Long before Goose Island, Half Acre and Metropolitan began crafting praiseworthy local beer, Chicago was home to more than a dozen breweries in the mid-20th century. Factories such as Atlas (1503 W 21st St; 1936–62) and Pilsen (3045–65 W 26th St; 1952–62) churned out scores of mediocre macrobrews.
This prolific, if not exceptional, brewing past becomes palpable when perusing the extensive beer-can collection of suburban-raised brothers John and Mark Nelson. In the basement of Mark’s home in Big Rock, Illinois, 50 miles west of the city, they display more than 7,200 beer cans—about 300 of which were made in Chicago breweries.
These “canimals,” who own a heavy-equipment moving company, have been amassing the collection since they were teenagers in the late ’70s, going on brief hiatus “when we got into cars and girls,” says Mark, 50. Spanning the invention of cans in the ’30s until the ’70s, the collection could go at auction for more than $100,000, Mark estimates.
“There’s a lot of history stamped onto the faces of these cans,” he says. “One reads don’t throw your beer cans out the car window. Well, obviously, people were drinking when they were driving!”
On April 3, from 9am until 3pm, you’ll have a chance to check out the Nelson brothers’ prized collection during the Breweriana Trade Show hosted by the Westmont Stroh’s Chapter of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America at the Elk Grove Village VFW Hall (400 E Devon Ave). Recently, Mark sounded off on some of his favorite cans.
Meister Bräu, Peter Hand Brewing (1632 N Sheffield Ave; pre-WWII–1978)
“Every year, Meister Bräu would change their label just a little bit. The beer was so mediocre that they really thought the eye-catching graphics would push more beer out the door.”
Ilsner, Manhattan Brewing Company (3901 S Emerald Ave; 1936–68)
“There’s only a dozen of these cans known to exist. If one of these was found in mint condition, it would be worth upward of $10,000 to $15,000. This one is worth a few hundred dollars.”
Best’s Hapsburg, Best Brewing Company (1301–29 W Fletcher St; 1936–61)
“The marketing behind the cone-top picnic can was that it was a quart of beer and you could take it out on a picnic with you, as opposed to taking a six-pack.”
Peter Hand, Peter Hand Brewing
“Back in the ’30s when the can was invented, people didn’t know what a can opener was. So on the side of some of these old cans, the brewers printed picture instructions. Can you believe that?”
Drewrys, Drewrys (18th and Damen; 1951–72)
“Every year, Drewrys had a different theme to their cans. One year it was sports, another was facial features. Horoscopes was a six-can series. Each can had two astrological signs on them, so if you turned the can there was Taurus on one side and Libra on the other.”
Fox Deluxe, Peter Fox Brewing Company (2626 W Monroe St; 1938–55)
“Cans would advertise that they had Vitamin C and Vitamin G, you know, that they would make your skin toned and make your hair grow. Some of the stuff they used to put on these cans was just out there!”