Clad in his monk’s robe, Woody Chandler has committed his life to consuming canned beer. All of them.
With our train departing Philadelphia for New York City in less than 45 minutes, my friend and I had no time to waste. “We need beer,” I said, pointing out the nearby shop. In Pennsylvania, distributors can only sell beer by the case, which handily explains how we ended up with 24 cans of cold Sly Fox Pikeland Pils. As for the fellow cab passenger wearing a chest-scraping beard and floor-dusting monk’s robe, that’s another tale.
“Mind if I split the ride?” asked John “Woody” Chandler, a fixture on the Northeast’s beer circuit. I’ve seen Woody around for nearly a decade. Everybody knows Woody. With his custom-made clerical outfit, jacket bedecked in brewery patches and chunky black glasses reminiscent of the other Woody, Chandler stands apart from the hordes wearing pretzel necklaces and hop-themed tees. Chandler climbed in and instructed the cabbie to take us to the 30th Street Station. Then he noticed our Pikeland Pils case. “Good call on the cans,” he said, the first (and not the last) inkling I’d have of Chandler’s special affinity for aluminum.
That afternoon, we left Chandler at the train station with three or four cans, enough to lubricate his ride to Lancaster, Pa., where the high school English teacher calls home. It’s where his beer fixation was born at an early age.
“I was probably 5 years old when my father gave me a sip of Carling Black Label,” says Chandler, now 49, “and I spilled it all over the floor.” He eventually enlisted in the Navy, and his first overseas deployment shipped him around the Mediterranean; in 1985, his tour took him to Barcelona, where he stumbled upon a bar serving Belgian imports.
“I remember thinking, man, this is really good,” recalls Chandler, who sipped Stroh’s back home. Beer ceased being a means to an end and, in many ways, became his life’s purpose. “Every time I left the boat, the first question I asked was, ‘What’s the local beer?’” Chandler says.
After retiring from the Navy in 1998, the Gulf War vet returned to Pennsylvania and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. He simultaneously earned his teaching degree and polished his beer education, visiting Keystone State breweries and falling under beer festivals’ spell. In 2004, at Madison, Wisconsin’s Great Taste of the Midwest event, Chandler met members of the ecclesiastically attired Beer Monks & Maidens organization. Chandler had found his tribe. He became an honorary member and ordered a new identity from eBay.
“The robe lets me transform from mild-mannered Woody Chandler, high-school English teacher, into Brother Woody with the Order of Disorder,” Chandler explains.
Chandler has toted his costume on beer travels that have taken him as far as Alaska, Hawaii and San Diego (his cousin is Colby Chandler, Ballast Point’s specialty brewer), drawing onlookers into his orbit.
“I met Woody at a beer fest in Boston, where he was getting more attention than some brewers,” says Canned! author and CraftCans.com proprietor Russ Phillips. “I remember thinking that this guy must either be totally awesome or absolutely insane.”
A certain measure of insanity, as well as indignation, sent Chandler on his most far-reaching mission. One winter day, in early 2007, a blizzard had Pennsylvania in its sights. School was certain to be canceled the next day, which offered Chandler the rare chance to participate in BeerAdvocate.com’s late-night forum. It started at 10 or 11 p.m.—West Coast time. “For a teacher on a school night, staying up that late is unheard of,” Chandler says. After coming home and napping, he woke up and logged into a constant source of irritation.
The forum was clogged with discussions of cult beers such as Cantillon and Three Floyds, the white whales collectors seek with Captain Ahab–like tunnel vision. Can’t you talk about anything that everybody can partake in? Chandler wondered. He suggested members would be better served discussing beers that could be acquired without sacrificing life, limb or bank account. Members took the bait. What beers did he suggest?
To level the playing field, Chandler settled on canned beer, which at the time meant mostly Bud, Coors and Miller; Oskar Blues was barely a radar blip. “Everybody could get a canned beer,” Chandler says. Access did not equal interest, and his submission met mockery. That merely hardened Chandler’s resolve.
So began the CANQuest, Chandler’s Sisyphean struggle to drink every beer sold in aluminum cans. “Naively, I thought that if I could find 100 different cans, I’d really be doing something,” Chandler says, laughing. To date, he has reviewed 1,011 canned beers (and counting), from Westbrook’s One Claw Rye Pale Ale to Natural Ice and Camo malt liquor. “I’m not discriminatory,” says Chandler. He gobbled up every cheap regional lager, even Minhas’ Tundra Ice, which “had a taste that would make a team of 11 maggots cringe,” he wrote in his review.
No matter how dreadful the beer, Chandler drinks every drop. It’s one of CANQuest’s bedrock rules. To count in the quest, Chandler must photograph the can; drink all the beer, preferably from a glass; and properly dispose of the can. “Throwing it out with trash on Monday morning is no good,” says Chandler, who also recycles cans he finds on the ground. “Thou shalt not walk by a spent can in the street or gutter, because they should be recycled,” he says.
Not every can should be recycled, a lesson Chandler learned last summer. He was visiting Pennsylvania’s Brewhouse Mountain, Jeff Lebo’s beer-themed inn that contains more than 86,000 cans. Chandler toted along a smattering of CANQuest empties, dumping them on the table for Lebo to eyeball. “He was like, ‘I haven’t even heard of half of these cans.’ I told him that I recycle most of my cans. Tears welled up in his eyes. He said, ‘Please, stop this. I will come to Lancaster and grab your cans.’”
Lebo understands that, for Chandler, tangible cans hold little value. “Woody is a collector but not in the material sense, Lebo says. “Drinking experiences are certainly a valid thing to collect. Besides, we all love stories, and Woody is certainly collecting some great stories.” Case in point: Last year, Chandler ran for mayor of Lancaster. He advocated for marijuana’s legalization and a city brothel, hung a bed-sheet campaign banner in front of his home and stumped for votes by carrying a signboard featuring a 4:20 sticker. He garnered 32 write-in votes. “I got my name out there,” says Chandler, who plans to run again in 2017.
Don’t assume political candidacy spells CANQuest’s end. In fact, Chandler is just getting started. CraftCans.com’s database counts more than 1,900 canned craft beers, including lusted-after Surly Furious and The Alchemist’s Heady Topper—cult beers sold in aluminum. The irony is not lost. “The traders now want canned beers, which is the antithesis of the CANQuest,” he sighs.
Chandler does not seek every rare release, consuming Chile’s Astral lager as readily as DC Brau’s On the Wings of Armageddon double IPA. Besides, he has about 50 cans cooling in his refrigerator, and nearly every day brings news of a new brewery canning beer. At this rate, the pursuit may consume the rest of his life.
“If I’m calling it the CANQuest, it can never end,” he says. “There will always be more cans.” •