That $1 can of Angkor you just imbibed and cast away, it sells for about $13 on the Internet auction site Ebay. And that can of Black Panther stout? About $20.
Or $19.26 to be precise, says Mark Rodgers, the US architect who bought the empty beer cans, and Vinh, the Ho Chi Minh City businessman who sold them over the Internet.
Rodgers, a board member of the 4,000-strong Brewery Collectibles Club of America and president of its “One Can, One Country” chapter, says Cambodian beer cans are particularly prized because they’re hard to come by in Western countries.
“Not many are available outside of Cambodia,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “Most (tourists) only bring back one or two cans for friends.”
Kevin Logan, curator of the Beer Can Museum in the US city of Boston, suspects there are far more beer can collectors out there than the 4,000 in the BCCA.
Mark Benbow, a professional historian and amateur can collector, puts the number of fanatics of “breweriana”—the coasters, bottle openers, cans and other promotional items that breweries make—at about 10,000.
“I have a bar of beer soap, a beer can telephone, a beer can safe, pub towels and other oddities that liven up the collection,” Logan wrote in a recent e-mail.
Benbow said the motives for collecting are as diverse and eccentric as the collectors themselves.
“Some people collect for nostalgic reasons; maybe they used to work at a brewery, or their father or grandfather did…. Some people like a local connection and collect cans from long-deceased breweries in their hometown,” Benbow wrote in an e-mail. “I met a collector once who worked with elephants in the zoo, so he collected cans with elephants on them.”
Members of the “One Can, One Country” chapter aim to put together beer can collections containing at least one can from every country.
The debate about what exactly constitutes a country is a contentious one among chapter members, and Rodgers has expanded the definition to include not just existing countries but any country that has ever made a beer can, whether the nation has slid into non-existence or not.
Thus he collects cans not only from Sri Lanka but also from Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known until 1972; not just Zimbabwe but also Rhodesia, and so on.
He even has a can stamped from remote Christmas Island—the only one known to exist—which was made to commemorate “Operation Grapple,” a 1957 United Kingdom atomic bomb test conducted on a nearby island.
“It is very valuable to me,” he wrote.
Cambodian beer cans may not be as hard to come by as those from Christmas Island, but if you look on Ebay right now, you won’t find anyone hawking local brews.
Vinh, who requested that his last name not be used, works for a European trading company. He traveled to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for a week or so in May to do a marketing survey.
Not a beer can collector himself—but rather an avid stamp collector—he decided to pick up a few Cambodian cans on a whim, figuring there might be a market for them in Germany. He also hadn’t noticed anyone else selling Cambodian cans.
“I bought some beer cans and beverage[s] as I know there are…collectors, in Europe especially, that like to collect beer cans,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “There are not many people [trading] these that I have known.”
Vinh brought about two dozen cans back with him. Because collectors prefer unopened cans, he drilled small holes in each one and emptied out the beer. Every can sold within a week, and there aren’t any more on Ebay.
As Rodgers sees it, a limited supply may be a good thing. The fewer cans there are on the market, the more value they have. He figures the two Black Panther cans he bought are worth about $25. But if just 10 to 12 more go up for sale in the next month or so, their value could drop to as low as $2.
But if that dark cloud should pass, Rodgers is prepared to find the silver lining in the form of an elephant-embossed can of Klang.
“After your article…I suspect there will be quite a few Cambodians who will immediately try to sell some more,” he wrote. “There is a red Klang can with an elephant that I would like though, so hopefully it will average out.”
As for other local brews, Rodgers estimates that new cans of Beer Lao and Angkor are worth about $5 because they are more widely available.
But as with any can, he said, older designs that are no longer available are more valuable. Earlier editions of Black Panther that say “FEEL THE POWER” across the lip should keep their $10 to $15 value because more aren’t being made, he said, and older incarnations of Angkor can go for as much as $20.
But for diehard beer can aficionados, $20 is chump change. Rodgers says a 1960s can of Lion Lager from Ceylon is worth up to $1,500. It was served almost exclusively on flights to and from the island and is the only known can that has “Ceylon” printed on it, he said.
And real breweriana fanatics are willing to pay even more than that.
Rodgers said rare US beer cans from the 1930s and WWII can fetch over $10,000. A can of Clipper Beer from that era, he said, fetched $19,000 on Ebay last year.
Such talk makes collectors like Logan, the curator of the Beer Can Museum, salivate. He’s particularly fond of WWII cans, which, like soldiers, were camouflaged to make them harder for the enemy to find.
“I dream of finding cans like these someday!” he gushed in a recent e-mail.
Many collectors say that, in the end, they’re not in it for the money.
Benbow said he likes the history behind the cans, how their designs reflect changes in the brewing business in particular and society in general.
Rodgers, too, said he isn’t out to make a buck. A collector since 1976, when he and his brother began biking out to the countryside around Washington to scavenge for discarded tin gems, he likes how the hobby brings together people from different countries, cultures and classes.
“The people involved come from all walks of life, from banker to postman,” he wrote. “And it has linked me to some great people all around the world.”
In a few weeks, he and his family will go to Italy to visit collectors he has been trading with for almost 15 years.