ONE NIGHT in 1987, Jeffrey Rosenblum opened a bottle of Whitbread Ale and poured himself a glass. He took a sip and glanced down at the bottle.
Something caught his eye. Something unspoken, something visceral. Something.
He rose from his living room couch and placed the empty on the mantel.
That’s where it all began. With a single bottle of imported English ale, Rosenblum launched a collection that would spread from the mantel, across shelves, into cabinets and every nook in his home in Northeast Philadelphia, more than 4,000 bottles strong.
And now, three decades later, this is where it ended: His bottles collecting dust, his ashes scattered in the Adirondacks, his wife and a son sharing memories with me.
They told me Rosenblum died in October at 65 of pancreatic cancer.
He was a Central High grad who met his future wife at Temple University, an attorney at a Center City law firm, a father who led his family on long trips on back roads, a supporter of Pennypack Park, a traveler who visited 49 states.
He wanted to be remembered, his obituary read, only as “someone you could always count on for a good beer.”
“He would only drink one beer a night,” said David, his older of two sons. “He might spend an hour with it, just enjoying the flavor, reading a book, thinking about the beer.”
“He just loved the taste of it,” said Judy Slagoff, his wife of 37 years.
A lot of us enjoy beer, but usually once the bottle is empty, it goes out to the curb with the rest of the recycling.
“I don’t know what it was,” Judy said of her husband’s obsession. “Something about that first bottle opened up a world to him. Then he goes and puts it on the mantel – like I need a beer bottle on the mantel?”
She and her son shared a chuckle.
I paged through Rosenblum’s dog-eared notebook, where he listed every bottle he collected. Imports and domestics, antiques and new-age microbrews. New Amsterdam Winter Anniversary . . . Wagner Valley Sled Dog . . . Young’s Ram Rod . . . John Courage Amber Lager . . .
What did he think about the SLO Brewing Amber Ale, one of the early California ales that made its way to the East in the late ’80s? Did he savor that bottle of Grant’s Imperial Stout on a cold, winter night? Had the silk-screened bottle of Gravity American Pale Ale, with its fat little kid about to catch a baseball, given him a laugh?
The notebook doesn’t say; it only lists the brands he collected.
His taste was undiscriminating. A stubby bottle of Schmidt’s Light stands above a longneck Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron. A circa-1950, clear-glass quart of Lebanon Valley Porter he bought at a flea market is displayed near one of those ubiquitous IPAs from San Diego.
Poking through the shelves, I tried to understand what drove the man to amass so many bottles. Instead, each label only had me reminiscing about my own beer-drinking history.
A bottle of Yards Premium Beer – a local brand that disappeared 15 years ago – took me back to the brewery’s original location on Krams Avenue in Manayunk.
Augsburger Golden from Wisconsin. There was a time this was about as good as it got when it came to domestic beer.
Sierra Nevada Glissade. Why had the California brewery discontinued this smooth, delicious pale bock?
Judy interrupted my thoughts: “People ask, ‘Was he a hoarder?’ Not at all. He kept it nice. If you moved something, he knew it was out of place.”
“I think he was a little too OCD not to keep things neat,” David added.
“I would dust them twice a year,” Judy said. “I would have to take each out, dust them off, and put them back separately. It would take eight hours. I could kill him. . . . Friends would ask: ‘How do you put up with this stuff?’ I’d say, ‘It makes him happy.’ He didn’t cheat on me or run around. He wasn’t a drunk.
“He was way ahead of his time as far as craft beer is concerned. You know, when David had his bar mitzvah, he insisted on bringing his own beer. ‘You’re not serving Budweiser at my son’s bar mitzvah!’ “
“He gave me a taste of Anchor Steam when I was 5!” David said.
At one time, Rosenblum had hoped his sons would inherit the collection. But they have other interests. “After the diagnosis,” Judy said, “I started wondering, ‘What am I going to do with all of these bottles?’ One night, I had a dream of throwing them out the window, one at a time.”
David has taken on the task of selling them on eBay or giving them away. They aren’t really worth much; after all, they’re just mass-produced glass containers, bottle caps, and paper labels.
Yet, empty and silent, they tell a story, the story of Jeffrey Rosenblum: someone you could always count on for a good beer.
Bottle collecting advice
As with most things, supply is the No. 1 factor in determining the value of a particular collectible. You may think that can of kitschy Billy Beer you’ve had since the Carter administration is your winning lottery ticket, but there were an estimated 2 billion of them made. It’s worth about a nickel, assuming you can find someone who wants it.
The most valuable beer bottles – usually worth no more than $100 – are antiques dating to the 19th century, before bottles were mass-produced by machine. You can identify them by an uneven seam that runs from the bottom and stops at the bottle’s bloblike top.
Although paper labels may be attractive, collectors are more interested in embossed bottles, especially if they ID the brewery and its location.
Ignore the prices you see on eBay. Last week, someone was selling a dirt-encrusted, pre-Prohibition bottle from Philadelphia’s old Bergdoll Brewery for $1,000. Someone else was selling nearly the exact bottle for 99 cents.
Instead, to learn more about bottle collecting, connect with a breweriana club. The largest is the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, with local chapters throughout the region: bcca.com.