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From Dubuque to Potosi: The American Breweriana Association celebrates beer history
Santen: 'I like to travel, I like yard sales, and I pick up openers.'
Credit:Robin Shepard

"I don't gamble, I don't smoke, I don't drink too much beer, so I have plenty of money to spend on my hobby," says Art Santen. The St. Louis resident's hobby is collecting bottle openers from breweries. Santen has collected so many -- 35,000 so far -- that he's been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest such collection. He's been gathering these openers since the 1970s, and has a room in his house dedicated to them.

"I like to travel, I like yard sales, and I pick up openers," says Santen, whose collection was showcased on the PBS program Living St. Louis back in 2007. Santen's first opener was given to him by his father, who ran a tavern in the city. It was from the Griesedieck Brothers, a historic brewing brand in St. Louis. (To learn more about this type of collection, see the Just for Openers club.)

Santen was one among more than 200 collectors of all things beer who attended this 2014 meeting of the American Breweriana Association (ABA), which was held in Dubuque, Iowa over June 10-14. It was the 33rd annual meeting for the group; the event came to Madison in 2009, and next year it will be held in Phoenix, Arizona.

At least once every five years, the ABA makes a point to hold its conference in the region around Potosi, Wisconsin, ever since the National Brewery Museum opened there in June 2008. The museum, along with the Potosi brewpub, are housed in the old Potosi Brewery complex, just a short drive up the Mississippi River from Dubuque.

On June 12, many conference attendees traveled to Potosi to visit the museum and brewpub. "We usually go places where we can enjoy the history of the old breweries and see some of the new microbreweries and brewpubs," says ABA president Larry Bowden, who's from nearby Platteville.

The conference a profound economic impact on the area, says Frank Fiorenza, president of the village of Potosi for the last 20 years. "We get several hundred people coming in, taking hotel rooms, visiting eating establishments and taking advantage of other venues in the area," he says.

Along with the field trip to Potosi, conference-goers also took a tour of Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe.

However, for avid collectors, the ABA meeting is really about the chance to buy and sell breweriana with other hobbyists. What is breweriana? Along with bottle openers, think bottles themselves, along with cans, coasters, trays, tin and neon signs, and anything else bearing a brewery logo.

Each evening during the conference, three floors of hotel rooms in the Holiday Inn Dubuque were turned into mini-stores where purchases and swaps were conducted room-to-room in an atmosphere that rivaled Antiques Roadshow.

Don Kurtz came from Ogden Dunes, Indiana, with boxes of beer cans he was hoping to sell or trade. His collection started with the goal of one can per country. While looking over enough cans to cover the two queen beds in his hotel room, he quipped, "this is just excess stock!"

The evening hours are not just for bartering. Many of the ABA attendees use their rooms to simply display their private collections.

Jeff Scholz of Houston, Texas, specializes in collectables from the Jung Brewing Company of Random Lake, Wisconsin, which operated from 1933 to 1958. Scholz's hotel room was more of a museum than a buy-and-sell shop. "I like to meet people who collect things that I collect," he says. "You get to talk to those you see over the years here at ABA and learn about the history of certain brewery objects."

The ABA conference always concludes with a formal trade show. This year's edition featured over 110 vendors and dealers in breweriana from all over the country. Another highlight of the final day is a bottle swap, where conference-goers who have brought beers from their home state exchange favorite and rare brews with each other. However, it's still the room-to-room trading that stands out for many new to the American Breweriana Association.

As for additions to his assortment of openers, Art Santen -- perhaps better known to his collector colleagues as "Opener Man" -- did find a few he didn't already have, and is so upholding his place as the world record-holder.

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