Bill and Tammy Lester

When people move into a new house most of them don’t pick one based on their hobby, but this wasn’t the case for Bill and Tammy Lester of Yankton. After searching for months, the Lesters specifically chose their current home last fall, because it could comfortably display their one of a kind bock collection. Originally from New Mexico, Bill states that he actually had his previous house in Canyon City, Colorado, custom built to accommodate his growing collection. In the Yankton house, the Lesters have had specially constructed shelving built to enhance and perfectly display their treasures. This unique collection is the largest known to exist in the United States.

Bock is a type of beer that’s classified as a lager. It originated in Einbeck, Germany during the fourteenth century. When bock beer migrated into the city of Munich during the seventeenth century, there was a mispronunciation due to differences in language accents. The beer was called “ein bock” which means “goat” in German, instead of Einbeck. Not only did the name stay, but also its mascot: the goat, which has been so popular on bock beer advertisements over the years. Bock beer is a deep amber in color, and tastes stronger compared to other lagers. It has an alcohol by volume content that ranges from six to seven percent. A comparable American beer would be a Samuel Adams Winter Lager.

Bill first started collecting in his twenties. He’d find old interesting beer cans lying on the sides of roads and kept them. Since then, his interest has greatly expanded to include all types of American beer collectibles and antique advertising memorabilia such as lights, posters, trays, tap handles, rare ceramic bar and display pieces. Currently Bill has around 3,000 beer cans alphabetically arranged, with no two alike. This is after paring them down from an additional 2,000, once previously owned. A clear stand out in the collection, is the first beer ever sold, which was manufactured in a steel can, by the Krueger Brewery in 1935.

Bill has cans from the first released versions of many local favorites, such as Budweiser, Miller and Coors. He has kept a copy of each new variation as the beer can designs have evolved over the years. One of these changes most people might not remember, are the metal beer cans from the 1930’s that required a tool called a “church key” to open them. Six packs made during this time by D.F. Sampson with the American Can Company, came with instructions on how to open them printed on the can, along with a church key opener which was included.

There are different theories about how the tool got its name. The term “Church key” goes way back and was a simple device used to pry open a new type of bottle closure that was invented in 1892 — the bottle cap or “crown cork.” For anyone unfamiliar with the gadget, a typical church key is a triangular tool used for piercing cans and has a slotted or hooked part for prying off bottle caps. Pull tabs for cans weren’t invented until the early 1960s. Some like to think that the name came from European monks who first brewed beer and kept it locked up in cellars. They held the keys to both the church and the beer. Others think it was a snub directed at the religious groups that supported prohibition after it ended in 1933. “It is said if you used a church-key opener (i.e., you drank beer), you would be less likely to open the door of a church to attend service,” according to the Churchkey Beer Co. in Bellevue, Wash., at

An exciting discovery came after a family member, told them about some six packs of beer dated from the 1930’s, that were found in pristine condition in the attic of a house in Brush, Colorado. As Bill proudly displayed them he said, “They look like they just came off the line yesterday.” Due to space limitations, he limits his collection to items primarily from the 1960’s and older. He doesn’t include glass bottles because of their breakable nature.

Originally Bill also collected wild life mirrors, steins and many other things, but he’s since honed down his collection to his absolute favorites. He credits his inspiration for collecting old bock beer advertising posters to a life-long friend, Jerry Trowbridge, (aka Mr. Bock) whom he met at a beer show in

Kansas. It was Trowbridge who awakened the new focus on collecting bock posters for Bill. Trowbridge loved the dark bock beer and the bock art as well. He had a remarkable bock poster collection that Bill greatly admired. Both men were infatuated with the strong colors, and remarkable, imaginative images, unique to bock beer advertisements.

Over the course of 25 years, until Trowbridge’s passing, the two men shared and traded many posters, and attended many club shows together. Many of Trowbridge’s posters have gone on to be cherished items in Bill’s collection.

The Lesters’ collection has a total of 250-260 posters, and dozens of one-of-a kind items that makes them especially precious. The three main American companies that created most of the poster designs were, Donaldson, Philipp – Schultz, and Gamse Lithographing. Bill’s oldest dates back to 1873. A fun, unusual poster that immediately catches the eye on the Lesters’ wall, depicts the artistic styling of Theodor Seuss Geisel, fondly known as Dr. Seuss. Seuss came from a brew making family in Massachusetts and after the end of prohibition, found work commissioning ads for various companies such as Narragansett Brewing Company in Rhode Island during the 1940’s. This was before his big break writing and illustrating his beloved children’s books. Bill credits Tammy for doing 90% of all the matting and framing of the collection. “If it weren’t for Tammy, I probably wouldn’t have so many posters because I couldn’t afford to frame them. Framing is expensive!”

The Lesters have made many friends by being involved in national collector clubs. These are the BCCA: Brewery Collectibles of America and the ABA: American Brewery Association. There are chapters of these national clubs throughout the country. Currently, the Lesters are members of affiliates in Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.

These organizations host shows where members can share favorite parts of their collections with other clubs and invite the public. All kinds of beer related collectibles are available for sale. The shows are fun opportunities for the club community to get together to enjoy their favorite hobby. There are many shows available throughout the country and the year for people interested in seeing examples of the past preserved and revered. The Lesters favorite show is held every spring and fall in Omaha, Nebraska. A bonus for the public, is that participating collectors often have the knowledge of historians when it comes to their collections. Tammy says going to the shows is a great way for beginning collectors to find items, make friends and learn.

She mentions a club chapter called “The Rusty Bunch Club” that go to many shows and usually have a huge pile of old beer cans that members have donated to give away. Bill suggests searching online at websites such as for information about joining a club or upcoming events.

The hobby of collecting is a passion the Lesters have shared throughout their 26 year marriage. They have moved a lot and have always joined local clubs wherever they went. As we all know, moving is a lot of work. It took months for the Lesters to pack all their precious items, and months more for Bill to perfectly place each piece into its new location. They feel for now that Yankton will be their forever home, but Bill proudly proclaims, “We can go anywhere and have a place to stay and a cold beer to drink!”