For me, it was something fun to do with dad,” he said. “It would be neat to expand the cans but it isn’t the same feel.”
Dennis’ wife Pat, who doesn’t drink beer, is fine with that.

“I actually didn’t know he had that many beer cans,” she said. “We always had a big basement, so I guess he could hide them.”

Dennis got them out for the first time in 20 years after talking to Grafton Library Director John Hanson. The two knew each other through Boy Scouts — Dennis was involved for decades, including serving as Scoutmaster multiple times — and Hanson said a display of beer cans would be of interest to patrons.

Dennis first brought out a collection of Wisconsin cans to help teach people some local suds history. Many don’t know that Pabst at one time brewed several beers.

Now, Dennis has a display of unusual cans, including one designed from his favorite TV show, M*A*S*H, and four different cans from Hamm’s, originally brewed in St. Paul. It went through several different owners before MillerCoors purchased the brand.

“It’s an everyday good beer,” Dennis said of Hamm’s.

His current display has a Billy Beer can. The beer was named after President Jimmy Carter’s brother, who it turns out had a drinking problem.

“The beer sold because of the can,” Dennis said.

The display also has a JR Ewing’s Private Stock can named after the famous character in the “Dallas” TV show.

Dennis taught high school for a short time up north, and his display includes some histories of the beers and breweries.

Some of Dennis’ cans might be worth a few bucks, but he said tracking down a price on each would be too much work.

He has two sons and a daughter and plans to let them pick out the cans they want someday and sell the rest of them in one lot.

One of his sons, Eric, lives in Virginia and brings his father Yuengling beer when he visits. It started in Pottsville, Penn., in 1829 and is the oldest brewery in America that’s still in operation.

Eric is regularly asked to take a box of cans back with him.

“I think he plans not to have room to take them back,” his father said.

Regardless, setting up the displays has brought Dennis recollections of quality family time.

“It is really fun to get them back out again, and the memories of the hunting trip,” he said.

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