COEUR d'ALENE - It was 1978, and Ralph Burns, a Mississippi transplant living in Colorado, went to drop off a few bags worth of recycling when he and his buddy stumbled across a trade show with a couple of kegs.
Tables were set up with beer cans and beer collectibles on them - bar window signs, coasters, draft taps and openers.
A world of beer, right there in Denver, and the collectors moseyed between tables, buying, selling, trading items and swapping stories.
"They had a couple of kegs of beer there!" Burns said, remembering back to the excitement of a free draft for man in his early 20s. "So I started collecting."
Three decades later and Burns' beer can collection has grown so abundant, the lot of it is packaged away in boxes that are stacked among the rafters of his Coeur d'Alene Place garage.
"I just don't have anywhere to display them," Burns said of his 1,000 cans. "Some I don't want to get rid of, but when you got 40 boxes ..."
So when Burns' son told his father as the two were putting away the Christmas tree, "Dad, you need to get rid of those," Burns started thinking.
He had free classified ad space from The Press - that's to say, he bought space to sell another item, which sold, and had paid for time to still run something else.
"I said, 'Well, all right," the 59-year-old former delivery route driver said.
So, he put them up for sale.
"Beer can collection over 1k cans $500," the ad says simply.
One man called to make an offer, but when he learned the cans were empty, his interest waned.
"He was hoping they were all full," Burns said.
Nope, they're empty. But in magnificent shape. That was Burns' collecting specialty; he like his cans in mint condition. To empty a can, he punched holes in the bottom to drain them, thereby ensuring their tops and mouths stayed pure. Sampling, of course, was always a part of the draining process. Older, rusted cans he could save by cleaning them with acrylic acid. And the names, like Pearl Lager, sound like earlier times.
Each name, in fact, can have its own memory.
How about that beer out of Pittsburgh named after the "Prince of Thieves?"
"There were a lot of good times drinking Robin Hood Cream Ale," Burns said, thinking back to the time he was living outside of Boulder, Colo., and each sip of the delight. "I remember drinking them, for sure.
"It's just been a fun hobby," he added after a spell.
Not everything is for sale. Burns said he's keeping a few dozen of his favorites. They're mostly cans out of Colorado from the 60s - the state where his collection started - and each has a memory, too. The Pearl Lager can, dated from the 60s, is Burns' first can. His father brought it home for him and cut the top wide only wide enough to drop coins or folded bills so it acted as Burns' piggy bank.
And the old Sheridan Export bar sign Burns crawled under a bartender's home for in 1985 in Sheridan, Wyo.? That would take a handsome sum to pry from him.
But what's a memory lane without regrets, like when he sold both of his first-year Coors cans. He found those 1940s cans at a tiny store in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, between Lander and Casper, and regrets he sold both of them after he bought the pair for $20. Yes, he made money on the sale, but still.
"I've never lost money on the hobby," he said of the scouring, bartering and the all-out treasure hunt behind the perfect beer tins.
Idaho breweries are rare finds today, he said. The market, never abundant to begin with, has been picked clean. A reliable spot for a rare find can be inside the walls of an old house being torn down. Construction workers of yesterday were apt to guzzle, chuck the can in the frame, then put up the wall. Today, Burns said, there are too many micro-breweries to keep up, and bottles seem to be the preferred container.
But as for Idaho beer, Burns counts Laughing Dog's Alpha Dog as his favorite. He likes the hoppy taste of beer, and speaks of their flavors like a connoisseur. Long gone are the days of his youth when he'd pick up a six-pack and drink it on the way to the trade show.
"Those are way, way by," he said. "I'm not into the chugging thing."
He's not wistful or sad to part with a bulk of his collection, though. The thousand cans he's selling aren't rare finds, he said. They're from the 80s mostly, and wouldn't fetch top dollar at a Brewery Collectibles Club of America trade show. But they look cool, they're colorful with designs and a range of neat names, and they're in tip-top shape.
Alas, they are empty.