Danbury Attorney Larry Riefberg took the 25th anniversary of his firm's founding to discuss the art of beer can collecting and to take a look at “Larry’s Beer Room”. Special thanks to guest photographer, former Danbury Corporation Counsel, Rick Gottschalk, for his photographs.
1. What inspired your appreciation for beer and for unique beer can art?
Superior Court Judge Morton Riefberg (dad), now retired and living in Naples, Fl., with mom, enjoyed (and still does) a Becks or a St. Pauli Girl in a frosted mug with a nicely poured head. Remembering, of course, that the drinking age was eighteen “back in the day”, by my senior year at Danbury High School (‘76), I was able to drink a beer (or two) with him and began to appreciate the taste of those beers (vs. the kegs of Bud that were generally poured at the high school parties).
In addition, I was fortunate to travel to Moscow and Leningrad (as it was then called) with our high school Russian Studies class. One could (and I did) put some rubles into a vending machine on a street corner and out a beer would pour! Seriously. Beers there generally contained more alcohol and were darker in color – and clearly darker than the most popular drink in Russia –the Vodka – which one could also purchase at a vending machine! By the time I began college (Tufts University, Medford, MA; ‘79), the “Harvard Yard” scene in Cambridge was bustling with small pubs and nightclubs that served great beer. Sam Adams was still a dream away (began in 1984), but there were a number of other regional and foreign beers to try. And my college mentor and advisor, Dean Bernard W. Harleston, loved his “Heineken”. We would sit on the shores of the Charles River and drink a nice cold “Heiney” discussing politics, psychology and why I was always in a hurry!
My appreciation for beer expanded during those college summer months when I was fortunate enough to travel to Czechoslovakia (where I drank the real Budweiser) and Yugoslavia in 1977 and to Hungry and Austria in 1978 through an Eastern European Studies Program at Western Connecticut State University. And since I had the opportunity to drink different types of beer in foreign countries, I began to look at the words and art work on the cans and started to appreciate not just what was in the can, but the can itself. At some point during those college years, I also recall seeing the Jasper Johns’ “Painted Bronze” (which most refer to as the “Ballantine Beer Can”) and recognized that beer cans could indeed be considered “works of art”. Johns sought to reconstitute ordinary objects in such a way as to make one appreciate the greater potential value than the object itself (a container) – and indeed that concept succeeded with me!
2. How did the collection start?
Although my undergraduate degree is from Tufts, I spent a year at American University in Washington, DC studying the American political system and interning in the office of newly-elected Congressman William Ratchford (5th District, Connecticut). While in our nations capital, I fell in love with a local watering hole: The Brickskeller (which has since closed). That bar served canned beers from around the world and thousands of those cans were on display. It also featured its own beer cans (Endangered Species Beer) which pictured animals who were becoming extinct - as a way to raise awareness of their plight. I was fascinated by the collection and that is when the idea of collecting really began. Cans would be opened from the bottom and, at the end of the evening, the wait staff would hand out paper bags so that beer lovers could bring home the empties.
3. This collection must be a real conversation starter. Do you use this beer can room for entertaining and what do people say about your collection?
The Beer Room also includes a pool table, Pac Man machine (a 50th birthday present thanks to my sister Vivian), dart board, etc. and, with the oversized flat screen TV, we all have lots of fun down there. This most especially now applies to our sons, Sean (23, a graduate student in accounting at Bryant University) and Christian (21, a undergraduate student at Western Connecticut State University) – and all of their friends as well.
Needless to say, when a “newbie” arrives into the room, there is a look of awe, shock and amazement on that face – at which I am proud and pleased and smile broadly. And then the eyes begin to look for that one can that someone once tried and then . . .over a beer, the conversations begin to flow. It is truly lots of fun to recall the memories that each of us have had when we talk about: “The first time I had that beer was when . . .” Now, Sean and Christian’s friends, wherever they may attend college or travel abroad, think about “Larry’s Beer Room” and bring back some wonderful cans.
4. Have you ever had your collection appraised (outside of the value of recycling each can)? Is there a collector's market out there for vintage beer cans? Only my wife, Meg, has actually calculated (she is a C.P.A. and the C.F.O. of our law firm, Riefberg, Smart, Donohue & NeJame, PC; www.rsdn.com) the recycling value and every once in a while threatens that she could significantly add to her shoe and pocketbook collection “if only. . .”! All kidding aside (that’s my joke not hers), I have no interest in knowing the value of the collection; I just love to learn about and taste new beers and add them to the room.
5. Are you still actively collecting and will you need more space soon?
Oh yes indeed and OH YES INDEED. In January, for instance, we traveled to Costa Rica and brought back ten new cans. While other tourists shop for those “normal” souvenirs (ok, I do admit to buying a tee shirt - an “Imperial Beer” tee shirt I might add!), I go to the grocery or liquor store or a bar or pub and look for new additions. We have done this on all of our vacations and it is a great way to meet people, strike up a wonderful conversation and add to the collection. And we often-times will head to a brewery as well. We have been fortunate to be able to travel, for instance, to Ireland, on a bicycle tour a few summers ago and, of course, found our way to the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. And when on business trips for the Worldwide Employee Relocation Council (my practice concentration is residential real estate and relocation law) in Colorado we toured Coors and in St. Louis, I saw the Clydesdales . . .and the brewery too! So I am almost out of space in the room but am actively negotiating additional new space our lower level with Meg who, although I joke with others about this all, actually allows me to fully enjoy the hobby –as long as she never has to dust one damn beer can!
6. What do you look for when you're eyeing a great beer can to keep? I would like to indicate that I am looking for something “special” but the reality is simply this: I will buy and keep any new can that I don’t now have. I do “highlight” the special cans (Olympic series, Kentucky Derby beers, Bicentennial cans, for instance, or cans representing the great American Breweries) but I will take anything. The largest single collection of sports cans comes from Iron City (Pittsburgh) where the home town loves their teams and have featured their successes over the years.
7. Do you ever buy vintage cans from other collectors or do you stick to beer cans whose contents you've consumed? I have never bought on eBay or from “collectors” per se. If I am driving around and see a Tag Sale, I might stop and ask but for the most part, I collect what I am able to drink – or get from friends who now have a real cheap souvenir that they can bring back from their travels. And our sons and their friends are always on the lookout!
8. What else can you tell us about you or the collection?
The Future: I am looking forward to the very first release of a Sam Adams beer can later this year (we hope) to add with my one and only “Sam” collectable – “Utopia” - a unique ceramic container (resembling a copper finishing brewing kettle) which, when first released about five years ago, was the strongest commercial beer in the world at 24% alcoholic content.
Current Topics: “The Great Meg and Larry Debate” continues in 2012: Is the aluminum bottle-shaped beer container a “bottle” or a “can”? And those of us that love our beer all know, of course, that it is indeed a can! And as more and more manufacturers look to these newly-shaped “cans’, the beer room will need expanding (See Connecticut Law Tribune Article in July 2017!).
General Beer Can Information: Cans block sunlight better than bottles with paper labels and therefore stay fresher longer, get colder faster (some argue they stay colder longer but the science might not “prove” that assertion), are lighter (and therefore cheaper) to ship, more easily recyclable and have a smaller footprint in the production process. However, some complain that cans can have a residue of metal or tinny flavor – which can actually be true if the linings “break”.
Favorite Beer: The Guinness, which is actually dark red, not black beer. And although Guinness promotes that its beer tastes the same everywhere in the world, having been to the Gravity Bar at the top of the brewery, I claim to the contrary! It must have been my anticipation, the freshness and that hard Wicklow Mountain water – perfect for brewing stout!
Other Favorites: Bass Ale, Stella Artois (my father-in-law Boyd’s beer of choice) or, when it is hot, a Corona (with my wife and a lime on Mead’s Bay beach in Anguilla – our most favorite get-a-way!)
Favorite Mixture: Black and Tan (a mixture of pale ale and a dark beer – stout or porter).
Least Favorite beer: Any beer at all that has a “fruit flavor”.
What’s missing: The greatest beer can collections have the first two types of cans ever produced: Flat Tops and Cone Tops (both introduced in 1935) and I have only a handful. I consider my collection more of a “living and breathing (and drinking!) collection” but I would love an opportunity to add those types of cans in the future (just please don’t let Meg read this!)
Favorite Group of Cans: Schmidt Outdoor Series
Favorite Can: This is really too tough a question to answer. I love the rich deep blue color of the big Foster’s can and the sleek ribbing of the silver Sapporo can. It is hard to argue with the simplicity of the white can with black letters that just reads: “Beer” but the most humorous can in the collection is that picturing Fatima Yechbergh (a woman of quality . . .and quantity one observes) who is featured on the Olde Frothingslosh can (“The pale stale ale so light . . .the foam is on the bottom).
Best Advise: Come see the collection and we’ll drink a beer together and have some fun.
Favorite Quotes: Although I am not a fan of William Claude Dukenfield (W.C. Fields): “A woman drove me to drink and I did not have the decency to thank her” followed by “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” (Ben Franklin).
About the Collector: 1976 Graduate of Danbury High School; 1979 Graduate of Tufts University; 1982 Graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law. Larry is the Managing Partner of Riefberg, Smart, Donohue & NeJame, P.C., (www.rsdn.com) – a five attorney general practice firm in Danbury with 30 employees. For more information, contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-748-9259 or email@example.com.
This article about a huge collection of beer cans was written by Danbury Attorney Larry Riefberg on the occassion of the 25 anniversary of the founding of his lawfirm.