AKRON, Ohio - Charles Johnson isn't exactly sure why he started collecting beer labels.
He just knows that he’s never been able to stop.
It was 1955 and Johnson, then a senior at the University of Akron, was sitting around with friends drinking a beer at a local restaurant. He decided to peel off the label.
A few beers and labels later, he thought it’d be interesting to collect more and laminate them on a table.
By 1978, he had amassed more than 4,000 — all different.
Not satisfied, he kept at it.
Today, Johnson, a retired schoolteacher, has more than 108,000 in the half-finished basement of his Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, home, making him one of the largest beer-label collectors in the United States.
And his collection — which few people have ever seen — continues to grow, thanks to his continued passion for the hobby and a proliferation of new microbreweries.
“Nobody really cares whether I collect old coins or . . . dirt,” joked Johnson, 76, who wore a Goose Island Pilsner T-shirt during a recent interview at his home. “It’s just a self-enjoying thing.”
Others, though, aren’t as humble when speaking about his huge collection of 3-by-5 inch pieces of paper, which span more than a century of breweries.
“When you look at that label, you are actually looking at a piece of history,” said Otto Tiegs, the immediate past president of the American Breweriana Association who has known Johnson for about two decades. “Charlie has done a great job of preserving American history, not just brewing history.”
Johnson’s labels aren’t even on display in his basement.
Instead, they are kept inside plastic binders, a cupboard and shoe boxes.
Not that they are scattered haphazardly.
They are organized neatly by country of origin and alphabetized. Germany and Czechoslovakia have their own sections, as does the United States and the rest of the world.
Germany and Czechoslovakia are separate because of the sheer number from those two countries — and the fact that he has friends in those countries who trade labels with him.
There are labels from breweries that no longer exist, such as Akron’s Burkhardt Brewing Co. and Philadelphia’s Continental Brewing Co.
And tons of labels from America’s most popular: Anheuser-Busch.
Johnson even has two labels from Iraq.
Then there are the novelties. One set, from Tidwell Brewing Co. in Blythe, Calif., features beautiful naked women with a scratch-off over their breasts. (No, Johnson hasn’t scratched them off.)
Another set from the Old West Brewing Co. of Las Cruces, N.M., features infamous outlaws. Some are pieces of artwork. Others are just the company’s name.
The rarest ones are pre-Prohibition labels.
The first label that Johnson got for his collection was Abir, an Israeli beer.
He said he doesn’t have a favorite.
“They all have a story to tell,” he said.
As for whether there is a label out there he hasn’t been able to find, Johnson said: “No particular one. But there’s always a label out there somewhere with my name on it.”
Johnson said he’s never tried to put a price tag on his overall collection.
Most labels are worth only a nickel or so. In some cases, rare labels go for hundreds of dollars.
The monetary side of the hobby doesn’t matter, he said.
When people learn of his hobby, there are a couple of questions that get asked again and again.
First, did he drink all 108,000 beers?
Not all of them.
He gets his labels in three ways. One, he finds the beer while shopping or eating out. That means, sometimes, yes, he drinks the beer.
But he may buy a bottle and then give it to someone else to drink.
He also writes to breweries directly asking them to mail him unused labels. And he trades with other collectors.
So in those cases, no, he doesn’t drink the beer.
Johnson is credited with starting a free service through the American Breweriana Association in the 1970s to distribute labels to collectors. The service is still offered through the American Breweriana Journal magazine.
A self-addressed, stamped envelope gets collectors 20 different labels.
Pat Wheeler, a collector from Cleveland who runs the Web site www.usbeerstuff.com, said Johnson is generous in helping out new collectors.
“When I was starting out in the ’80s, he sent me an envelope with about 100 different labels just to help me get started,” he said.
Another question is how Johnson gets the labels off the bottles.
Simple enough. He soaks the bottles in water overnight and then carefully scrapes the labels off with a razor blade.
It’s a time-consuming process.
And as for that laminated table?
He never got around to it. And he has no plans to try now.
“I seriously, seriously doubt it,” he said.