September 20, 2010

Two by Shmaltz and Three by Magic Hat

Readers of this blog know that the Curator loves no brewery's sense of humor and zaniness more than that of the fine Tribesmen at Shmaltz Brewing Company. So let's take a look at some of Matt Polacheck's newer work.

The RIPA on Rye is a barrel-aged form of the Bittersweet Lenny's RIPA, and the art is (as one might expect) derivative. Here's the original:
And here's the barrel aged art:
The marquee light frame remains, and the essential composition is the same. The marquee in the frame now sports a more throwback look with old-timey lettering, and the whole image has been sepia-toned. Rather than the face of Lenny, we get the Shmaltz face and a more low-key RIP to Lenny Bruce on the left. Instead of a black background to bring out the feeling of a NYC nightclub, we have wood grain and barrels to make us feel like the whole thing is aged, laid-back, and roasty smooth.

Incidentally, this beer just won a medal at Great American Beer Festival for the barrel-aged category.

Every year, Shmaltz releases a Rejewvenator beer infused with a crop of the year. This year is the year of the grape.
It's much brighter and more verdant than previous editions (which have featured fig, pomegranate and other such delicious ingredients). I like this a lot; it's rare that you can see yellow paired with green and purple without it looking harsh. The use of the vine leaves - both the large green one in the center and the washout small ones on the sides - really bring the piece together. Yes, that was an intentional Lebowski reference.

Let's look at some of the newer work by Magic Hat:
At one point I spent some time in Mexico, so I'm biased here. I love the Dia de Los Muertos theme, and the dancing, happy, colorful skeletons perfectly connote the bright flavors of a wit that has green apple and coriander involved.

Replacing Roxy Rolles in the rotation is the Hex Ourtoberfest:
I guess the theme for Magic Hat is "creepy" now? Seriously, this is a weird label. The black and red with wispy white color palette definitely gives it a spooky feel. I like the idea of ghosts sharing a pint. Not sure what the ghostly pig is doing there. The wrought iron gate is a bit much, I think, given how much they're already doing with three colors at the bottom of the label. It just gets in the way.

Lastly, let's look at a vastly improved label:
Okay, now look at the old one:
Yeah. That was a good use of time and resources. The first one was boring, staid, and not well-composed. The new one, though, shines. Great vibrant color, lots of movement, good red-blue contrast, and some excellent thinking in composition. The arm draws the eye up and divides the image well. The new curtains have an extra layer that not only frames the image but adds a depth and dimensionality.

The real difference, though, is the level of thought and planning. I love the plaid flannel shirt with the unbuttoned sleeve; those are great artistic decisions to add some realism and folksiness. It changes the scene from boilerplate to personal and engaging. I know, it's small, but that's the point. Often, it's the tiny decisions, the ones that we barely notice, that separate a decent or good image from a great one.

September 16, 2010

Moylan's v. Lost Abbey

In the past, I've covered specific instances of intellectual property disputes on this blog, and that's because, as you've probably picked up, they're a bit of pet interest for me. It's a growing and fascinating part of the law, and - more topically - an increasingly important part of craft beer design.

The most recent example of this features two high-profile breweries, Moylan's and Port Brewing (makers of the acclaimed Lost Abbey). And it's about a tap handle.

Here they are, side by side. Yes, in full disclosure, this image is from Lost Abbey's FAQ site, which is stunningly approachable, and I do not believe misrepresents the tap handles. But in case you distrust, here are images from the unimpeachable beersage:
So, as you can figure, Lost Abbey is alleging that the Moylan's tap handle infringes on their copyrighted style. As argument, Lost Abbey's Tomme Arthur is that they established the design in 2006, when they launched the beer line. If you want the details of how a single party can own a style of Celtic Cross, go read the FAQ site I linked above. But the basics are:
  • Lost Abbey claims that, while no one can copyright all varieties of Celtic Cross, a specific style of Celtic Cross for the purposes of a tap handle can be protected (legally, this is entirely accurate).
  • Lost Abbey used the tap handle since 2006, while Moylan's recently made a very noticeable change in their style.
  • Tap handles are important:
    A lot of people don’t realize it, but for a small brewery like Port, the tap handle is the single most prominent piece of brand advertising there is. A tap handle that stands out among all the others not only identifies itself to those who know what it represents, it can also lead people who aren’t familiar with the brand to try the products. We were very aware of this when we designed the Lost Abbey Celtic cross tap handle and did our best to make it unique, attractive and easily identifiable no matter whether it sat on a line of two or 50 taps. But in a line with Moylan’s new taps, that uniqueness suddenly disappears. Having invested everything in making that Celtic cross tap handle design a unique identifier of the Lost Abbey brand, the arrival of Moylan’s strikingly similar handle isn’t a mere nuisance, it’s a very serious business threat.
  • Lost Abbey's attempts to resolve this amicably met with no success. As Arthur says:
Legal stuff is ugly and gives us the willies. (In all our years in craft brewing, the closest we’ve ever come to a lawyer was when one came into the tasting room for a beer.) From the time Moylan’s new tap handles were brought to our attention last April we made numerous attempts to air our concerns to Moylan’s directly, through common friends in the industry, and eventually through lawyer-grams, in the hopes of working out something mutually agreeable that didn’t need the courts involved. Unfortunately, we had no luck. So finally faced with continuing and greater infringement that could lead to the loss of the trademark (by law trademarks must be defended or they can be voided), we reluctantly agreed to go ahead and file suit in an attempt to bring the matter to resolution. We have absolutely no desire to go to court over this we’re still hopeful that Port and Moylan’s can come to a mutually acceptable agreement.
So, that's all well and good, and Tomme Arthur is an absolute titan of craft beer with a reputation for integrity. Everything Arthur says is legally sound, including the crucial part that, IF A BUSINESS DOES NOT PROTECT ITS INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, IT LOSES IT. I capped that because it can not be underestimated. One must be paranoid in many ways with regard to IP, and clearly Lost Abbey is. It's part of why Moylan's offer to change after they exhaust their current inventory of tap handles is not really in good faith. The Lost Abbey case and supporting documents (here via the Full Pint) are a master class in how to publicly show one's case.

But that's just one side.

Moylan's letter that prompted the suit is long and in legalese, but there are only a few possible defenses. Here are the options:
  1. Moylan had it first, and has used the design continuously
  2. The design isn't that similar, and no one could mistake the two
One of these things is not like the others?
On the first, if we are to believe Arthur, we see the image above as evidence that, while Moylan's has used Celtic Crosses for years, they've hardly been the same cross. The previous tap handles were stout, plain, and straight-edged, compared to the new tap handle, which has traditional Celtic detailing, curvature and bowing of the sides, and a more elongated, graceful shape (all of which could be said of Lost Abbey's). As someone who fancies himself an appreciator of craft beer design, I would say that, if Moylan's case is, as Brendan Moylan told the North County Times:
“It’s basically about Celtic cross beer handles that I’ve been using for 15 years,”
Then I'd say I don't buy it. That isn't the same handle, and it isn't the same design.

But that's only part of the defense. Another part is the claim that the two things just aren't that similar. Let's look again:
Are you confused?
On one hand, they are definitely similar style of Celtic Cross. The Moylan's bows and curves more, and the lettering is in different colors and Celtic fonts. The most significant difference, design-wise, might be that the interior styling is not the same; Moylan's is a series of rope swirls, whereas Lost Abbey is more of a heather pattern, radiating outward.

Artistically speaking, these are definitely not the same, and I actually believe that Moylan's had no intention of violating copyright.

But that's not the lawsuit. The suit is about whether the new Moylan's design actually infringes on Lost Abbey's intellectual property (intent is irrelevant), and could potentially confuse or mislead a customer, or damage existing brand value.

I'm not a lawyer, let alone a patent lawyer, but, if someone were to ask my opinion...

I'd say it does do that. On a tap rack, those two look awfully similar. I would have to look closely to tell them apart, and I run a blog about beer design.

If I were Brendan Moylan, I would swallow some pride, ditch the "I've been doing this forever" shtick, and call Tomme Arthur. Grab a beer. I bet you anything Tomme will help cover the costs of the handles, and you can do a couple events and a collaboration beer to make up the rest. The money you'll both save on lawyers will be astronomical. No one's saying anyone did anything wrong, but life is life and business is business. it's just good business to avoid the costs of this suit, and from my experience your life is better when no lawsuits of any kind are involved. Plus, it'll be a feelgood story for us beer nerds.

Thanks to The Full Pint,, and Josh Oakes at the Hop Press for their reporting on this issue.

September 13, 2010

Congrats to Lost in the Beer Aisle!

Thanks to all of you who voted for me to go to CANFEST. I was this close - if by "this" I mean "not very" - receiving a little more than 5% of the vote, which put me just ahead of Jim at the Beer and Whiskey Brothers, who was kind enough to engage me in trash talk.

All congratulations to Josh at Lost in the Beer Aisle, whose entry was unbelievably creative and awesome. Check it out:
Not hard to see why he won. As I mentioned in a previous post, it probably also helped that he is generally a great beer blogger with a massive social network that he deployed with surprise, fear and ruthless efficiency to destroy the competition. Scott at the Beer Snob finished second. Final results are here. Cheers again to Buckbean for hosting this competition and to everyone who got involved, because this is cool stuff.

And to everyone who voted for me, again, thanks for your support. Hopefully, Josh'll get some good photos of canned beer for me to ogle and critique.

A few notes before I sign off for the day (I promise, actual art stuff coming this week):
  •  Ali Spagnola has posted the painting she did for me, and I love it, though she referred to beer as a "low class beverage" which, even in jest, raises my hackles. Plus, the title I got was "This is Only a Speculation as to What Happens Behind Closed Igloos," and Jay Brooks' painting got "Like Cupcakes Mixed With Unicorns." Am I sensing some hidden sphenisciphobia on the part of Ali? All kidding aside, if you haven't emailed her and asked for free art yet, I don't know what you're waiting for.
  • Speaking of, Jay Brooks has a comic book rendition of the Brewmaster's Castle evocative of German expressionist artists. It's $6 including shipping, which means you can afford it.
  • Some entries in the design contest are in, including these two baseball themed pieces by Roger and Christy Patrick. As a huge baseball fan, I love these. They remind me of the negro league paintings by Dane Tilghman or the cover art for some of W.P. Kinsella's books.
  • It has come to my attention that, for a blog dealing with art and design, mine looks pretty plain. While I lack the time and money to actually develop and manage a full site, I'm open to any suggestions on some easy redesign ideas compatible with Blogger. I'm also thinking about joining the crowd switching to Wordpress, and I'd appreciate any advice yinz have on that. My only request: Please keep advice specific. "Blogger sucks Wordpress rulezorz" would be an unhelpful contribution, albeit an amusing one. I also would like to get a logo. Brooks has one that rules, and I'm jealous (Yes, all right, it's Brookston Envy Day here in the Gallery). So let me know if you have any bright ideas on this. I am also poor, so, while I would appreciate the sentiment behind a "my friend is mad talented and can make you one for $1,500" email or comment, I would not be able to patronize your mad talented friend. Things I can do in payment include: Buy beer, thank him/her publicly on a blog, be grateful, trade in-kind services, cook.

September 7, 2010

Vote To Send Greg To CANFEST

So remember that post I did about Why I Deserve to Go to CANFEST? Well now you can actually vote for me! The poll is up, and the Buckbean people have assured me that it will be a fair vote.

I'm not linked on Buckbean's blog as a friend. :-(
And as a shameless electioneer, I really do want to win, get free airfare, and go drink canned beer while talking about the intricacies of can design. So I want your vote.


Entry essays are here. Please only vote for me if you actually think my essay is the best. Otherwise, vote for the person whose essay you like the most.

Look, let's be honest. I have little chance. I'm up against some big-time beer bloggers like Lost in the Beer Aisle, the Beer Snob, and the Beer and Whiskey Brothers. When Josh at Lost mounted his GOTV effort, It took over Twitter for an hour. I have been at this blogging thing for a few months; I am outgunned.

As far as I can tell, everyone in this race is cool, and I won't feel bad if and when I lose, because it's a great thing Buckbean is doing and someone cool will go. But I actually do think I made the best case for why I should go. Some others threw out the "hey, I like beer and couldn't think of a good reason but vote for me anyway"... They're good people and all, but we're writers in a writing competitive and that frankly is weaksauce. I at least made a case, and I think a creative one. So if you agree, go here and vote for me. If I go, you readers will reap the reward in the form of many pictures and stories. I will reap the actual reward, true, but I promise to get some good stuff for all yinz to read and ogle.

I appreciate all your support.

Okay, so there's some actual content here:

  • Did some Philly suburb beer touring yesterday. Victory Brewing has some pretty cool hand-carved tap handles. When I tried to ask who does them, I was told "Some guy named Chris." All further attempts to learn about this were roundly ignored. If anyone knows more, please let me know.
  • Always good stuff from Jay Brooks, including video art of Guiness and Toulouse-Lautrec.
  • Pretty cool stuff on a musical beer bottle. Designer Matt Braun puts tunes on the label of his Tuned Pale Ale.
  • Check out the virtual beer tasting tonight. I hope this whole virtual tasting thing takes off, maybe during Monday Night Football. I might try and host one. Just really cool idea tying social media and craft beer.

September 2, 2010

The Session #43: The New Kids

So, this was supposed to be a post about Prism Brewing Company.

The Beer Babe is hosting this month's Session, with the challenge being:
to seek out a new brewery and think about ways in which they could be welcomed into the existing beer community. How does their beer compare to the craft beer scene in your area? Are they doing anything in a new/exciting way? What advice, as a beer consumer, would you give to these new breweries?

Take this opportunity to say hello to the new neighbors in your area. Maybe its a nanobrewery that came to a festival for the first time that you vowed to “check out” later. Maybe it’s a new local beer on a shelf on the corner store that you hadn’t seen before. Dig deeper and tell us a story about the “new kids on the block.” I look forward to welcoming them to the neighborhood!
A good, interesting, different challenge, indeed, and one that was right up my alley. I immediately thought of the relatively new Prism, located in the Philly outskirts. They have three beers, all doing interesting things with blending flavor, and there seems to be a vague political tinge (my former life as a politics blogger was intrigued). They have a gorgeous Web site, they've asked for design advice on their Facebook page and Twitter, and their very name is evocative of a visual element. What could be a better fit? It was going to be an awesome profile, full of stuff about branding, decisions about design, and the unique roadblocks to a craft brewery in fairly rich market. I would have loved it, anyway.

By now you've gathered, of course, that that didn't happen. I made email contact with one of the owners, they seemed into it, I offered to meet them at a place halfway, they didn't respond, I tried to find a time to call them... and the interview never happened.

Now, a snarkier and more self-serving blogger might suggest that one piece of advice one might give is to never ignore an opportunity for free advertising. But that would be disingenuous, and it would also be totally wrongheaded and contrary to the point of the Session.

In order to understand why, one has to understand a little bit about the financial issues of a craft brewery. In case you're new to the craft beer scene, every craft brewery (except maybe the very largest ones, like Sam Adams) is a small business, and runs like one. That means technical things like fewer than 50 employees, but it also means that, if they go out of business, it's not the way Lehman Brothers goes out of business. Large corporations balance many millions of dollars in assets and expected income sources against liabilities and predicted expenses, all based on valuations and numbers that aren't guesswork, but aren't exactly what you or I would call money, either. That's why even the largest ones can find themselves filing for bankruptcy when it turns out some assumptions about value or predicted expenses were wrong.

Small businesses like craft breweries don't fail like that. They fail because of cash. One day, there's just not enough money to pay bills, and then you're out of business. It seems silly, but a small business could have millions  of dollars worth of stuff, a loyal and committed clientele, and a first-rate product, but quite suddenly find themselves broke. In brewing, it's actually worse. In addition to the equipment (which is a big capital expenditure that usually comes with a debt load and significant ongoing maintenance expenses), there's also huge need for cash upfront (on ingredients), during production (water and electricity), and at the end (bottling, licensing and shipping all that heavy beer). Then bars and stores have to buy it, and the distributor has to then pay the brewery back, all of which takes time and contributes to what MBAs call a longer cash cycle. It could well be three months before even a well-run brewery gets their return on a dollar they spend on grains. That may not sound like much, but next time you go to the bar, ask them if you can pay in three months, when your customers pay you. They'll say yes (if you have a credit card), but it's not free (which is why interest rates on credit cards are high). Now try doing that on a $10,000 shopping run, while you have balances on your credit card, mortgage and car, and you have a sense of what a small brewery faces.

Oh, and if a batch is out of spec, they might have to throw it out, which means the money is basically wasted.

So for small breweries, there's not enough cash. There's also not enough time. Having worked with craft breweries for a few years, I can confidently say they are family-and-friend enterprises, where everyone has multiple jobs and not enough time. Taking a look at the financial constraints, we can understand why they're unable to hire more people, and why relatively small paychecks for a lot of work are the norm. Why would anyone do this? Well, you do get to make beer for a living.

Thus, when a brewery like Prism doesn't have the hours in the day to get back to a blogger who wants to talk about the challenges with branding, it's not because they're too cool for school. It's more likely because they're busy trying to stay solvent. And, truth be told, as much as this blog focuses on the marketing end of the process, most breweries sell all their beer. The problem is capacity; it is making enough beer to cover all of the expenses, keep their drinking consumers happy, and do it fast enough to pay bills. Breweries like Prism might like more exposure, but they don't need it. They need a bigger line of credit, and as I may have mentioned, I'm not exactly well suited to help them on that front.

I stole this image idea from The Beer Babe.
The reality is that while we love the excitement of seeing a new brewery, discovering its character, and tasting the way it approaches the medium, a lot has to happen for us to do all of that. And it's easy, sometimes, to see guys in overalls drinking beer and think the job is easy. We fantasize about working for a brewery, or owning our own, and all the different beers we would make. We get frustrated when our favorite breweries change a recipe or pull out of a market, and we swear we'd never do that if we were in charge. But we never fantasize about how it would feel to set specs for a light golden ale on a production scale, spend a massive amount of time brewing to those relatively uninteresting specs, or know that you quite literally can't afford to throw out substandard beer. We don't think about all the tired conversations with our over-entitled hardcore fans who demand more big IPAs and stouts, when what pays the bills is that light golden swill more people buy. We never dream about the tough choices of where to put the beer, or the tough work of fighting a byzantine, crowded distribution system. And we definitely never imagine having tough conversations with a bank or lender who knows nothing about brewing, but feels strongly that our prices should be higher.

I hope I'll finally get that interview with Prism and have some cool stuff about design and branding a startup for you. But if it falls through the cracks for a while, I hope you all can understand why. For every scruffy guy cleaning out mash tuns or experimenting with hops, there's someone in the brewery poring over numbers of in and outflows who makes sure the power comes on tomorrow. Sometimes, it's the same scruffy guy.

So for all the new breweries coming onto the scene, welcome to the party. I'm the guy who will pay way too much attention to your label art. But I'll do my best to remember, if you ever produce an uninspired design, it's probably because you had something a little more pressing on your mind.