Here is something to remember when you step out for a beverage on this beery Super Bowl weekend. In the craft-beer pubs springing up like wild hops across the land, the better beers have names like trolls.
There's Church-Key Grains of Wrath, Muskoka Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout, Hop City Barking Squirrel (surrealist “anti-marketing” names are the rage), Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA – “hops, passion fruit, grapefruit, lime, melon, lychee fruit, pineapple, mango, and papaya.” It's quite a salad at $7.53 a pint, and a bestseller (as you can tell by the little heart next to its name on the beer menu).
It all makes me want to change into armour, or a dress – preferably armour or a dress that might be worn by a character in a 16th-century French romance. Eventually, after enough beer (and the beer is truly excellent), I think this might be a good idea. No wonder the craft-beer biz is bumping up by 50 per cent a year.
I am in the Stout, a craft-brew pub in Toronto's east end, to see Larry Sherk, who is sitting across the table. At 75, in his checked red shirt, with his thinning hair and square glasses and large head, Larry – he is not the kind of man you can call Mr. Sherk – resembles a drinker in a William Kurelek painting.
He is one of the world's foremost brewerianists, a collector of beer stuff who over 40 years has amassed the country's second-largest private collection of beer labels (about 3,000), many of which date to the late 1800s. For a beer label, that is practically prehistoric.
Last year, in a desperate attempt to clear some space in his house, he donated the labels to the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto.
The library immediately declared the labels of “outstanding significance” and made them part of its paper-ephemera collection – the sets of report cards, theatre bills, train schedules, subway transfers, cigar bands, menus, patent-medicine ads, funeral announcements and other daily litter of our lives that might one day tell us who we were.
The library's assessors claim the labels are worth $125,000, and getting more valuable.
“There are very few younger collectors coming into the field,” Larry says to me, dipping into his pint of Beau's Lug-Tread lagered ale. (Which I have to admit is a new-brew combination I find unconvincing. My question is: Why?) “They're all into their cellphones and iPads. I see these people on their cellphones and I wonder who the hell they're talking to. They're not accumulators. They want a simple life.”
But take a sip and consider this: On Dec. 9 last year, eBay listed 809 rare stamps. Of the few that sold, the most expensive fetched $587.73. On the same day, 140,877 beer labels were up for sale. Fully 17,098 of them sold, for a top price of $611.17.
The winner, a British label from the Wintles brewery, dated to the 1870s: You could tell because the label claimed the beer was “Bottled at the Brewery.” By then, Britain's roads were good enough to transport beer in glass bottles.
Collectors collect everything, because they want to control a piece of the rushing parade we call our lives. There is an online museum of air-sickness bags, for instance. Yes. There are people called “vecturists” who collect nothing but subway tokens. I know of a woman who collects the plastic clips that secure the necks of plastic bags of milk and bread.
Each piece of each collection is a way – a funny, strange, original and possibly lonely way – of saying yes, a stab into the darkness that declares: I may not be here for long, but this thing might be. A collection is a way of becoming history.
These, in any event, are the thoughts that come to you after a glass of Cameron's Deviator Doppelbock, a heavily malted dark beauty with the body of a cancan dancer and the head of a mathematician. It might be the best beer I've ever tasted.
Drinking, but not to forget