As all beer enthusiasts know, it’s not just the brews that keeps bringing them back. There is also a lot of memorabilia that goes along with the craft, including old signs, kegs, bottles and advertising. Much of this material is now highly collectible, and commands high prices.
Deb Rivest, owner of Elm City Brewing Company in Keene, knows this subject well, having been searching out and avidly collecting these items for nearly 30 years. She sees the memorabilia as a way to reflect on the history of the industry, to see how it has changed and evolved with time.
“I started collecting beer memorabilia back in the early 1990s,” she said. “My ex-partner had quite a collection of bottles, which I bought off him.”
Rivest is particularly interested in material from the brewery in Walpole, which changed hands a number of times since its beginnings in the late 19th century.
“That brewery burned down quite a number of times, I suspect by temperance activists,” she said. “It started out as the Walter Blake and Co. in 1876, then the Bellows Falls Brewing Co. 10 years later. In 1893, it became the Mountain Spring Brewing Co., and then the Crescent Brewing Co. in 1902. Later, it was the Manila Brewing Company.
“At that time, it was the only brewery in all of Cheshire County. When it closed, there just weren’t any in this region. Actually, when we opened up the Elm City Brewery in 1995, it was only the second one to ever be in business here.”
Rivest’s collection is the fruit of her forays throughout New England and adjoining regions, focusing on material from before prohibition.
“I have a lot of items from the Frank Jones Brewery, which operated in Portsmouth, starting in 1858,” she said. “Back then, it was a pretty substantial brewery, so we have a lot of their bottles and wooden beer boxes.
“I also collect items from a lot of breweries in Boston and New York, and a few from Maine. I scour antique stores from all over, but mainly focus on material from New England.”
Of course, Prohibition put a damper on the entire industry, and it took a long time before it made any kind of comeback. As a matter of fact, the only brewery to open in New Hampshire was the Anheuser-Busch brewery, which opened in the Merrimack Valley in 1970.
“Prior to Prohibition, there were many breweries throughout the state,” Rivest said. “At their peak in the 1870s, there was one brewery for every 11,000 people.
“I’m not sure how many breweries there are now, but there are more of them than before Prohibition. Of course, the population has grown as well, so there’s still a lot of room to grow for new brewers to enter the market.”
Despite the breadth of her collection, Rivest says she still has a few favorites that stand out.
“I really like the local stuff, and I’m particularly fond of beer bottles,” she said. “We even have one bottle from before Prohibition which is still full.
“We also have an antique beer cooler, which is wonderful, and a number of old kegs from the Portsmouth Brewing Company from the 1800s. It’s pretty amazing to think that a wooden keg actually lasted that long.”
Rivest feels that the effects of Prohibition lasted far beyond its repeal, and basically homogenized American’s tastes for suds.
“There were so many small breweries before Prohibition and afterward it was just down to a few big businesses,” she said. “For years, they monopolized everyone’s tastes, and we only had five or six breweries nationwide, all brewing the same kind of beer.
“When homebrewing became legal during the Carter administration, a lot of brew pubs opened up on the west coast, before spreading over here. That’s when we started seeing more styles of beer predominating, as they took over about five percent of the total market.”
One of the factors that was lost for a long time was the predominance of elaborate artwork on the bottles and cases, something that Rivest feels is making a welcome comeback.
“The artwork on these old items really gets me,” she said. “Most of it is really beautiful and deserves to be admired on its own merits. I’m always looking out for items that are attached to beer.
“It’s a very interesting subject, with a lot of history, which is still evolving.”
Elm City Brewing Company is at 222 West St. in Keene, in the Colony Mill Marketplace, and can be reached at 355-3335 or online at elmcitybrewing.com.