It began long before beer came in twist-off caps and aluminum cans, long before it was made by specialty brewers in microbreweries, and just around the time when stubby bottles were giving way to long necks.
It ended — well, actually, it may never end.
As long as there is an exposed surface in Norman Ahlstrom’s workshop, he will cover it with beer caps.
“You see those posts there,” said Ahlstrom on Monday as he pointed to the steel support columns in his workshop. “I think I’m going to square those off with wood and do those, too.”
Heck, why not. For 35 years, this retired CP Rail engineer has meticulously nailed beer bottle caps to the walls of his 23- by 20-foot garage in Westsyde — a man cave that doubles as a hobby workshop and social gathering place for Ahlstrom and his neighbours.
He started with Pilsner caps in 1989, the group’s favourite beer at the time. Ahlstrom nailed a few caps to a narrow strip near the door, the effort impelled by a childhood memory of a gas station in Rush Lake, Sask., where the owner had done the same with pop bottle caps.
“He had nailed them on the outside of his garage and I thought it looked kind of neat,” recalled Ahlstrom, who is 86.
But the Pilsner caps on Ahlstrom’s wall might have been the end of his efforts if weren’t for a friend, who owned a bar in Washington State. He saw the wall during a visit and decided to send Ahlstrom a shipment of American beer caps so he could continue covering the north wall of the workshop.
That shipment extended the coverage another two metres.
“You see there’s Olympia and different ones,” said Ahlstrom, pointing out the various U.S. brands.
With half the wall finished, and no more bottle caps at hand, the project sat untouched for several years — until 2009, when Ahlstrom’s favourite neighbourhood eatery, Westsyder Pub, offered to save caps for his wall.
“I save every cap that we have,” said long-time pub employee Gail Robinson, whose effort continues to this day.
“And, you know, he washes them and sorts them and he drills a little hole in them . . . it’s all very meticulous and very cool.”
With help from the pub, Ahlstrom has covered all four walls of his workshop, including two cabinets attached to the walls.
On Monday, he nailed cap No. 44,127 — painted gold and proclaimed The Last Spike in honour of his time on the railway.
Ahlstrom drove it in during an informal celebration with wife Luisa and neighbours Tracy and Brian Wolfe over a bottle of champagne.
The gold cap covered the last open spot on the east wall, tying together all four walls of his workshop in a bottle-cap tapestry spanning almost four decades.
Ahlstrom’s creation is a marvel of dedication and patience, an effort both mathematical and artistic in its achievement, as every cap was placed according to a measured grid and arranged according to colour and brand logo.
“I used to think he was crazy,” joked Luisa. “But this is what he wanted to do and this is his space, his man cave.”
Now that the walls are covered, Ahlstrom is eyeing the support posts. The ceiling, apart from old CP Rail water can pull-tabs nailed to the cross beams, is bare, but unlikely to remain so. If there’s anything the last 35 years have taught Ahlstrom, it’s that a bare surface is only bare for so long.
Especially when there’s a beer cap, a finishing nail and a hammer at hand.