When Joe Prin dies, he wants to be cremated. Pour his ashes into one of his beloved, cone-top beer cans. Toss it off the nearest cliff.
“Let somebody else find me later,” he says.
Prin isn’t too worried about his funeral wish getting ignored, though.
The guy already is standing in beer can heaven.
“Look at this can,” Prin says eagerly, pulling another one from a crowded shelf. He is guiding me through his Can Cave, a two-car garage in his Eagle backyard. There’s no room for cars.
Holding the shiny Rainier in his hand, Prin launches into an Area 51-like story about Boeing aircraft testing in the early 1950s. Engineers used specially ordered cans for a massive wind-tunnel filtration system in Tacoma, Washington, Prin says, leading to the surprise release, decades later, of 3 million previously undiscovered empties — including this topless, bottomless, “wind tunnel” can.
“What else is out there?” Prin wonders. “Who knows? There’s always stuff being found inside of a wall or under a building.”
We are surrounded. Floor to ceiling. The approximately 11,000 aluminum, steel and tin vessels from United States breweries make this the largest beer-can collection in Idaho, Prin says. He has organized it alphabetically, chronologically and by brand and brewery.
On Wednesday, Jan. 24, Prin will take a fragment of his collection to Payette Brewing Co. in Boise, where he’ll host an event from 2-6 p.m. It’s an educational outreach on national Beer Can Appreciation Day. More important, it’s a recruiting effort. Prin is the editor of Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles, a bi-monthly magazine for the Brewery Collectibles Club of America. The Gem State chapter is always on the hunt for new members.
“We’ve tried to attract new collectors to the club, and it doesn’t work getting people out here to look at this,” Prin says, gazing at his shrine. “So we’re going to go where the people are.”
The Can Cave’s low tourist numbers aren’t from lack of hospitality. A large bowl near the entrance is filled with half a dozen cold beers on ice. After helping himself to a Boise Brewing Hip Check IPA, Prin teaches me how to open a beer can. First, he turns it over. Then he uses a churchkey to punch a vent and a pour slot in the bottom. He trickles the upside-down can into a glass.
“When this can is put on display later, the top is intact and it’s a collectible quality,” Prin explains.
“There’s no reason to keep a can full,” he adds, taking a sip. “There’s no value.”
Years of collecting
Prin began collecting cans as a 15-year-old in Colorado. “We’d take them to this antique mall in Golden, then go across the street to the Dairy Queen and buy ice cream and hamburgers,” he says. “It was a means to an end, but we always saved one of each, just because we thought it was kind of cool. And away it went.”
He moved to the Boise area in the mid-1980s. Now 58, he jokes about the value of his collection.
“That’s easy — 26 cents a pound,” he says. “Because if I go to a recycler right now, I can do that.”
The truth is, nobody really knows.
“We don’t talk about that. That’s how I stay married,” he says.
Prin hands me a copy of Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles magazine. An auction-house advertisement on the back cover lists cans selling at over $37,000.
“I don’t have any of those here, and I never will,” Prin says.
He leads me to the back of the Can Cave, where he finds a Krueger’s Cream Ale. As the first United States beer can released in 1935, it’s the inspiration for Beer Can Appreciation Day. Lots of Krueger’s cans were manufactured, so it’s not that rare, Prin explains. He seems more enraptured by a rusty Hornung can that he found at an Idaho flea market. Prin has never seen another one. “It’s not in very good shape. It was opened from the top,” he adds. “I don’t don’t even know how to pronounce it the right way. But the thing is, I got it for a quarter.”
Armies of Coors cans line shelf after shelf — about 850 total cans. Many are different only in barely distinguishable ways. “Growing up in Golden, Colorado, I tried to save all the Coors stuff,” Prin says. “It took on this weird responsibility that I had to archive all this stuff.”
As Idaho’s brewery scene has exploded, Prin has turned to cans from the Gem State. The first Idaho beer was canned in 2012. Yet already, there are 167 different cans to collect, Prin says.
“I’m missing five. We just came out with the 167th can, just the other day, when Warfield Brewery in Ketchum, Idaho, issued their first-ever can. The FCOB. The first can of their brewery. That becomes a big thing in our nerd little world. Because now there’s another brewery canning.”
“First Can Of Brewery,” Prin repeats.
Ah, I get it. So that’s like a rookie baseball card?
“Yes!” Prin says, sounding pleased. “Exactly. And I’ll actually document that. I’ll interview the brewery. I’ll call them up: ‘When did you do this?’ I’ll get some facts. I’ll write up a little note. We’ll post it on our website.
“Up until 1957, Idaho really only cranked out five different cans,” Prin continues. “And since 2012, we’ve added another 162. It’s great. I go on my monthly tour. First I’ll go to Boise Brewing. Then I’ll go to Woodland (Empire Ale Craft). Then I’ll go to Payette. Then I’ll go to Sockeye. Then I’ll stop by Edge. And I’ll go to the different breweries: ‘What’s new? What’s coming out? Any label changes?’
“And it’s ‘Oh my god,’ ” Prin says, laughing, “ ‘Here comes that guy again.’ But they don’t understand their significant role in history that these guys play in breweriana: And that’s the collecting of brewery items.”
Prin swaps cans with a collector in North Idaho, cases at a time. He trades cans with beer nerds in other parts of the world. He’ll attend his next “canvention” in Omaha at the end of August. Beer-can collecting is about more than cans, Prin explains. It’s a conduit between once- or twice-a-year friendships.
It’s that way with lots of hobbies, right?
“Why stamps? Why baseball cards? Why record albums? Why Mustangs? There’s two kinds of people in this world,” Prin says. “There’s people that collect stuff, and there’s people that don’t. They don’t understand each other! That’s all it is.”
It’s hard not to cringe when you consider how much work goes into Prin’s obsession. When he encounters a new beer in a Boise store or brewery, he checks a digital record on his phone to see whether he already owns it.
If it is new, Prin has little choice. He must buy it. He must drink or otherwise empty it.
Then he must reorganize the Can Cave’s overstuffed shelves for the gazillionth time, inching cans further down the alphabetical line like ready-to-fall dominoes.
“My wife is a librarian,” Prin says. “She does this with books all day long. I do this with beer cans all night long.”
Prin is not your average Joe — but there’s more. A facilities manager at Cathedral of the Rockies church in Boise, he also is the longtime host of “The HomeFix Radio Show,” a weekly home-improvement show Saturday mornings on KBOI 670 AM.
Earlier this month, Prin finished remodeling the shelves in his entire Can Cave to cram in more cans. “I had all the 16-ounce stuff mixed in with the 12s,” he explains. “So I took everything down, moved the shelves all up an inch, put them all back up. It gained me two more shelves per wall, which allowed another 3,000 cans to go into this room.”
“I swept this floor last night because I knew you were coming,” he adds.
“OK,” Prin says, sidetracked again by another row of cans, “I gotta tell you about these up here ...”
Despite the unquenchable thirst for more cans, the end is in sight for Prin. The reshelving project forced him to take stock in his collection. Near the ceiling, cans have been boxed up. They’ll be given away, Prin promises.
“I’ve got room to get another couple thousand in here, and then I’m going to have to really, seriously, think about what goes away,” he says. “Because I don’t want to have to saddle my kids with having to dispose of this in 25, 30 years or whatever. Twenty-six cents a pound! Although there’s some of them that may pay for my grandchildren’s college.
“I think I’ve finally come to that point in life where I’ve said that enough is enough. I’m going to go for the quality rather than the quantity. I think I’m there. This is impressive enough.
“I think the capacity here is 15,000,” he says happily. “I’ve got a few years to go.”
Beer Can Appreciation Day at Payette Brewing
All canned beer is $2 at Payette Brewing, 733 S. Pioneer St. in Boise, on Wednesday, Jan. 24. Joe Prin will show off his Payette collection — and a few other treasures — from 2 to 6 p.m. Interested in beer-can collecting? Email Joe Prin at firstname.lastname@example.org.