October 23, 2010

The Witch's Wit Label Controversy: What Should Lost Abbey Do?

A story came to my attention today via my friend Conrad, who sent me the link to this New York Times story on Lost Abbey's label art for their Witch's Wit Ale.

Before you read (if you intend to), here's the art, first on a bottle:
And now larger, on a t-shirt:
Okay, got it?

The story is this: Beer shopper Vicki Noble sees the bottle, is horrified that it is an image of a woman being burned at the stake, and mobilizes the massive power of social networks to draw attention to the fact that she finds this offensive.
Ms. Noble went home and wrote to her e-mail list. “Can we stop this brewer from their hate imagery?” read the subject line, in all capitals. “Can you imagine them showing a black person being lynched or a Jewish person going to the oven?” she wrote. “Such images are simply not tolerated in our society anymore (thank the Goddess) and this one should not be, either.”
This catches on within the pagan community (one to which I happen to be sympathetic and in which I have some friends, in case you're wondering about my biases). They get to Tomme Arthur, head of Lost Abbey, and one of the co-founders, Vince Marsaglia. As you may imagine, some of the complaints are more constructive than others:
“We have been accused of inspiring violence against women, and we have been compared to the violence in Darfur,” said Sage Osterfeld, a spokesman for Port Brewing. “It has run the gamut from people saying politely, ‘This is offensive to pagans,’ to people saying we are responsible for all that is wrong in the world.”
As you might imagine, the impetus behind the label was not to encourage people to burn each other, or to exacerbate the situation is the Sudan. Rather:
And far from being an attack on women, Mr. Osterfeld said, Witch’s Wit is in a line of Catholic-themed beers, like Inferno Ale and Judgment Day, conceived in the spirit of gentle satire by Tomme Arthur, another of the brewery’s owners. Mr. Arthur says he is “a recovering Catholic.”
Just to make sure you get the irony: The label was designed as a poke at the Catholic Church, and ended up offending pagans. In the design industry, we call that an "oops," which is basically what Lost Abbey said:

[Marsaglia] wrote that he was “totally in favor” of changing the label and that he and his co-workers had been “ignorantly unaware of the mistake” they had made... Mr. Marsaglia also wrote, contritely, that he and his colleagues “would really like to have some kind of contest for a great label.” Mr. Arthur said the board would meet after Halloween to determine exactly how to decide on that new label.
Okay, so now that you know the story, let's talk about the label.

First, all of Tomme Arthur's satire aside, I do want to make sure you're aware of the seriousness of the suffering caused by ignorance, because I frankly wasn't. One of my aforementioned pagan friends, Dave, in a quick discussion on Facebook, informed me that somewhere near 9 million women were killed for "witchcraft" (i.e. not being Catholic) in the various reactionary movements of the middle ages [Ed. note: The actual number may be much lower and around 50,000; see comments section below]. And, of course, it's not just ancient history (we've all seen Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"). So people did die, horrifically, because of prejudice.

Noble's analogy, then, is fair in that respect; we would not have label art of a lynching be considered in good taste (remember the problems Short's Brewing had when a rendering made "Hangin' Fred" label look a little tan). And, as a Jew, I think I can safely say that a label for the Birkenau Rauchbier would not go over well.

But those are a little more recent than the inquisition. And witches have a less sacred place in our culture than those other tragedies. In a week, lots of people will be dressed up as sexy witches for Halloween, and we don't think of that as the same as dressing up as a Holocaust or lynching victim. Monty Python satirized burning witches in Holy Grail, and a house falls on a witch at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, neither of which would have been tolerated if it was a burning cross, for example.

Okay, fine, but this label is actually showing someone burning, not a coed in her underwear and a pointy hat. That's got to be over the line, right?

I would say that, while I understand why Lost Abbey will change the label art (which is artistically excellent as usual, by the way, calling to mind Edvard Munch), I wish they wouldn't.

Art is supposed to make you feel something, and sometimes what it makes you feel is revulsion. That's the sign of effective work. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Without Sanctuary, an art exhibit of lynching photos at the Warhol Museum. It was horrifying and repulsive and fascinating and brilliant. It was what art is supposed to be about. Even if this label started out as fun, clearly it has the power to evoke emotion and thought. And if I didn't believe a beer label was a suitable place to find art, I wouldn't be writing this blog.

I think Lost Abbey should have listened to the criticism, and then reached out to Noble and others and asked them to write a few paragraphs for the back and side label panels about all of the harm that was caused by witch burnings. Take the label and treat it as art. Tell people that if they're weirded out by the label, they should think about all the people who actually died because we allowed ignorance to dictate our policies once upon a time. Explain why it's offensive. Coordinate with museum in Salem for a fundraiser. Deliver a little knowledge to your market, along with delicious beer. Doing a good thing is cool, and you'll get enough PR exposure to make it worth your while.

Yes, I went to business school, and I understand that Lost Abbey has to sell beer, which might not be helped by talk of burning people. I get it. I also think that the craft beer crowd is generally more socially aware, and anyone springing for a $10 bottle of this probably is willing to think a little bit.

Am I glad that Lost Abbey is sensitive to concerns? Of course, and as I said I think it's fine and I'm anxious to see whatever label comes out to replace it. I know, I'm asking a lot for a thing that tells you about the coriander and orange peel flavors and alcohol by volume. But this label got me to learn more about how millions died for our ignorance in the past, and there aren't that many beer bottles that inspire someone to do that. It's hard for me not to feel a little sad that it won't be causing others to do the same.

This is one of those issues where I really would value some other points of view, so please leave a comment if you've got any thoughts on this.

October 18, 2010

More Excellent History-Tinged Work Cigar City

Okay folks, we're back. Best friend is married, grandfather is buried (unveiled, actually, but I went for the rhyme).

And it's time to get back to the delicious beer art. And since it's fall, time for more of the sepia-toned, history-steeped work from Cigar City. All three of these labels focus on the Cuban heritage of Tampa's population and historic Ybor City.
Jose Marti was a Cuban intellectual and writer. This label is simple, just a picture in black and white with the stained sepia backdrop. The things that make it just a little better than normal are the details: the slight tilt of his head to our left while his tie and body are angled straight-right and the use of Marti's quotes to take up the space around his head and the panel to the left of the frame. A little strange that it's an American Porter, but Marti did spend a few years in the States gathering support for Cuban independence.

The next label is the Bolita, which is the name of a type of lottery that came from Cuba to Tampa.
The man is Charlie Wall, the mobster who was considered the king of the underground game in the Latin saloons. The portrait is nicely old-timey, and the use of the hand-numbered lottery balls on the faded brown backdrop gives a nice sense of movement and asymmetry.

The last label doesn't honor a person so much as a type of beverage:
The Cubano-Style Espresso is a brown ale brewed with Espresso beans. The label art isn't ambitious, but it's successful because, like the Bolito and Marti works, it doesn't shy away from asymmetry. The coffee urn pours from off the main panel on the left, and with the text draws the eye to the right across the label. The fading of the coffee bean background and the white banner framing the coffee mug on the bottom add just enough dimensionality to keep the image interesting.

Some notes and links to read:

October 6, 2010

Bell's Mini-kegs Bring a New Dimension to Design

Kalamazoo, MI's Bell's Brewing Company has consistently produced some of the most painterly beer art, and their expansion into the mini-keg packaging has provided a new set of canvases for them. Like my beloved cans, minikegs offer close to a 360-degree opportunity for art.

Take a look at their mini-keg art for the aptly named "Best Brown Ale:"
For those of you who have seen the Hungover Owls e-phenomenon, it is clear that this owl might want you to leave him alone so he can shower. Seriously, though, that's great work, from the detail in the red leaves and the owl's expression to the way they shade the background to make the serif typeface easily readable.

Now compare it to last year's:
So, let's agree that that's an upgrade and then some.

Here's the art for the Winter White:
Again, we have a restrained, peaceful look at nature that suggests the brewery's inspiration and identity. This isn't a West Coast hop destruction brewery, or a humor-driven comic one, but a place with a reverence for the geography and character of the Midwest. Again, the use of asymmetry and framing make the otherwise unremarkable lettering a point of focus. They do a lot with detail, including the fact that all of the trees and even unseen branches have shadows. Despite all of the blue and brown, the image radiates a wintry white.

I had a great picture from the TTB of the new Two-Hearted mini-keg art, which was fantastic and looked like a stained glass image of nature. But the link is gone and I can't find another image. I'll post it later if I can find it.

In the meantime, let's look at some of the more conventional label art. The work for the Wild One is a grayscale image, so I'm interested:
The really interesting thing about the piece is the use of impressionist-style blurring around the edges of a black and white image. I think it's an attempt to model the way our eyes see in the dark, when the cone cells (which pick up color and detail) work less well and the rod cells take over. We see vague outlines, enough to make out a mysterious image, but not enough to really understand what we're seeing. The only flaw I see is the lack of a believable linear perspective as the trees fade back.
The artwork for the Oracle Double IPA uses some Eastern Orthodox imagery to convey a royalty (perhaps to connote the "imperial" nature of a Double IPA?). For a beer called the Oracle I would have expected the theme to be ancient Greek, but 18th-19th century Russian/Ottoman works, too. Nice piece, just not sure I get it.

Let's end with the Hopsolution.
This is how many of the Bell's old-timey labels look, with a faded or sepia-toned color palette. In this case, the hop branch looks something like one of the old Audubon prints, with classic techniques of botanical illustration. The only problem here is that the image isn't big enough, so the brown bars on the sides take up almost two-thirds of the image. Compare that to the vast, intricate natural vistas we saw above, and you can see why the redesigns are so successful.

October 4, 2010

More Excellent Design from Just Beer

Ugh, there has been too much to do and not enough time to blog. I missed a Session on Friday; that's how bad my schedule has been.

Okay, enough excuses.

I'll take a quick look at two more labels by Just Beer, who take really stripped down design to an extreme. Unlike some of the other labels, these have one color.

The first is the Horseneck Inspired Pale Ale.
This is an example of why Just Beer's label design is among my favorite (though their Website drives me up a wall). With just use of line and a little bit of black space they've crafted a compelling, intricate, detailed piece that is interesting to look at. The hops in the horsehead add a dimension and depth to the piece, along with the slanting and kerning of the handwritten text. Meanwhile, the beige background makes the piece more subtle than stark.


The Saison label obviously plays on the Japanese flag, but the dominant design decision is the font of the lettering. The thick, dripping brushstrokes call to mind a rawer version of the calligraphic style we've seen in everything from kung fu movies to hibachi steakhouses. The Jackson Pollock-meets-Ralph Macchio look gives it a nice combination of life and restraint.