July 26, 2010

Let's Hope This Marks the End of "The End of History" Debate

So the stoat- and squirrel-clad beers fueled a firestorm of amateur punditry over the week, with lots of beer purists declaring their abject disdain and hatred for BrewDog's 55% "beer." I maintain that saying you'll never have one of their ipas because you dislike their publicity stunt isn't particularly enlightened, but hey, I can't eat Taco Bell any more because the ads are so unbelievably dumb. And because I believe the taco meat to be a petrochemical byproduct, but that's neither here nor there.

Two things to note, both self-selected to make my stance seem more reasonable: One is this well-written encouragement to chill by an author at The Full Pint, with which I totally agree. The other is the response by BrewDog owner James Watt on Beer Advocate (which has currently 503 replies). I would just like to pull three points that support the view I laid out in my analysis of the roadkill-as-label-art post (read: this might make me seem smart):

6) Custom taxidermy costs loads. We will loose money on every stoat we sell. Anyone who thinks that a business with 35 employees can get rich quick from 7 stoats and 4 squirrels is pretty naive...
11) With this beer we wanted to do something, quirky, edgy, innovative and different. We feel that by causing controversy, unsettling institutions and really pushing the envelope we can raise awareness for craft beer in the UK and get more dispassionate consumers starting the journey to towards becoming bonafide craft beer aficionados

12) We mess about with little things like this. Goofing around is our hobby. 99% of our time is spent aspiring to brew world class craft ales in the North East of Scotland. We want to start a craft beer revolution over here. This is pretty much all we care about.
So it wasn't for money, it was for an attempt to evoke a response, and it furthered an attempt to enact some societal change. That all sounds like art to me. And I wholeheartedly hope the rest of my craft beer brethren take it that way, because watching everyone infight like this is a little painful. Spirited, respectful debate is good, and there's lots to be had here, but a lot of the dialogue this past week (including Watt's missive, I should point out) was not at all respectful. Watching it is like watching one congregation of believers descend into war over the interpretation of one sentence in a holy text. Craft beer is a small world, and everyone in this debate is on the same anti-macrobrew side. Can't we just agree to disagree without saying we're done with every brewery that does something we don't like? Let's just put down the Haterade for a while, grab a couple pints, and discuss this like adults.

Okay, I'm done, I'll move onto more art tomorrow.

In the mean time, a few more links to share:
  • Erik Myers has some really nice analysis on what it is about BrewDog's branding efforts that have so divided the industry.
  • Jay Brooks found some really cool posters of fake beers by Erik Olsen.
  • Since I'm ranting today, I will take a moment to gloat over Mothers Against Drunk Driving's "D" grade from the American Institute of Philanthropy (go to the News Room on the link). Look, there's nothing wrong with being a mother, and one can not get more anti-drunk driving than I. But MADD 20 years ago turned into a corrupt, Marin-style neo-prohibitionist group that simply wants to eliminate alcohol. As someone who spent a lot of time working in nonprofits, I have little respect for the way that organization has perverted its once-noble mission and even less respect for the way they misuse their donors' dollars.

July 23, 2010

I Refuse to File Dead Animals Under "Label Art"

So, if you know nothing about craft beer, you have missed the kerfuffle over Scottish brewer BrewDog's latest stunt.

BrewDog is the brewery that is always trying to be the one that produces the highest-abv beer. You may remember the Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%), which started this, or the Sink the Bismarck (41%), which they brewed to defeat the German brewers that had one-upped the penguin.

Well, now we have the End of History. It's 55%. And before we get to the art part of this, let me chime in by saying I think it's fine that BrewDog does this stuff, but it shouldn't be confused with the vast majority of their brewing, which are aggressive but still far more standard beers. I'm not really impressed with 110-proof beer at this point, but they seem to have fun.

Okay, so BrewDog's design is generally a punk-influenced typeface on a two-or-three color silkscreen-looking like label. Nothing to jump up and down about, but totally solid and it very much conveys the brewery's identity, beer-wise. Here's the logo:

It's fine. It's recognizable. You have a sense of the brand identity. All their other stuff looks a lot like that.

The End of History takes a slightly different tack, and comes packaged in a dead woodland creature.
This celebration of taxidermic craft and high-abv "beer" is certainly something, and it's actually annoying lots of craft beer purists.

I prefer to think of this insanity (a bottle ran around $1000), as actually something a little bit more interesting than clever branding. I've written here before about how certain promotional efforts use so much energy and absurdity that they can quite realistically be thought of as a form of performance art. When that happens, the creation of the campaign is far more valuable and interesting than whatever financial return the brewery can expect.

Yes, 12 grand is a lot, but when you consider the resources BrewDog had to put into this effort, it was clearly not for sheer profitability. Maybe this was an effort designed to reap rewards in notoriety and buzz, but BrewDog already owned the airwaves when it came to over-the-top abv beer. So some of this had to be simply about the love of the weird, which is pretty much what we mean when we say performance art.

The beer is packaged in dead squirrels. Look at the faux-sophisticated tone of that image. Or how seriously this one seems to take the product:
It's obvious this is about more than the creation of beer, it's about an actual embrace of absurdity. While I'm not going to buy one of these beers, and I'm not sure how you drink something by grabbing a dead marmot or lagomorph, I'm also fairly certain that's not the point. Like Schmaltz' "world's smallest brewery" at Coney Island, this is something the brewery is doing because they think it is cool/disturbing/interesting; in short, they are doing this because they can and because it will evoke a response. That's pretty close to art by any definition.

There is a bit of a tradition of dead animal art, by the way. Consider the trompe l'oeil paintings of the pre-Renaissance like this one by Jacopo de' Barbari:
I guess northern Europeans got fired up by very realistic images of dead things.

Or, for a more recent example, there's always the work by British artist Damien Hirst:
His celebrated "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" is an embalmed shark that currently resides at MoMA. In case you were wondering, the original shark had to be replaced after a few years thanks to decay.

Now, am I suggesting that BrewDog's packaging of their publicity stunt beer is a conscious reference to the work of the Young British Art movement of the 1990s? No. But death and preservation are themes that we see in recur in art, and it would be a bit loony not to think BrewDog recognized the creepiness of taxidermied bottles. Art is about evoking a response, and BrewDog has certainly done that. While I'm not the biggest fan of the IBU/ABV arms race going on in beer, I can't help but hope that this isn't the last grand gesture BrewDog.

July 16, 2010

More Label Art: Pretty Things, Breckenridge, Terrapin, New Belgium and Stillwater

While I've got some time, the clearout of (reasonably) old labels continues:

There's a new addition to the New Belgium Lips of Faith series, the Sahti:
As you may recall, many of the other Lips of Faith labels share the kind of silkscreen look that we see here, with clear small shapes comprising the image rather than fluid, continuous lines. I actually like this a lot. In addition to fitting the Asiatic style, I like how the asymmetry of the art moves the eye, and I especially like continuing the tree behind the text field. Little things like that make a label so much more interesting; just imagine it without that small continuation of the tree branch and you'll see it becomes far more prosaic in a hurry.

Let's look at the new Pretty Things label that launched last month, the American Darling:
The art here is a play on the idea of the "lawnmower beer," a low-alcohol, fizzy, refreshing beer to drink in hot weather (presumably while mowing the lawn). Such a description is a backhanded compliment from many beer geeks, though they'll be quick to tell you how it's not bad that a beer is like that while they reach for a 11% abv double IPA. (Ed. I'd go on a rant, but a Twitter conversation this week with the people at Notch Session Ale got it out of me. You're welcome.)

From the press release:
Made with German pilsner malt, the 7.0% abv beer is often described by the folks at Pretty Things as an ‘un-lawnmower beer’ i.e. not yellow fizz, but good on a hot day. It’s just a really nice hoppy lager for the summer time.
The childlike imagery often employed by Dann Paquette's "gypsy brewery" fits this idea very well. The lawnmower, the vines on the siding of the house in the background, even the floating seeds are nice and summery but one can't escape the feeling of a scene that is vaguely, well, creepy. The misshapen perspective of the mower, the exaggerated blades of grass and flower petals... This is a friendly lawnmower beer, maybe, but a strange one.

Their Field Mouse's Farewell is a little more straightforward:
This label is a study in effective use of contrast. The bright mouse on the dark background, the center-bottom focal point against the strong vertical lines of the grain stalks that point up to the lettering, the slight left skew of the mouse to the moon at top right, and even the adorableness of the rodent against the sad, lonely night of the rest of the image all make it a successful, ethos-rich piece.

A Beer for Hope is a nonprofit that works with craft breweries to release a beer yearly. This year's was a Belgian Scotch Ale by Terrapin:
There is another label, but I wanted to use Terrapin's. The strength and weakness of this design is color palette. It's bright. Really bright. That makes sense for a hopeful beer, and the imagery of the bird with the hops atop purple flowers (a nice play on the dove with the olive branch from the Noah story) is certainly upbeat. But it's tough when there's this much brightness with little to balance it. The green on the sides isn't dark enough to really mute it, and the blue sky is bright enough that this label could start to hurt your eyes after a while. I generally love Terrapin's art, but I wonder if this is too much eye-catching color. Of course, I can't get this beer, so those comments could all be useless thanks to computer rendering (if anyone wants to send me a picture of the actual label on a bottle, that'd be great. Or, you know, just send a bottle.)

Breckenridge Brewery released a label for a limited edition Regal Double Pilsner:
This is intricate enough to be reminscent of some of the new Left Hand labels, although the imagery is more distinct and less painterly. It's really just a bunch of gold lions on a red-brown backdrop. I find myself wishing for more easter eggs here, like we see at Left Hand. Instead, symmetrical the image gets less interesting the more you look at it; the lions are almost identical on each side. Would it have killed them to mix it up and put in some fun things that you had to look to see? Still, cool looking and definitely gets the point of the beer across.

One more? Okay, since you asked nicely.

The Stillwater Artisanal Ales Cellar Door, a reference to the supposedly most beautiful phrase in the English language (credit J.R.R. Tolkein and the movie Donnie Darko, among others, for that belief):
It's not an overly ambitious label on first blush, but it does a lot. It incorporates the name of the beer, the idea of the summer farmhouse beer, the ethos of the mythology around the name, and the brewery's brand all seamlessly and maintains an elegance.

July 15, 2010

A Customizable Can?

In news broken by Hoosier Beer Geek, it appears as though Sun King Brewing is trying to change the game of can label art by creating the first customizable can.

Here it is:

The way it works is they take this, then slap a clear 3"x3" sticker denoting which beer it is. As the HBG interview with owner Clay Robinson makes clear, the tradeoff is a lot more handwork for a much more agile packaging array; now Sun King can put into cans one-off, limited edition, and seasonal beers:

The process will be a lot more labor intensive because we will have to adhere a label to each and every can before we run them through the canner, but we believe it will be worth it. 
This of course is a sad thing for this Pour Curator, because now there's less incentive to do design work, and Sun King was exhibiting some of the better can design. But it's a good thing for the brewery and beer people, because it gets more beer out there. And hey, maybe they'll get creative with their stickers.

I'm a little surprised the TTB is okay with this, and there are of course potential concerns with transparency about abv, etc. I hope those 3"x3" stickers carry a lot of information, or else you'll have to know a lot about the beer before you buy it.

But still, the development of a fully customizable can is interesting and significant from a design perspective, and potentially at least a mildly disruptive advancement when it comes to packaging beer in small batches. And nice reporting by the guys at Hoosier Beer Geek!

Why I Deserve to Go to CANFEST

So Buckbean Brewing Company, a brewery that loves canning as much as I love art, is sponsoring a contest to send a lucky blogger to their "celebration of canned beer" in Reno, NV. All you (I) have to do is write a post on why you deserve to go, and then they compile the entries and people vote on them.

Normally, I don't do this stuff, because I don't like to bombard readers with stuff that's for me. But this is one area where I feel my ardent support for the can-as-art-surface is not only relevant, but has actually developed over the past few months to be a small love affair of mine. So here we go:

It is clear that many craft beer people are not sure what to do with the rise of the can. As I've mentioned before, some, like the great Oregon Beermeister Jeff Alworth, just think they're ugly, and can't get past the idea that a small, thin piece of aluminum could house robust, flavorful nectar. I would like to say I have no disrespect for this point of view, and that everyone's entitled to his or her opinion, but that would be a little bit of a lie.

Yes, I know taste can be affected by aluminum, although apparently there's some polymer we use in space shuttles or something that keeps this to a minimum now. And anyway, taste can be affected by lots of things, and we give brewers the benefit of the doubt all the time with respect to variables. I understand that canning is cheaper, and I'm in favor of anything that helps craft breweries get more beer out there. I don't know anything at all about the environmental impact, but smart people say cans recycle more easily. Cans, studies show, also do not break as easily as glass.

But this is a blog about art created by breweries. And on that score, I think I'm uniquely qualified to tout the benefits of craft beer in cans.

When it comes to art, cans win. Bottles have two ways of displaying art: the conventional label, and enameling or painting designs (which few breweries do). Both are extremely constricting in terms of space. You've got the area you can print/adhere, minus the space necessary for the information required by law, minus the space for the information you just want to convey. What's left is a small, rectangular canvas we all know and love.

As I've said before, cans offer an art area that is not necessarily larger in square inches, but qualitatively more interesting. The 360-degree can-vas allows for a panopticon of design, where the viewer or drinker has a different artistic experience depending on how he or she holds the can while taking a sip. A bottle just doesn't offer that opportunity. So far, I've gotten the chance to critique some of the efforts to take advantage of that, but it's been mostly through the Interweb, since A LOT of canned beer doesn't make it to PA.

If I get to CANFEST, I will get a chance to see a vast array of cans in person, and see how the work of brewery artists and designers actually does in reality. I mean, yes, sure, I'll also get to try some beer, but please, people, as Wu-Tang Clan implored us, think of the artists. They toil in obscurity. Quick, who's the main artistic force behind COOP Ale Works' canning? It's Mark Seibold. He's an architect. I know that, and I CAN'T EVEN GET HIS BEER IN MY STATE. Who's the artist for 21st Amendment Brewing? Okay, I don't know that, but wouldn't you be interested in hearing about how s/he plans for designs that bend around a can? Well, if I go to CANFEST, I can ask Nico Freccia all about it.

Look, wouldn't it be cool if, when you went to the cooler to buy beer, you started seeing not just small aluminum reproductions of labels, but explosions of color that embraced the entire surface? Well, if I go to Reno, the breweries and artists will know that someone is paying attention to their aesthetic efforts.

Plus, the whole point of this contest is to send someone who will appreciate the unique elements of CANFEST. Seriously, how many beer bloggers actually love the can as something more than a particularly efficient beer-delivery vehicle? Sure, it's an awesome feeling to hold a cold can of craft beer. And yes, there are all sorts of industrial advantages I probably don't know about. But when I say I think cans are better, I don't mean they're better because of what's stored in them. I mean that an actual can is superior, in my point of view, to an actual bottle. It just so happens that I love the craft beer inside of it, as well. Anyone can say they love cans, but I actually respect them in the morning. When they're empty.

So send me to CANFEST. I'll be a little different than your average beer blogger at a can festival, but hey, cans are a little different than your average craft beer imbibery mechanism. Yes, I'll probably get some quizzical stares when I talk about can-influenced design instead of (or in addition to) choices of malts, but I'm used to that by now. The important thing to remember here is that I appreciate the cans for what they look like, and not just what's on the inside.

July 14, 2010

More Left Hand, and Three Floyds Punky, Scary Fun

In my ongoing effort to clear out the Google Reader file of Beernews.org-posted images to critique, I'm going to take a look at some more of the new Left Hand label series, and then tackle a bunch of labels by what is probably the most famous brewery whose beer I've never had, Three Floyds.

So, as you know, I'm a huge fan of the new Left Hand artwork, and the Twin Sisters DIPA label is no exception.
As you can see, it shares many of the same stylistic characteristics. There is the limited color palette, the immensely intricate, looping shapes in the background (this time of grain-like designs), the soft, curving shape, and the center-focused, almost symmetrical composition. Like the others, the fun in the Twin Sisters label comes from exploring the background elements (the image is, of course, not at all symmetrical on closer inspection), and following the piece around with all of the swirls. Perhaps why I like these so much is that they remind me a little of Jackson Pollock, whose famous drip paintings similarly dance the eye all around the canvas.

Then we have the Left Hand-Terrapin collaboration, the Oxymoron.
From the press release: "Obnoxious yet reserved, elevated yet modest, it’s the embodiment of blending two brewing philosophies together in order to achieve singularity. Consider it an expression of the cruel kindness."

This time, we have similar images swirling together, but not together, in a ying-yang-type design (which is totally appropriate, given the description). Two wolves, two female heads, and then a tiny logo of Left Hand and Terrapin. I think this label does what it sets out to do, though not a ton more. Maybe I've been spoiled by the intricacy of the other Left Hand Art. It's pretty (art criticism term), it's distinctive, and it's striking from a decent distance. I do like the fiery hand that the Left Hand logo is set in.

Now onto a slew of labels by Three Floyds, which as we shall see is characterized by a balance of funny and severely creepy.

First, their collaborations with Half-Acre Beer, the She Wolf IPA and the Invasion Helles Bock:
The She Wolf takes a post-apocalyptic, punk take on the image of Rome founders Romulus and Remus being raised by a female wolf...
...And the Invasion Helles Bock looks like what would happen if Jacques Cousteau and Quentin Tarantino had ever made a film together.

Seriously, this stuff is weird. That's good, by the way. But who thinks this up? The wolf you can sort of get to from some Roman mythology and a love of hard rock music cover art. But the fish with samurai weapons? I get that it's a reference to the fact that the two breweries share a  waterway, but wow. That's creativity.

As for the actual art itself, the She Wolf artwork is probably more cohesive. It's a dark, grotesque image that would be at home in many post-apocalyptic movies or artworks. The Thomas Hart Benton-like figures are consistent with the tomb, and the idea that you should be scared to drink what they're drinking comes through loud and clear.

But I think the Invasion art is actually better, in part because it's just more ambitious. I mean, samurai carp? (are they carp? catfish? Someone from Chicago help me here.) And the fluid looking movement of the fish actually suggests the idea of underwater motion. All of this, while still having the tone of a lighthearted battle.

Recently, Three Floyds announced a collaboration with Mikkeller on the Ruggoop:
Pretty straightforward tattoo-influenced punk artwork. Not bad, certainly, as it incorporates all the elements (Mikkeller is Danish), stands out, and conforms to the established branding (which, if you're keeping score, I think in this case we can safely classify as "masculine"). It's not Bushido-following sea life, though.

Okay, in the non-collab section of Three Floyds, we have the Apocalypse Cow:
The piece is by Chicago silkscreen artist Dan Grzeca (pronounced Jet-sah), whose Etsy page sells these. Somewhere between a Van Gogh post-Impressionism and the postwar postmodern style, this seems to fit Three Floyds' funny/bleak motif well. The cyclopean cow with ammo belt and explosions behind him manages to be both humorous and foreboding. The cow's eye reminds me a little of PA folk artist Jack Savitsky (I swear, I grabbed this photo from the Internet before realizing it was from nearby friends George and Sue at the Outsider Folk Art Gallery!)

Okay, so let's close with the label art for the relatively new  Gorch Fock Helles Lager, a beer named after a German ship that saw some ups and downs.

This is sort of a historic spin on Three Floyds' usual theme. The maritime backdrops sets off the skeletal/angelic (again, suitable given the usual Three Floyds ethos) figure in center. I like the whale breaching on the right, the cresting waves that frame the image, and the use of complimentary colors (yellow and purple) to heighten the contrast. The purple seems to be the darker side of the usual creepy-fun Three Floyds dichotomy with the light yellow keeping the label from being too dark and not any fun. I also like the eagle looking intently down, like maybe he's spotted dinner.

July 13, 2010

Some of These Links Have Been Aged in the Pour Curator Cellar

Yes, I know some of these links are very old, but none of them are so old as to be irrelevant. I think.

In the CALL TO ACTION section of the links:
And, in the edification section:

July 12, 2010

DuClaw's Dark Design

The Maryland microchain craft brewery DuClaw Brewing Company has built a brand based on a dark, aggressive, almost creepy ethos. In May they released some new label art, so let's take a look at some of the more interesting work in their portfolio.
The Nemesis Imperial Alt (an uncommon style of beer) is fairly indicative of their overall style. The thing DuClaw's art brings to mind for me is actually something like what one might see in a video game marketing campaign. It's a type of lively, aggressive dark look. This is kind of like the latest Batman video game, actually:
So as you can see, this brewery might fall on the masculine side of the great beer label gender debate.

Onto the Black Jack Russian Imperial Stout, which appeals to the Western gambler/gunfighter in all of us:
I like that the jack is holding a beer, and the incomplete background fading gives the text field on the right and other elements an almost burned look.

Back to more video-game-esque beer art:
If this were an ad for something in the Quake or Unreal series of computer games, would you be stunned? If you don't know what those are, they're industrial shooter games where you traipse through dark futuristic worlds and kill things.

Then there's the Mad Bishop and Devil's Milk, where the typeface and imagery remind a gamer of the ad campaigns for Diablo or Dante's Inferno:
I want to make something clear, here. I'm making these analogies out of respect, not derision. I'm not a huge gamer, but I have immense respect for the art of video games, which has grown in the past 10-15 years to be a legitimate and compelling art form in my view. I was never a big fan of shooters, but there is a reason Quake and Unreal were huge, successful franchises. Diablo and Dante's Inferno have some of the best art direction, as far as creating a compelling world and style, of any games I've seen. The Dante's Inferno ad campaign (featuring a gorgeous cinematic trailer with Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" playing) raised the bar for game marketing.

Without getting too far into a region on which I am unqualified to write, creating a mood is an important part of branding an immersive experience like video games or, yes, drinking beer. Every bit of research we have on perception (and we have lots) tells us that context matters (telling someone a wine is more expensive makes them like it more, for example). In a video game, then, your expectations and experience of the virtual world is a major part of whether you will enjoy the game. In beer, your expectation of the beer's identity could very well affect how you taste it.

I've never had DuClaw (though I will definitely hit their Bel Air location soon), but I am intrigued by this attempt to mix a hard, dark design with what is clearly a fairly corporate mindset (they have four locations in the Baltimore-DC area).

July 9, 2010

Tribute Beers: Bob Moog, Miles Davis, Iron Maiden and the Gulf of Mexico

One of the more niche areas of label art are beers built to honor a specific person or thing. There have been a few in the last few months, such as Asheville Brewing Company's Moog Unfiltered:
Proceeds from the sale of the limited edition beer went to benefit the Bob Moog Memorial Foundation, which is essentially dedicated to honoring and proliferating synthesizer music skills (someone has to). Outside of the cool tie to a cause, the label art is pretty sweet. The use of bright colors and the various mechanical/musical shapes behind Bob visually recreates the synth music his invention made possible. The gray circuit board and red cord set the image off from the black background, and the techno type face completes the look.

On a slightly different musical note, Ninkasi's Maiden the Shade honored the stylings of Steve Harris and British metal band Iron Maiden.
Okay, well, I appreciate the nod to a metal band that basically no one feels the need to honor anymore. And I like the gold-and-aqua color palette, the butterfly and girl, and the tattoo-influenced styling. But I can't help thinking that, lettering aside, Bruce Dickinson would find this label a touch... soft.

Here's a fairly representative image of Iron Maiden's branding style:
Right. But they're older now, haven't they mellowed? Here's their recent release, The Final Frontier:
So, you know, it's nice that they like the music, but I don't know that Ninkasi's lovely label is really in the spirit of Iron Maiden.

Dogfish Head had the honor of releasing a Miles Davis tribute, Bitches Brew
Hard to argue with the wholesale use of the iconic cover art. This is one of those areas where you'd like to have seen some creative play on it in theory, but in practice that would have been very hard to do well.

And then there's Abita, which has sadly had the opportunity to make beers not just tributes but causes. You may remember the post-Katrina Restoration Pale Ale. Well, now there's the Save Our Shore Charitable Pilsner, $0.75 from each sale of which will go to aid cleanup efforts in the Gulf.
Here's the digital advertising equivalent to give you a clearer image:
I like this art a lot, actually. The use of the fish and other shore images to create the SOS is simple but effective, and it reinforces the heartbreak of what has happened (and is still happening) in the Gulf. Obviously the importance is nothing compared to the cause it supports, but the entire site and Web design that went into to the campaign is really very impressive artistically. I encourage you to take a moment and look at it; the people at Innovative Advertising, LLC have really done something good with this campaign. Unlike some other sites, it doesn't bombard with imagery so much as it uses the simple color scheme and some easy characters to present an idyllic image that could easily be lost to everyone who lives in the area.

July 7, 2010

More Art of the Beer Can

So, I've done one post about how cans could change beer art. And we've established that, my respect for Jeff Alworth's blogging notwithstanding, I fundamentally disagree with the school of thought that states cans are "not an attractive package." On the contrary, I think the panoramic capabilities of can art are potentially more interesting than bottle labels. And, with more than 100 breweries canning, we'll probably see more dynamic art as things go on. Let's look at a few more pieces.

Let's start with Manhattan, Kansas' Tallgrass Brewing Company, whose owner, Jeff Gill, is a zealot enough to issue a "canifesto."
I consider this something like a baseline for can art. They observe the most important rule, which is to not treat it like a bottle. As you can see, the background extends back and around, and the radiating lines from the central image actually draw the eye to the sides of the canvas (Get it? Can-vas? HA! Okay, now let's never think of that pun again). But they still don't truly embrace the potential of the 360 canvas, and use the conventional single image with background art.

Here's some can art by Oklahoma City's COOP Ale Works, a participant in this year's show.

Okay, they obviously aren't using the 360 capability of cans, because they already designed a brand image and don't have the time or money to adapt it. This is the vast majority of can art, of course, just label art adapted to a can. Not special, but in this case at least stays clean and manages to add to the original design work. A can allows for a monochrome background (unlike a bottle label), and here the black background brings out the reds and cream of the design. The text panel is clean and the branding remains intact. This is about the minimum you can do and have can art be solid design.

Of course, you can also do more, like Big Sky Brewing's Scape Goat can:
Now that is using the whole canvas. The entire landscape not only achieves the goal of lengthening the image, making the sky and mountains seem bigger (appropriately), but it changes as you move around the can. To the right of the goat you've got a vertical cropping of rocks, while to the left the trees and mountains trail off into the distance, and the goat's gaze and the slope of the lettering bring your eye off with them. The multiple levels keep the essentially black-and-white image interesting all the way around. We have a winner for my new favorite can design.

July 1, 2010

The Session #41: Craft Beer Art Inspired by Homebrewing - Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp

(Ed. note: I know I'm a few hours early, but tomorrow's looking busy. So here's my Session entry for tomorrow)

All right, this was tough. I mean, it's easy to talk about how homebrewing has influenced craft beer, but much harder to pick out specific examples and write about them. Even harder when you then need to find artwork and write about that.

So, then, I decided to use my beer blogger's creative license (you get one when you start a blog), and use craft beer art inspired by homebrewing. In this case, the specific example is Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp project, where aspiring brewers get to join Sierra brewmasters and create concoctions. In this case, the real artistic achievement is in Art Director Jason Roberson's fantastical Rube Goldberg-esque vision of the experience. (Full disclosure: Jason's work, including this, was in the show, and he's a pretty cool guy. So I'm biased).

Here's an image of the canvas that is being exhibited in the GoggleWorks Cohen gallery right now.
Okay, now that you've seen the static image, go to www.sierrabeercamp.com and just sit there for a minute, watching and listening to the animations.

It's somewhere between Willy Wonka and Baron Munchausen, except about beer. It's actually a fairly astonishing amount of work for a side project to which many breweries would not devote an entire site, let alone an artistic undertaking of this size.

Now, of course, it helps that Sierra has (relatively) huge resources to devote to this effort, whereas most breweries can't afford to pay for artwork in much more than beer to begin with. But it's also interesting that they've backed this sort of beer fantasy camp so strongly. I know plenty of aspiring and avid homebrewers who would pay some real money for a weekend mostly alone with a brewer like Ken Grossman. Sierra runs this as a contest, but it's not hard to see how it could turn into a revenue stream for them or places like Dogfish, Anchor, or Shmaltz. Put it this way: would you pay $10,000 for a weekend making (and drinking) beer with Tomme Arthur, Fritz Maytag, or Jeremy Cowan? Okay, so you don't have that much, but what if you were an independently wealthy homebrewer (they do exist; I've met some).

What about Sam Calagione,Bill Covaleski and Greg Koch? They get together on collaboration beers, is it impossible they'd get together to make some money? And we're talking real money. 20 people, $10 grand apiece means $200,000, which wouldn't bad for a weekend of "work," even if it's split three ways.

At some level, this blog is about branding, and so it's about business. The homebrew movement begat the craft beer movement, and the passion there still fuels the consumption. But as the craft brew community grows, those homebrewers will remain the base, and every industry goes back to its base when it needs new revenue. Efforts like Beer Camp (run as profit centers rather than contests) inspired by not just the efforts but the dedication of homebrewers, may well turn out to be a new venue for branding and craft beer artwork. For now, we've got Roberson's fantastic piece to tease us with what some of those efforts might look like.

A Ton of Labels by Short's, Including the Hangin' Frank

Sorry I've been gone. The show was eating up time. And yes, I'll do a wrap up post about it. But first...

Short's is quickly becoming one of those breweries whose art I follow. Their latest batch of label art has fueled a debate on ethics. First, though, some of the less controversial labels:
The Nicie Spice label is something between Cezanne and Munch, making a spice rack expressionist. The use of the maroon background brings out some of the red tones in the image itself. The thick strokes and ambiguous light source almost makes it seem threatening. The "gentle mixture of elegance and redolence" is characteristic pretty words by Short's.
The pistachio Cream Ale label is less artsy, but it's just clever, using a light color palette against the picture of a hammer to connote a sense of smoothness and powerful taste.
I wish the image quality were a little better, but this is what I can find (as always, the Beersage at www.beernews.org comes through). Anyway, talk about rich, bold colors. It's not quite the label we'll see later, but you can tell just from the use of the axe and "blood" that Short's is okay pushing the envelope with label art. Even leaving aside the grisly nature, does a bunch of hacked up tomatoes put you in a drinking mood?
The story of the good Samaritan is a bit more adult than this children's book label art, but I still like the use of Biblical inspiration for beer (side note: check out Thank Heaven for Beer. Go, do it now. Yeah, I was a Religious Studies major once upon a time. Okay, back to this). Also, I'm a fan of anything that "brews up an Investment in the Community."
That's just creepy, but, like the Samaritan label, more of the Le petite prince style that I wrote about Short's previously.
This one can't escape Van Gogh, which will happen when you do fields of grain. The little plum things look creepily like eggs or cocoons or something, but we've got context thanks to enormous instances of the word "plum."
The Short's collaboration with Half-Acre is a guava IPA, which I really wish I could taste out here in PA. The art's different, clearly, but the sickly green color of the water is awesome, and the comic book style of the art works in a Toxic Avenger/Ugly Kid Joe kind of way. You know, with a little bit of Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Okay, now for the interesting one, the Hangin' Frank. First, look at the original:
As the Beersage said first, I was more than a little surprised the TTB, which approves all labels, was okay with this, since they have a bit of a penchant for rejecting controversial things.

The BeerAdvocate thread on this is now over 250 replies long, with mixed feelings. First, a couple things to note:

1) The label is a reference to an owner of City Park Grill who hanged himself 100 years ago or so
2) The hand came out darker than intended, and has now been revised to be obviously caucasian. There's no racial reference or Without Sanctuary stuff going on here.

Okay, so it's not as provocative a piece as it appears to be. When I first saw it, I thought it was a bit edgy, but the possibility of it being widely offensive did not strike me as likely. Still, the image of a person hanging on a bottle of beer makes slashed tomatoes look like an ad for Bud Light Lime. We talk about masculine label art for big, hoppy beers occasionally being a turnoff to beer newbies, but this isn't aggressive so much as discomforting.

Look, I admire Short's for doing interesting things with their art. If no brewery did it, I'd have nothing to write about. But I think there's a lesson here that you need a very loyal or highbrow clientele to do consistently challenging stuff without just turning them off. If I go into a beer store and see the wall of labels, I'll try this because I'm into interesting art and it's an IPA I haven't had. But I'm not bringing it to a party with anyone who's not into craft beer. Craft beer has a hard enough time getting accepted in some circles, and label art like this can be both part of the reason for that, and part of the remedy. I suppose one question is the level of distribution; if this is mostly a local effort, people may be familiar with the story, brewery, or both, and so there's some leniency. But when this label art shows up on Beernews.org and everyone nationwide gets a look, you run into a situation where something a little sensitive and potentially for a limited audience now is looked at through many different sets of eyes.

One of the things I love about art is that, like craft beer, everyone experiences it differently. We bring our experiences, memories, associations and even sensations (we see colors and taste tastes differently on a basic physiological level) to an experience. And I for one commend Short's on creating label art that makes me feel something, even if that emotion is one of discomfort. Yes, at some level, your art also has to sell beer, and no beer with a label that evokes that type or intensity of emotion can reliably sell itself to a wide audience. But just as not all art is designed to be widely palatable, not all beer art needs to sell 6 million barrels, and when your audience is small, knowledgeable, and local, you may as well do something interesting.