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
Larry Sherk's label collection starts in 1871, with two beautifully preserved Dow Brewery labels from Montreal, and ends in the 1980s, with foil-faced labels from Carling O'Keefe. The labels make you want to drink beer, but they also make you want to remember where you came from.
That isn't just the Doppelbock talking: Human beings have been pouring beer down their throats for at least 4,600 years, and brewing has been a part of Canadian history since a Jesuit brother named Ambroise first brewed beer at Sillery in Quebec in 1642.
The history of brewing is the history of Canadian monopoly capitalism: An enterprising type starts a local brewery to such keen neighbourhood enthusiasm that he attracts competition. The competitors multiply or merge or push each other out of business until a few big brewers control the game, whereupon the quality of beer goes flat until a new generation takes on the dull monopolists.
John Molson started Canada's oldest extant brewery in Montreal in 1786. A hundred years later, there were more than 180 breweries in the land.
A hundred years after that, E.P. Taylor – the heir to Bradings Brewery near Ottawa – had consolidated the number to fewer than 10 independents, all in the name of economies of scale.
The new craft brewers represent the beginning of another cycle of enterprise. One reason Larry Sherk handed off his label collection was that he couldn't keep up with the start-ups. Thirty years ago, there were (arguably) three microbrewers. Today, even in Ontario, where the ghosts of Methodists still waft among the liquor laws, 70 craft brewers compete for $10.5-million in craft-beer sales, or about 5 per cent of the market. Sales of craft beer grew faster than any other category at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
Nearly 13 per cent of the beer sold in British Columbia is microbrew, where sales have doubled to $111-million in the past five years. Even Molson has announced plans to jump into the “craft” vat (which thrills the independents no end, I can tell you).
The more you look at Larry's labels, they more they tell you. The collection has a beery, Proustian- prost effect, summoning ancient brands still remembered passionately in one region but unheard of everywhere else: Kuntz in Waterloo, Kiewel White Seal in Saint Boniface, Adanac in Regina, Big Horn in Calgary, Northwestern in Edmonton, Uncle Ben's in B.C., Red Ball in New Brunswick. Blue Top! Haig Caribou! Swill! When Edmonton's Northwest Brewing Company introduced Bohemian Maid beer, anyone could stop at the brewery for a free one.
I switched to the Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA, from Barrie, Ont. It was like drinking something spicy off a pretty girl's skin.
I thought: Why is it when you love something local, it makes you love your country too?
That was a beer thought.
The way from beer to here
And why does Larry Sherk collect what he collects?
Here is one reason: because he can. “It all started 40 years ago,” he says over his second pint, a golden, V-shaped glass of Sawdust City's Ol' Woody Alt. It was 1972; he was 36 years old; he had a blank wall in his apartment. He discovered beer trays could cover the emptiness. He still owns 200 of them.
Beer trays led to beer labels, beer mats, beer-bottle caps (collectors call them crowns), beer matchbook covers, beer-related sports schedules, coasters, openers, catalogues, tap handles and cans. “The beer cans are a problem in my house,” Larry says; he has 4,000 of them, “plus or minus.”
Presumably, so are his 120 bubbas – a bubba being a five-litre can – which include 16 from the 18-can series from Unibrou printed with historic Quebec scenes. He owns 1,500 stand-up, brand-related table cards. He has lived in the same house for 38 years.
In his work, he was a renowned horticulturist (he devised Canada's first plant-hardiness map), but that was because his grandfather had been one and because his parents wanted him to be one too. “It was all they knew,” he says. “They thought I'd be a florist.” He won a scholarship to Cornell University, and travelled Europe to see its great nurseries. But if he could do it over, he would have studied history.
Here is another reason people collect things: because they don't know where their habit will take them. “When I started out,” Larry says, “I had a couple of beer trays. I didn't know what I was gonna get.”
Good point. Who does? You run your course, grabbing as you go, and then at the end you sit down and look at what you picked up along the way, where your heart went, where your mind lingered. This is the approach of the gatherers. The hunters do it differently.
Larry's family are all collectors. There seems to be a collecting gene. His sister likes anything to do with ducks; his brother collected Orange Crush memorabilia. His nephews did buttons, pop cans, Snoopies. “My parents” – seed catalogues – “never threw anything away, and I never throw anything away,” he admits.
That is the collector's nightmare: What do you do with your collection, this conglomeration you cared for, before you die? Few seem to want to sell.
“Unfortunately, right now,” Larry says – he's still on his second beer: he drinks slowly, and always with water – “my house is a mess, and has been for a year or two. That's why I've more or less declared it off limits to friends and collectors.” He's hoping to donate the rest to an institution that wants it.
He never married, choosing instead to travel the country on brewery tours with his beer buddies. “I have a hundred beer trays on my walls, so you know I'm not married,” he says. “You can almost always tell if a collector is married, because their collection never makes it out of the basement.”
Two sips forward, one sip back
I stayed in the glowing bar after Larry left, and drank another half-pint (Dead Elephant Ale from Railway City Brewing in St. Thomas, Ont. – a beautiful label, named for Jumbo, who died on the tracks). I thought about beer, broad and brave, as a companion.
I stepped out to relieve myself, but did not recall at that moment who it was that said frequent urination is a sign of superior intelligence. (It was Henry Miller.)
What I remembered instead was something John Updike wrote in 1964, a lament for the demise of the punch-hole beer can, a thing “as beautiful as a clothespin.” He figured he could flip the new “ugly, shmoo-shaped” tab can upside down and punch it anyway: “What we need is Progress with an escape hatch,” he wrote.
I thought to myself: That's what a collection is. And that's what beer is, too. Cheers to both.
Roughly 600 of the beer labels in the Sherk collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library can be seen online at: www.flickr.com/
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.