The Bialetti Moka Express: The History of Italy’s Iconic Coffee Maker, and How to Use It the Right Way

I am sure that many an Open Culture reader has a Bialetti Moka Express in their kitchen. I know I do, but I must add that I knew little about its history and apparently even less about how to properly use one. Coffee expert and author of The World Atlas of Coffee James Hoffmann introduces us to the appliance we think we know in the above video.

Alfonso Bialetti didn’t originally get into the coffee business. In 1919, the Bialetti company was an aluminum manufacturer, with the Moka Express invented somewhere around 1933 by Luigi de Ponti, who worked for the company. According to Deconstructing Product Design by William Lidwell and Gerry Mancasa, the inspiration came from Bialetti’s wife’s old-fashioned washing machine: “a fire, a bucket, and a lid with a tube coming out of it. The bucket was filled with soapy water, sealed with the lid, and then brought to a boil over the fire, at which point the vaporized soapy water was pushed up through the tube and expelled on to the laundry.”

As Hoffmann shows, earlier coffee-makers did use steam and a drip technique, but the Moka Express was the first all-in-one maker that could sit on the stove top and do the work. All the user has to listen for was the tell-tale gurgle when it finishes brewing.

In 1945, Alfonso’s son Renato returned from a prisoner-of-war camp and took over the family business. He was instrumental in focusing on the Moka Express and turning it into an international coffee brand. He hired cartoonist Paul Campani to design l’omino coi baffi, “the mustachioed little man” whose image is on the side of every Moka Express, and during the 1950s was in a series of humorous animated commercials. Bialetti was the pride of Italy, and for Italian immigrants living abroad, it was a treasured object in the kitchen.

Such was the identification of Renato Bialetti with the Moka Express that when he died in 2016, his ashes were interred in a giant replica pot. Hoffmann details the fate of the company afterwards, how it has fared against competitors in Italy and outside. Will it still be around in decades? Who knows. But it does make a great cup of coffee.

And he shows the correct way to brew a cup with the Moka Express in this other video. Here’s a few things I was doing wrong: not using hot water in the bottom to start; trying to pack in the ground coffee like I was making an espresso. (Note: a Moka Express coffee is somewhere between an espresso and a pour-over.) Using too fine a grind; and not cooling the bottom as soon as it’s done working its magic. (All these tips I’m going to try tomorrow morning.) Maybe you have been making your Bialetti cup the right way all along. Let me know in the comments. I’ll read them over a freshly brewed cup.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

How Eating Kentucky Fried Chicken Became a Christmas Tradition in Japan

This time of year, the internet thrills to the fact that the Japanese eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas. Those Japanese customers who want a premium KFC dinner with all the trimmings ready by Christmas Eve should reserve it well in advance, much as they do with the elaborately decorated kurisumasu keeki that follows it as dessert. Less well-understood are the origins of this curious modern custom. The Japanese themselves, even those who religiously tuck into a Colonel Sanders-branded Christmas dinner each year, are subject to certain misconceptions. At least in my experience, every Japanese person has expressed surprise when told that KFC at Christmastime is not an American tradition.

KFC’s marketing in Japan has long exploited an association with American heritage, implicitly or indeed explicitly.” Colonel Sanders is discovered as a boy of seven baking rye bread in the roomy kitchen of his ‘old Kentucky home,'” writes Japanologist John Nathan in his memoir Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, describing a KFC television commercial of the 1980s.

“‘A lifetime later,’ the narrator intoned, ‘this same tradition of excellence was transferred by the Colonel to his fried chicken.’ The preposterous selling point was KFC as traditional, aristocratic food from the American South. I couldn’t imagine a more amusing example of an American advertiser playing to Japan’s national obsession with American values and manners.”

This commercial appears in The Colonel Comes to Japan, a 1981 half-hour documentary Nathan filmed for the WGBH business series Enterprise. So does Loy Weston, the American executive in charge of KFC’s Japanese operations, who insists that the aristocracy angle offers no “consumer benefit.” But when informed by a Japanese executive that the spot tested better than any they’d produced before, he responds simply: “I give up. This is Japan.” Four decades later, Westerners who want to succeed doing business in the Land of the Rising Sun must still share that attitude — especially when presented with strategies they lack the cultural grounding to comprehend.

KFC’s presence in Japan goes back to 1970, when its first store opened for the Osaka World Expo. Its manager Takeshi Okawara was the one to think of promoting the chain’s “party barrels” of chicken as a festive substitute for an American-style turkey dinner. The inspiration, according to the Cheddar Examines video at the top of the post, was being asked by a local school to deliver chicken to its Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus. (His willingness to do so no doubt played a part in his later becoming Japanese KFC’s chief executive.) Within a few years “Kentucky Christmas” had become a household phrase, and one still used in the more recent TV commercials compiled just above.

In Japan, a country where Christians constitute just one or two percent of the population, eating KFC has become one of Christmas’ primary cultural associations. The Christmas song “Sutekina Holiday” by Mariya Takeuchi — now world-famous as the singer of the revived-by-Youtube 1980s dance tune “Plastic Love” — is commonly known as “the Kentucky Christmas song.” With Christmastime business accounting for a startling ten percent of Japanese KFC’s sales in any given year, measures have been taken to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t put too much of a dent into it: the introduction of some social distancing, for example, into its notoriously long holiday lines. Kentucky Christmas has proven a success year after year in Japan, but thus far it hasn’t been adopted in other Asian countries. It certainly hasn’t in Korea, where I live — but then again, we’ve got much better fried chicken out here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A 13th-Century Cookbook Featuring 475 Recipes from Moorish Spain Gets Published in a New Translated Edition

Some of the distinctiveness of Spain as we know it today comes as a legacy of the period from 700 to 1200, when most of it was under Muslim rule. The culture of Al-Andalus, as the Islamic states of modern-day Spain and Portugal were then called, survives most visibly in architecture. But it also had its own cuisine, developed by not just Muslims, but by Christians and Jews as well. Whatever the dietary restrictions they individually worked under, “cooks from all three religions enjoyed many ingredients first brought to the Iberian peninsula by the Arabs: rice, eggplants, carrots, lemons, sugar, almonds, and more.”

So writes Atlas Obscura’s Tom Verde in an article occasioned by the publication of a thirteenth-century Moorish cookbook. Fiḍālat al-Khiwān fī Ṭayyibāt al-Ṭaʿām wa-l-Alwān, or Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from al-Andalus and al-Maghrib had long existed only in bits and pieces. A “maddeningly incomplete carrot recipe, along with missing chapters on vegetables, sauces, pickled foods, and more, left a gaping hole in all existing editions of the text, like an empty aisle in the grocery store.” But in 2018, British Library curator of Arabic scientific manuscripts Dr. Bink Hallum happened upon a nearly complete fifteenth- or sixteenth-century copy of the Fiḍāla within a manuscript on medieval Arab pharmacology.

The Fiḍāla itself dates to around 1260. It was composed in Tunis by Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī, “a well-educated scholar and poet from a wealthy family of lawyers, philosophers, and writers. As a member of the upper class, he enjoyed a life of leisure and fine dining which he set out to celebrate in the Fiḍāla.” The Christian Reconquista had already put a bitter end to all that leisure and fine dining, and it was in relatively hardscrabble African exile that al-Tujībī wrote this less as a cookbook than as “an exercise in culinary nostalgia, a wistful look back across the Strait of Gibraltar to the elegant main courses, side dishes, and desserts of the author’s youth, an era before Spain’s Muslims and Jews had to hide their cultural cuisines.”

That description comes from food historian Nawal Nasrallah, translator of the complete Fiḍāla into an English edition published last month by Brill. In some of its sections al-Tujībī covers breads, vegetables, poultry dishes, and “meats of quadrupeds”; in others, he goes into detail on stuffed tripe, “edible land snails,” and techniques for “remedying overly salty foods and raw meat that does not smell fresh.” (The book includes 475 recipes in total.) Though much in the Moorish diet is a far cry from that of the majority in modern English-speaking countries, interest in historical gastronomy has been on the rise in recent years. And as even those separated from al-Tujībī by not just culture but seven centuries’ worth of time know, whatever your reasons for leaving a place, you soon long for nothing as acutely as the food — and that longing can motivate impressive achievements.

via Atlas Obscura

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How New Yorkers Dodged Pre-Prohibition Drinking Laws by Inventing the World’s Worst Sandwich

Three men feast on free lunch in a drawing by Charles Dana Gibson

In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, beer-swilling Homer falls in love with a sandwich. He spends his days nibbling away at the “sickening, festering remains of a 10-foot hoagie,” Nathan Rabin writes, “long after decency, self-respect, and survival would all seem to dictate throwing it out.” The sandwich may be yet another instance of the show pulling some obscure detail from American history for comic effect — or maybe writer David M. Stern read Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, in which the playwright describes “an old desiccated ruin of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese.”

O’Neill’s sandwich is so historical, it has a name, the Raines Sandwich, named after New York State Senator John Raines, the author of an 1896 law that raised the cost of liquor licenses substantially, upped the drinking age from sixteen to eighteen, and banned alcoholic beverages on Sundays except in large hotels and lodging houses which served a complimentary meal with their drinks. The law targeted working people and their one day of respite, and it hit bar owners hard. “After all,” writes the Irish Examiner, “labourers mostly worked six days a week, with Sunday their only full day for drinking, and Sunday was the most profitable day for saloons.”

The complimentary-meal-with-drinks mandate, as it were, was designed so that wealthy patrons at luxury hotels could drink on Sundays, but low-rent saloon owners seized on the loophole, transforming dive bars into rooming houses overnight with tablecloths and “alleged bedrooms” made from attics and basements. “It was then that the loosest possible definition of a ‘substantial meal’ became the Raines Sandwich.” The sandwich might be made of anything, even a brick between two slices of bread; it was rarely eaten. Sometimes, it would be served to a guest with their beer or whiskey, then whisked away and given to someone else. A single Raines Sandwich might last the day, or even the whole week.

Some establishments tried to get away with serving crackers and moldy cheese alone (stalwart New York Irish pub McSorley’s gave away crackers, cheese, and onions — a dish for which they now charge). But the courts required a sandwich, at the very least to be served, and the city enforced the law with righteous vigor — thanks in large part to a young Theodore Roosevelt. As Darrell Hartman writes at Atlas Obscura, New York Republicans in Albany “spoke for a constituency largely comprised of rural small-town churchgoers” worried about urban vice. But Raines had a city ally in Roosevelt, then a “37-year-old firebrand… pushing a law-and-order agenda as president of the city’s newly organized police commission.”

Roosevelt canvassed the Lower East Side with patrolman Frank Rathgeber, sending him into saloons in plain clothes to investigate. “Rathgeber said he saw many sandwiches but only one bed,” writes author Richard Zacks in Island of Vice. The sandwiches were moldy, and were taken away uneaten. “He never was asked to buy a second sandwich” with subsequent drinks, “or even to eat the first one.” Despite the reform crackdowns, the shady business of the Raines Sandwich let saloon owners skirt the law until it was repealed, finally, in 1924. As Hartman notes, behind the purported good intentions of the Temperance movement lay a determined culture war:

Those in favor of the Sunday ban, generally middle-class and Protestant, saw it as a cornerstone of social improvement. For those against, including the city’s tide of German and Irish immigrants, it was an act of repression—an especially spiteful one because it limited how the average laborer could enjoy himself on his one day off. The Sunday ban was not popular, to say the least, among the city’s Jews, who’d already observed their Sabbath the day before.

The Raines Law was as much about enforcing religious observance and cultural conformity on immigrants as it was an attempt to combat crime, poverty, and violence in the city. Those whose beliefs did not prevent them from enjoying themselves on Sunday saw no reason to take the law any more seriously than they would a rotting week-old sandwich or a brick between two slices of moldy bread.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Andy Warhol’s Vibrant, Impractical, Illustrated Cookbook from 1959: A Feast for the Eyes

Gorgeously illustrated cookbooks featuring sumptuous images of fancy desserts and other special occasion food can be quite an intimidating proposition to self-doubting beginners.

The recipes themselves are daunting, and as every Great British Baking Show viewer learns, watching the top contestants squirm in advance of co-host Paul Hollywood‘s icy judgment, flavor can’t save an edible creation that fails as art.

Andy Warhol’s approach to cookery appears rather more blithe.

His 1959 cookbook, Wild Raspberries — the title is a play on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries — displays little interest in its readers’ cooking ability… or, for that matter, its authors.

Fanciful representations of such delicacies as Gardoons a la Mousseline are pretty as a picture… and stress free given that no one is actually expected to make them.

Wild Raspberries is all about attitude… and ambition of a purely social nature.

Warhol’s co-author, interior decorator and society hostess Suzie Frankfurt, recalled hatching the idea for this collaboration, shortly after encountering the young artist at New York City’s fabled sweet spot, Serendipity: “We thought it would be a masterpiece and we’d sell thousands. I think we sold 20.”

It’s possible the endeavor was a few decades ahead of its time. We can imagine Wild Raspberries doing quite well as an impulsive lifestyle type buy at Urban Outfitters.

Secondhand copies of a 1997 reprint occasionally resurface, as do auction lots of the original 34 lithograph sets, hand-colored by four schoolboys who lived upstairs from Warhol, prior to hand-binding by rabbis on the Lower East Side.

After consigning a few copies to Doubleday and Rizzoli bookstores, Warhol and Frankfurt gave the bulk of the first edition away as Christmas presents to friends, who were no doubt well equipped to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek nature of its “recipes,” hand-lettered by Warhol’s mother, Julia — whose spelling boo-boos were purposefully allowed to stand.

The instructions eschew crass mention of measurements or cooking times… perfect for anyone with hired staff, standing reservations at Upper East Side hot spots, or a social X-Ray diet regimen.

Instead, readers are directed to send the Cadillac round to Trader Vic’s tiki bar for a suckling pig of sufficient size for a party of 15, or to gather morels should they find themselves holidaying in the vicinity of Normandy.

Salade de Alf Landon, a bombe of lobster tails named for FDR’s opponent in the 1936 Presidential election, crowned with asparagus tips and hardboiled plover eggs, seems like it could double as a fetching chapeau, especially when paired with one of Warhol’s whimsical fantasy  for footwear company I. Miller’s weekly ads in The New York Times.

In fact, nearly everything in this vibrantly hand colored “cookbook” makes for plausible mid-century millinery, from Torte a la Dobosch to an impractically vertical arrangement of Hard Boiled Eggs.



Wild Raspberries may have been a swipe at aspirational, hostess-oriented late-50s cookbooks, but Greengages a la Warhol’s reference to hyperlocal produce would fit right in with with Portlandia’s 21st century foodie spoofs.

High and low combine to great effect with winking references to Greta Garbo and gossip columnist Dorothy KilgallenLucky Whip dessert topping, a “Seared Roebuck,” and store-bought supermarket sponge cake (the latter in Wild Raspberries’ most legit-sounding recipe, something of an upgrade from the recipe for “cake” Warhol shared in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol — a chocolate bar served between slices of bread.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Explore Thousands of Free Vintage Cocktail Recipes Online (1705-1951)

Where do the hipster mixologists of TokyoMexico City and Brooklyn take their inspiration?

If not from the Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux’ free collection of digitized vintage cocktail recipe books, perhaps they should start.

An initiative of the Museum of Wine and Spirits on the Ile de Bendor in Southeastern France, the collection is a boon to anyone with an interest in cocktail culture …ditto design, illustration, evolving social mores…

1928’s Cheerio, a Book of Punches and Cocktails was written by Charles, formerly of Delmonico’s, touted in the introductory note as “one who has served drinks to Princes, Magnates and Senators of many nations”. No doubt discretion prevented him from publishing his surname.

Charles apparently abided by the theory that it’s five o’clock somewhere, with drinks geared to various times of day, from the moment you “stagger out of bed, groggy, grouchy and cross-tempered” (try a Charleston Bracer or a Brandy Port Nog) to the midnight hour when “insomnia, bad dreams, disillusionment and despair” call for such remedies as a Cholera Cocktail or an Egg Whiskey Fizz.

As noted on the cover, there’s a section devoted to favorite recipes of celebrities. These bigwigs’ names will likely mean nothing to you nearly one hundred years later, but their first person reminiscences bring them roaring back to theatrical, boozy life.

Here’s celebrated vaudevillian Trixie Friganza:

In that nautical city of Venice, I first made the acquaintance of a remarkably delicious drink known as ‘Port and Starboard’. Pour one half part Grenadine or raspberry syrup in a cordial glass. Then on top of this pour one half portion of Creme de Menthe slowly so that the ingredients will not mix. Dear old Venice. 


Presumably any cocktail recipe in the EUVS’s vast collection could be adapted as a mocktail, but Charles gives a deliberate nod to Prohibition with a section on alcohol-free (and extremely easy to prepare) Temperance Drinks.

Don’t expect a Shirley Temple – the triple threat child star was but an infant when Cheerio was published. Expand your options with a Saratoga Cooler or an Oggle Noggle instead.

Before attempting to recite the poem that opens 1949’s Bottoms Up: A Guide to Pleasant Drinking, you may want to slam a couple of Depth Bombs Cocktails or a Merry Widow Cocktail No. 1.

In an abstemious condition, there’s no way this ditty can be made to scan…or rhyme:

The Advent of the Cocktail

A lonely, abandoned jigger of gin
Sat on a table top. “Alas”, cried he,
“Who will join me?” And he tried a friendly grin.
Came a pretty youth, Mam’selle Vermouth,
Who was bored with just being winey.
Said she to Sir Gin: “You’d be ever so nice
With Olive and Ice. And so they were Martini.

The cocktail recipes are solid, throughout, however, as one might expect from a book that doubled as an ad for sponsor First Avenue Wine and Liquor Corporation – “for Liquor…Quicker.”

We’ve yet to try anything from the “wines in cookery” section – but suspect that sturdy fare like Potato Soup and Baked Beans could help sop up some of the alcohol, even if contains some hair of the dog…

Shaking in the 60’s author Eddie Clark’s previous titles include Shaking with Eddie, Shake Again with Eddie and 1954’s Practical Bar Management. 

Clark, who served as head bartender at London’s Savoy Hotel, Berkeley Hotel and Albany Club, gets in the swinging 60s spirit, by dedicating this work to “all imbibing lovers.”

William S. McCall’s decidedly boozy illustrations of elephants, anthropomorphized cocktail glasses and scantily clad ladies contribute to the festive atmosphere, though you probably won’t be surprise to learn that some of them have not aged well.

Shaking in the 60’s boasts dozens of straight forward cocktail recipes (the Beatnik the Bunny Hug and the Monkey Hugall feature Pernod), a surprisingly serious-minded section on wine, and a couple of pages devoted to non-alcoholic drinks.

If your child turns up their nose at Clark’s Remain Sober, serve ‘em an Albermarle Pussycat.

Clark also draws on his professional expertise to help home bartenders get a grip on measurement conversionssupply lists, and toasts.

So confident is he in his ability to help readers throw a truly memorable party, he includes a dishy party log, that probably should be kept under lock and key after it’s been filled out. We imagine it would pair well with the Morning Mashie, another Pernod-based concoction dedicated to “all those entering the hangover class.”

Delve into the Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux’ free collection of digitized vintage cocktail recipe books from the 1820s through the 1960s here.

via Messy Nessy

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Very First Webcam Was Invented to Keep an Eye on a Coffee Pot at Cambridge University

The internet as we know it today began with a coffee pot. Despite the ring of exaggeration, that claim isn’t actually so far-fetched. When most of us go online, we expect something new: often not just something new to read, but something new to watch. This, as those of us past a certain age will recall, was not the case with the early World Wide Web, consisting as it mostly did of static pages of text, updated irregularly if at all. Younger readers will have to imagine even that being a cutting-edge thrill, but we didn’t really feel like we were living in the future until the fall of 1993, when XCoffee first went live.

This groundbreaking technological project “started back in the dark days of 1991,” writes co-creator Quentin Stafford-Fraser, “when the World Wide Web was little more than a glint in CERN’s eye.” At the time, Stafford-Fraser was employed as one of fifteen researchers in the “Trojan Room” of the University of Cambridge Computer Lab. “Being poor, impoverished academics, we only had one coffee filter machine between us, which lived in the corridor just outside the Trojan Room. However, being highly dedicated and hard-working academics, we got through a lot of coffee, and when a fresh pot was brewed, it often didn’t last long.”

It occurred to Stafford-Fraser to train an unused video camera from the Trojan Room on the coffee pot (and thus the amount of coffee available within), then connect it to a computer, specifically an Acorn Archimedes. His colleague Paul Jardetzky “wrote a ‘server’ program, which ran on that machine and captured images of the pot every few seconds at various resolutions, and I wrote a ‘client’ program which everybody could run, which connected to the server and displayed an icon-sized image of the pot in the corner of the screen. The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly, and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee.”

XCoffee, the resulting program, was meant only to provide this much-needed information to Computer Lab members elsewhere in the building. But after the release of image-displaying web browsers in 1993, it found a much wider audience as the world’s first streaming webcam. Stafford-Fraser’s successors “resurrected the system, treated it to a new frame grabber, and made the images available on the World Wide Web. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have looked at the coffee pot, making it undoubtedly the most famous in the world.” Stafford-Fraser wrote these words in 1995; in the years thereafter XCoffee went on to receive millions of views before its eventual shutdown in 2001.

In the Centre for Computing History video above, Stafford-Fraser shows the very Olivetti camera he originally used to monitor the coffee level. (He’d previously worked at the Olivetti Research Laboratory, whose parent company also owned Acorn Computers.) “We could see things at a distance before,” he says. “We could view television programs, we could look through telescopes.” But only after the Trojan Room’s coffee pot hit the internet could we “see what’s happening now, somewhere else in the world,” on demand. Thirty years after XCoffee’s development, we’re mesmerized by live-streaming stars and surrounded by “smart” home appliances, hoping for nothing so much as way to concentrate on our immediate surroundings again — to wake up, if you like, and smell the coffee.

via BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Archaeologist Creates the Definitive Guide to Beer Cans

Image via Wikimedia Commons

As a beverage of choice and necessity for much of the population in parts of the ancient world, beer has played an important role in archaeology. Beer cans, on the other hand, have not. Unlike millennia-old recipes, beer cans seem like no more than trash, even in a field where trash is highly treasured. This is a mistake, says archeologist Jane Busch. “The historical archaeologist who ignores the beer can at his site is like the prehistoric archeologist who ignores historic pottery.”

David Maxwell, an expert in animal bones who trained as a Mayanist, has recognized the truth of this statement by turning his passion for beer can collecting into beer can archaeology, a tiny niche within the smaller field of “tin can archaeology.” Maxwell became the reigning expert on beer can dating when “in 1993, he published a field-identification guide in Historical Archaeology,” notes Jessica Gingrich at Atlas Obscura, “which has since become an industry standard and his most-read work.”

The first commercial canned beer appeared in 1935, after several unsuccessful experiments starting in 1909. Experiments in beer canning took a hiatus during Prohibition, and canned beer itself went off the market during WWII as supplies of tin plate were rerouted to the war effort. During that interregnum, only the military shipped canned beer, to soldiers overseas in olive and camo-colored cans. When sales resumed after the war, beer cans assumed more routinized design elements. Maxwell himself became fascinated with beer cans from afar. “While canned beer sales exploded in the United States after World War II, Gingrich writes, “the industry failed to take off in Canada until the 1980s.”

As a child in Canada, Maxwell collected bottle caps. “All the beer came in the same shape bottle,” he says. Cans seemed exotic, especially those of an older vintage. “They had punches to open them instead of pull rings, and all I knew was that they predated me.” The value of disposable artifacts less than 100 years old isn’t immediately apparent to most people, says Jim Rock, a pioneer of tin can studies who calls cans “the Rodney Dangerfield of archeology. They just don’t get any respect.” But the fact is “all archeology is garbage,” says Maxwell.

Dating cans gives archeologists a picture of modern consumption patterns — and patterns of ecological destruction — in the refuse tossed on highways and the strata of trash found in construction sites, landfills, and even ancient dig sites, where dating beer cans can tell archeologists when earlier trespassers might have arrived, removed or altered artifacts, and left their trash behind. Maxwell, who has recently downsized his collection from 4500 to 1700 cans to save space, admits that a narrow focus on the beer can takes a special combination of skills.

“Collectors are a fabulous resource for academics,” he says. “These are the guys who do the grunt work” — the endlessly curious citizen scientists of archaeology. “I can’t think of anyone else who would do that except someone who is obsessive about what it is that they are collecting.” In Maxwell, the obsessive collector and rigorous academic just happened to come together to produce the definitive guide. (See Beer Cans: A Guide for the Archaeologist online.) But even he has had to “face the question of what deserves to be archived and kept,” Nicola Jones writes at Sapiens. In discarding 3,000 of his own cans, most of them acquired through collectors online, he had to admit that “though the rusty cans were a part of history, they weren’t worth much to the rest of the world.”

Related Content:

Beer Archaeology: Yes, It’s a Thing

The Science of Beer: A New Free Online Course Promises to Enhance Your Appreciation of the Timeless Beverage

The First Known Photograph of People Sharing a Beer (1843)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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