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.


  1. For those of you interested, apparently various animal rights activists disliked the idea of using roadkill to gain attention. Also, this beer received major news outlet coverage, so BrewDog got the response it wanted. The inimitable Jay Brooks has his usual well-written analysis: http://brookstonbeerbulletin.com/a-stiff-drink/