THE TIN MAN
Words: Fraser Doherty Photographs: Zsolt Stefkovic
Monday 05 March 2018
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I first heard of Nick West when one of our team at Beer52 asked if we had any of the Chorlton ‘Fruity and a bit sour’ cans from our last box. Unusually for us, he wasn’t getting in touch because he wanted to drink the beer, but to add the empty can to his collection of more than 8,000 others.
We exchanged a few emails, letting him know how impressed we were by his collection. “Don’t be too envious though as it is a massive drain on my resources – both in time and money,” was his reply.
Intrigued by our new pen pal, I decided to visit him in Bristol to find out the full story. As it turned out, he’s the proud owner of the largest collection of British beer cans in the world; a feat that has taken him more than 40 years to achieve.
We weren’t the first media outlet to become aware of his unusual feat, and past accolades for Nick include being part of a list of the 40 most boring men in Britain. He was even given the number one spot by readers of Scotland’s Daily Record and subsequently profiled on a number of TV shows.
Despite having spent all his adult life on this project, it is far from complete and in fact never will be. “There used to be a time when there were only 120 new cans launched in a year, which was a manageable hobby. Now, more than 520 cans were launched in the past year,” he says.
The explosion of craft beers has created an impossible challenge for the man who wants to collect and document every one of them.
Growing up, Nick’s mother was something of a collector and perhaps this was what piqued his interest. He began by collecting coins and stamps in a small way, but it wasn’t until 1975, when Nick was 16, that he found his true passion. Starting with a humble can of Heineken, Nick’s collection grew with each trip his parents made to the supermarket.
Still only 16, and with only a few cans under his belt, he met his girlfriend and future wife, Deborah, who innocently gifted him a book about can collecting. She now describes this as “the worst decision of my life… obviously!”.
The amateur collector was fired up now, buying beer cans from all around the world. He soon discovered that in America (where else?) there are ‘Canventions’, where the nation’s thousands of avid collectors gather. By the time he was 20, he had the resources to fly to Hershey, Pennsylvania on an intrepid beer can expedition. “There were thousands of collectors and who knows how many thousands of cans,” he recalls.
You might imagine this opportunity to meet likeminded young men would have been the highlight of his collecting career. “It was just so overwhelming, there were so many cans that I didn’t have and it felt impossible to collect all the cans in the world,” Nick says.
His disillusionment triggered a panic attack, which to this day has left him with a fear of flying. “I guess you could say that cans ruined that for me too,” he admits.
The problem, as a can-collecting friend of Nick’s once pointed out to him, is that he is an “absolutist collector,” driven to collect a specimen of every can ever designed; an impossible mission.
Resolving to focus just on British cans (meaning the cans I brought in my bag from Colorado turned out to be worthless to him), Nick’s enthusiasm continued to ebb and flow over the ensuing four decades, with 40-50 new cans being added to his treasure trove each month.
“At one point, there were maybe 30 can collectors in Britain, meeting up in the back rooms of pubs to do swaps once in a while, but now we are three,” he says. These obsessive musketeers are of course friends and certainly not competitors. One in London collects world cans and another in Scotland focusses on the notably narrower challenge of cataloguing Scottish cans. “Couldn’t you have thought of something like that, Nick?”, Deborah jokes.
The task of obtaining a specimen of every British can should not be taken lightly; I soon discover quite how huge a commitment it really is. Nick spends three to four hours a day trawling through Facebook and Twitter in search of new deigns, which he adds to his ‘can wants’ list.
Has more than 100 cans that “need drinking” at home, which is a popular attraction for his children when they come to visit. But when he collects cans on his travels, they tend to be too heavy to carry home full, so he empties the beer down a sink. But even in this, his method is eccentric; prefering to leave the ring pull intact, he carries a 1960s can opener, perfect for opening the cans from their base so as not to damage their lids.Cans in his collection must be perfect specimens, undented and free of rust.
Sometimes, he can find new examples by attending craft beer festivals. “The problem is, there’s no guarantee of new cans”, he complains.
Help has been found in the form of the mobile canning company We Can Solutions, who have even installed a “Nick West Box” at their office, into which they place a sample of each new can they help to launch.
In the search for a particularly small batch or rare can, Nick might make a 100-mile round trip, coercing Deborah to chum him by saying they’re going on a day trip to Gloucester, but ending up in an off-license scouring the shelves for an undented example. On occasion, he has spent up to £1,420 on a single can; the first ever British beer can. “It is to can collectors what the Penny Black is to stamp collectors.”
Looking through photographs of the collection together, I commend Nick on how tidy the array of shelving is. “That’s just the start of it,” he says. “I’ve been quite obsessive about organising them. I put them all in date order, which is fine, but means that every time I added a new one, I could spend hours rearranging the rest.”
What keeps a can collector awake at night? Rust. Nick has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his home ‘can museum’ remained warm, dry and dark; keeping the curtains drawn for the past 13 years.
Originally complicit in Nick’s “hobby that became an obsession” as she calls it, Deborah insisted that his steel and aluminium treasure be contained to just one room. This reasonable constraint from his cheerful and wondrously supportive wife caused Nick to rack the shelving from floor to ceiling, even removing the radiator to create extra space as his army of tinnies boomed. In the end, they were forced to extend their house, ultimately sharing their home with more than 8,000 of Nick’s metallic housemates.
But now, his incredible hoard is sadly no longer arranged neatly on its shelves. “After our kids left home, Deborah convinced me that it was crazy to be heating a five bedroom Victorian house just so we could accommodate my cans,” he says ruefully. After conceding to kick the habit of a lifetime and give up can collecting once and for all, Nick packed his cherished cans into removal boxes, where they remain in the spare room.
“I put on a brave face that I could deal with it, but I miss the day-to-day contact with them more and more as time goes on”, Nick says with sincerity. “It is a shame to have them in boxes and I worry what’ll happen should anything happen to me – my kids don’t have an interest in them”.
It has been an absolute pleasure to meet this classic British eccentric and I can genuinely feel his pain at having his collection in storage. I wouldn’t class Nick as one of the most boring men in Britain; far from it. I really hope one day his collection will be on public display for all to see.
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