Jim and Ruth Beaton collect beer memorabilia, or “breweriana,” which they display in three rooms on the lower level of their home in Bloomington.
Written by Kim Palmer for startribune.com
When collectors from around the country converge in the Twin Cities next week, a group of them will visit a museum together. Not the Weisman or the Walker, but a basement in Bloomington.
All the artifacts share one theme: beer. The “curators,” Jim and Ruth Beaton, have been collecting for almost four decades and are members of four national beer-collectible organizations, including the American Breweriana Association (ABA), which is holding its annual meeting June 8-12 in Bloomington.
“When the big shows are in town, we invite them over for an open house,” said Jim.
Visiting the Beatons’ basement really is like visiting a museum, said Otto Tiegs, the ABA’s immediate past president. “It’s big, but what makes theirs really nice is the historical value, and the way they’ve saved the beer memories and mystique.” The Beatons have items representing the big local brewers, such as Hamm’s and Grain Belt, but they also have many artifacts from obscure breweries, such as Kiewel’s of Little Falls, Minn.
The collection always sparks conversation, Tiegs said. “Everybody’s got a beer story, even if they never drink it. People see something and say, ‘That was my dad’s beer’ or ‘My grandfather drank that.'”
While some breweriana collections are large in size but narrow in scope (such as beer cans only), the Beatons’ collection includes an array of more unusual items, from antique signs to trays to tap handles. “They’ve been choosy in what they decided to collect,” Tiegs said.
Their “choosiness” was born out of practicality, according to Jim. In the early ’70s, their son, then age 12, started collecting beer cans. “Ruth and I would take him to flea markets and dumps,” Jim recalled. “There are a lot of old beer cans buried here and in North Dakota. I would pick up beer glasses and trays, so I wasn’t competing with him. That’s why we got started on this stupid thing,” he said with a laugh.
A few years later, their son “got a car and discovered girls,” Jim said. “That was more fun than collecting beer stuff. But I was hooked.”
Brewed in Minnesota
The couple started going to collectors’ conventions and widening their search for unusual items, focusing on Minnesota breweriana. Again, this was a tactical move, Ruth noted. “When you’re collecting all Minnesota, you’re competing against a couple people,” as opposed to collectors from all over the country.
Jim, who hails from North Dakota, admits “a soft spot” for that state’s brews, so they are represented in the collection. Even Venezuelan beer, the catalyst for a memorable episode in the couple’s collecting career, gets a shout-out. The Beatons were on a South American cruise, at port in Caracas, when Jim ventured off alone in search of local beer. He wandered around, without success, until he figured out that Venezuelan bars weren’t on the street level but on the second floor. He found a bar and tried to talk to the bartender. “But I didn’t speak Spanish, and he didn’t speak English,” Jim recalled. He spotted two six-packs, pointed at them, and offered $10, which the bartender accepted.
But by then he was lost. “I realized I was in a rough part of town, with armed militia everywhere, and I had no idea how to get back to the bus or the port,” he said. He started running, finally reaching the top of a hill where he could see buses below, and ran toward them. When he got closer, he saw Ruth. “She was lying in front of the bus, so it couldn’t leave without me,” he said. “I got on the bus, and someone said, ‘You’ve got beer — share it.’ Well, it was all shaken from my running, and it blew all over when I opened it.”
That interlude aside, most of the collection is a slice of Americana. The oldest items date to 1890, representing the pre-Prohibition era, when Minnesota boasted more than 290 breweries. “All the small towns had their own,” Jim said.
One of Ruth’s favorite collectibles hails from that period: a delicate 1908 die-cut of roses, promoting Melrose Brewing. “I like it because it’s feminine-looking,” she said.