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Collectively Speaking: For Catonsville Resident Mike Bowler, It’s Beer Cans

Montana breweries hold a special beckoning for him.

Mike Bowler proudly noted that he shares a birthday with President Barack Obama who turned 50 on Aug. 4. For Bowler, it was his 70th and the fireplace mantle in the home he shares with wife, Margaret, was filled with birthday cards marking the milestone. In fact, his three sisters flew in for the occasion: two from Montana and one from Oregon.

Bowler grew up in Helena, MT, but said, “I went to college in '59 and never left the East. Graduated from Columbia exactly 20 years before Obama, which tells you that neither of us skipped a grade. I graduated in '63 and he graduated in '83.”

An award-winning newspaper reporter and education columnist, Bowler moved from Atlanta, where he worked at the Journal-Constitution, to Baltimore in 1970 when he joined the staff of The Sun. On display is a framed, full-size spoof edition of the paper’s front page, complete with caricature portrait of Bowler, which was presented to him when he retired in 2004.

Still active in education matters as a consultant and volunteer at Hillcrest Elementary School, Bowler was also appointed to a five-year term on the Baltimore County Board of Education in July 2010, a position he relishes. In the brief bio blurb that accompanies photos of board members, Bowler’s states: “… and he enjoys collecting beer cans and spending time with his grandson.”

When collecting beer cans is part of your bio, it says that they define a part of your life. Patch set out to learn more.

Bowler claimed he isn’t as active a collector as he once was. He began collecting in the 70s and now has about a thousand cans—displayed alphabetically he points out—on a series of white open shelves along two walls of a finished basement room. Many of the cans Bowler bought from fellow Catonsville resident, Ray Knisley, who has gotten out of the hobby.

Said Bowler: “I can’t bring myself to throw away these cans. I had a guy call me up the other day because I still keep an active membership in BCCA and asked to look at my collection. I gave him a bunch of cans that I had duplicates of. A couple of weeks later, I got a $50 restaurant gift certificate in the mail.” Seems can collectors are a bunch of nice guys —for it is a male-dominated hobby. Although Bowler observes that a woman served as president of the organization several years back.

That organization BCCA, (Brewery Collectibles Club of America, formerly Beer Can Collectors of America), publishes a bimonthly glossy magazine and holds an annual CANvention, Bowler said with a laugh. Its 2011 membership directory lists the names and areas of specialty for each of its members. According to the BCCA website: “The club now boasts more than 4,000 active members from all 50 states and 27 foreign countries.”

Bowler explained that, sooner or later, every collector begins to specialize. For him, it is cans from breweries in Montana. These are displayed on the top shelf of a glass-paned cabinet. There are collectors who specialize in cans with sports themes, cans from a particular brewery, cans of a particular type. Some limit their collection to cans of beers that they first consume.

Asked if he is a beer drinker himself, Bowler said: “Oh, yes. I like beer but these days I don’t drink much beer. I drink wine and gin.”

Bowlers explains that Krueger introduced the first beer can in 1935, which was made of steel, with a cone top so that it could use the same production line as bottles.

Breweries evolved from the cone-top to the flat-top steel cans to the aluminum cans we know today. “The very first flat cans actually put out instructions as to how to open,” says Bowler, whose collection spans the decades.

At times, large breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch, filled beer cans with water and donated to cities experiencing natural disasters affecting their water supply.

The industry is also responsible for one of the worst things to happen to the environment: the disposable pull tab. “It took 12 years to invent the tab that stay on the can,” lamented Bowler.

Cans grew in popularity because they were more compact than bottles and easier to transport. They also offered more of a surface to imprint messages.

And, oh what messages have been displayed over the years. Bowler pointed out one can that depicts Mickey Mouse giving a “finger salute” to Iran, brewed during the Iran crisis. And then there are generic cans, which simply have the word “beer” printed on them. Cans used by the military sported camouflage patterns and Bowler wishes his collection included some.

“One of the things that has kept the beer can alive is that, except for a few hours of life, you can’t put beer in plastic bottles,” said Bowler. “It has something to do with the chemicals.”

For that, beer can collectors can take heart. 

Karen August 20, 2011 at 11:33 AM
What an interesting man, collection, and story!
AL Forman August 21, 2011 at 02:00 AM
Great story! Mike Bowler is a class act. See our profile of him last year on Investigative Voice: http://tinyurl.com/2e8fwmd AL Forman Managing Editor Investigative Voice
Mary-Jo Dale September 03, 2011 at 02:42 AM
I am in awe of a person who collects beer cans! This was such an interesting article, and I will be sure to keep my eyes out for a WWII camo can, Mr. Bowler! You can be sure of that! Mary-Jo (Ford) Dale Baltimore City Resident

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