April 30, 2011

McNeill's Brewery: A Cautionary Tale of Design

So up in the mountains of Brattleboro, VT, is a brewery called McNeill's. And, frankly, their design hurts.

Not because it's bad. Quite the contrary, in fact; the artist is talented, if a bit enamored of loud colors. No, the pain, I believe comes from one poor decision that messes with everything.

The artist for McNeill's is Maine illustrator and painter Rob Logan, whose site is immediately identifiable with bright, almost neon colors, jarring images, and a sort of twisted cartoon style (though he needs to put fewer red letters on black background). If you've got a minute, go there and click on the puzzle for a pretty decent pictogram.

This piece by him I think is particularly strong:

As we'll see, though, that doesn't always come through at McNeill's.

The most mild of the McNeill's labels is for the Maibock:
So, you see where I'm going with this. It's like an acid trip, albeit a fairly happy one with flowers and a smiling goat man (obligatory "bock" reference). On close inspection we even see some nice Celtic swirls. But still, how long do we need to look to see those. It's one thing to be eye-catching, but quite another to induce epilepsy. What a loud piece, right?

What if I told you one small change would completely alter the way you see this label?

What a nice, happy spring image that... oh, wait, it's the same, just without the totally unnecessary flashy background. One poor design decision, by either the brewery or the artist, took the label from fun to insane.

Let's do this again:
This label has something to do with radioactive hoarders, I think...

Oh, no, it's a perfectly down-the-line pirate design, complete with skills and cannons and ships. Nice and solid cartoon art.

One more:
Oh, man, turquoise, purple, radiating red, grinning teeth... what is even going on here? Is this a night terror?

Oh, it's a troll. Nice fantasy theme, got some axes and a rune up there, the cave is a vaguely threatening shade of red to drive home the sense of danger, but the jewel tones remind us not to take it too seriously. It's a real shame I couldn't see any of this before.

The point of this post is not to skewer McNeill's, which I'm sure is a nice brewery (I've had a few of their beers) that employs a capable artist. The point is reinforce that a seemingly tangential design decision - in this case, to employ radiating neon colors to make the beer stand out - can totally interfere with and even nullify good design decisions. Details matter, and, in my opinion, McNeill's is hurting themselves by not paying close enough attention to them.

April 29, 2011

Local Interest Beer Design For Eastern PA

I know I just posted some of the Fegley's Brew Works boards, but I've got a few old label approvals for those in Eastern PA:
The Blueberry Belch label (I assume by Alex Clare, wins no points for subtlety, but is typically fun and dynamic and visually interesting without having tons of colors and bells and whistles.
Their Chatfield Manor label for the beer was going to be produced for the North East Art Rock Festival, which was sadly cancelled.

Chatfield Manor is the title of a Mike Keneally song from the album, Sluggo! (1998). The song refers to the house of Mike’s manager and good friend Scott Chatfield, where Mike often writes and records his music. 

The label art is a solid crest design and manages to be readable. Between the Brew Works, the Fegley's, the Nearfest and the on-shield lettering, there are probably two too many fonts on it.

I currently live in the city of Reading, once home to Legacy Brewing, which appears to have given/sold/ceded all of their intellectual property to their NJ-based marketing firm, Ruckus, which in turn launched Ruckus Brewing Company.

They are, I guess, bringing back Old Reading Beer, which has a great old label:
Legacy previously had revived Reading Premium, which was cool, but I remain a little confused. Ruckus apparently also plans to release the Hoptimus Prime (another Legacy property):
In fact, according to their new site, they plan to keep the whole lineup. They've hired Legacy's old brewmaster, Mark Hummel, but I remain a bit confused. I assumed they'll all be contract brewed at Lion in Wilkes-Barre, since as far as I know the marketing firm had no brewhouse, and Legacy's was sold. My attempts to get in contact with the powers that be there have all gone unreturned, but I'll keep trying.

I never got a chance to write up the art from Victory's Headwaters Pale Ale:
Nice, tasteful work, as we've come to expect from Victory.

Now, considering that beer is the product of four simple ingredients and the three other than water rely on water for their existence, we’ve had a fair amount of latitude in paying homage to water in our beer. So, we’ve played all of our cards deftly, bringing the hops, malt and yeast in harmony, with our great local water as the conductor in Headwaters Pale Ale.
Well said. For what it's worth, the beer is a truly excellent, different type of pale ale.

Lastly, Weyerbacher is in the midst of a re-branding effort, with the Blasphemy one of the first unveiled.
Very dark and foreboding, which is appropriate for an oak-aged Quad (even if not exactly a literal rendering of something blasphemous). The font is so ornate it borders on difficult to read, but generally the look is a nice updating.

Here's the original:
A step in the right direction, for sure.

From the brewery:
Dan, Chris & Chris began work on the project a few months ago with consulting/design firm SSM Creative. A complete redesign of the Weyerbacher brand including new logo, packaging of all types, POS, etc. will finally be coming later this year. Thanks for all of your input and ideas over the years, we’re finally able to put this redesign in motion.

Now this I am interested in. SSM Creative is formerly StandingStone Media, home to Josh Lampe, a family member of some of the brewery partners. More stuff for me to investigate.

April 27, 2011

Contests and Beer Label Design

I like it when breweries mine local talent for their art, and one of the more popular ways to do that is with a contest.

Geary's has a contest every year that awards $5,000 and a year's supply of beer to a Maine College of Art student who designs the best label for their Summer Ale. 2011's winner is Morgan McAllister DiPietro, whose text-based design is quite summery:
Good design is often less about bells and whistles than it is about simple, clear, easy to understand content that is pleasant to look at. DiPietro's work is excellent, and scalable to all types of packaging. Hotlinked from her blog, here is some of the process work:
You can see the other competitors on the MCoA Facebook page here.

Here's an old one, Snoqualmie's December release, the Triskaidekaphobia:
Local Seattle artist sensei 23 won with this submission. Very graffiti inspired, and nice and vibrant. I will say that while I find superstition pretty silly, I'd be very scared of that number 13.

Cigar City recently teamed with Hampton Arts Management to hold a label design contest for their new red ale, the Tocobaga. Ten finalists were announced, but I picked a few I liked the best:

Alexander Kusminov's work was profiled by the DieLine as a student spotlight. You can click that link to see the full process and elements, including the . I love the use of the turquoise and deep red, and more importantly that the overall look is not totally distant from the existing brand and design standards of CC. It's a nice, restrained work driven mostly by typography and simple shapes.

Daniel Williams goes a bit more on the nose, drenching the fiber art patterns and pineapples in a deep red that suggests the character of the beer. I like the green and orange that he takes from the CC logo, which is central to the design.

Eric Swanson's work is powered by very nice shades of blue and red, with a nice depiction of a sky and a mountain of hops. There's a little bit of a Native American Ned Devine feel to this piece.

Okay, on to my favorite:
I like Ricky Peterika's work because it feels the most in keeping with Cigar City's existing design and branding portfolio. The difference between art and design is that, while there is great freedom and expression in design, its primary goal is to achieve a purpose. In this case, that's to sell beer, which would be best done by dovetailing into the existing branding work done by CC. Peterika's work lifts the CC penchant for rings and arcs of plant-like border, sepia-toned historical themes, and the use of strong lettering to stand out from the background. If not for the strange hashing in the background, one could easily confuse this with a label by the usual design team at Cigar City.

You can find all of the finalists, as well as the designs that didn't make it, at the competition site.

Lastly, Sixpoint in Brooklyn has a "Beer is Culture" design competition every year, and this year there are some really good submissions up on the Facebook page. As of today, it's down to six most popular, with a few more in there. I'll show a few of my favorites:
Both of these play on relatively recent tropes in design. The first one, by Cody McBurnett, hits the familiar theme of soviet/labor motif, down to the very soviet font. the second, by Melissa Schmechel, is a play on the infographic craze, this one helping us decide what to drink (hint: the answer is beer).

Scott Holloway's painting brings back the medieval-Renaissance practice of putting a skull in the still-life to remind us of our mortality and the finite nature of our existence. In this case, perhaps his point is that beer and culture will outlive all of us, just as they have for thousands of years.

At time of writing, in the lead with about 130 "likes" is Ryan Paonessa's  piece:
Digging into the history of Brooklyn, Paonessa's work mixes newspaper culture with the heroic labor influences of a Thomas Hart Benton, and centers it around beer, with a nice subtle use of the Sixpoint logo around the silent movie board font.

Last, I have to give a shout out to Em Sauter's piece, which is totally in-style and delightfully humorous:
You've got a few days left to go and vote with your Facebook "like" button.

April 26, 2011

New Bethlehem Brew Works Boards

I had a chance to swing by Fegley's Brew Works over the weekend, and they have some new boards by artist Alex Clare. As with all images shot by me on a Droid, apologies for the quality.

Here are a few that are a bit older.
The Insidious is their imperial stout, and the bourbon aged version this year is awesome. The snake on this board matches Alex's label that he designed last year:
Clare is very good at capturing movement, and the work with the snake is an excellent example of that. Both snakes seem to coil and snap.

I also snapped a shot of their "On Cask" board, which I liked because of the rendering of an old piece of parchment on a chalkboard.
The Brew Works had an IPA launched a bit ago called the Aggressive:
Well velociraptors certainly are aggressive creatures, if Jurassic Park is to be believed. I wish I had gotten a better shot of the lettering, which is a great B-Movie-style font.

Okay, here are the newer ones:
The Pawnshop Porter board is a nice use of juxtaposition, with the pink and green suggesting cheap neon signs, and the hands suggesting a swap of cash, are appropriate for the connotations of most pawn shops (though it's fair to point out there are some very reasonable, even nice ones).

Last one, for the It's Not My Alt, is a Star Wars reference:
Not a bad rendering of Chewy and a caricature of a young Han Solo. I think it's good that Chewy is the one with the beer.

In-pub decoration and art is some of the hardest stuff for me to find, but one of the best areas of opportunity for design-conscious breweries. For all you loyal readers, please feel free to hit me up if your local brewery does anything particularly cool.

April 20, 2011

Brewery Art Rundown: Three Heads Brewing

A relative newcomer to the craft beer scene of upstate New York is Rochester's Three Heads Brewing. Their label art thus far is by Allen Firlit, an illustrator without a website, but whose Googling result shows is an art teacher and a grad of RIT. His art, as we shall see, is stylistically interesting and distinctive.

But first, the logo:
Okay, high up on my list of things that need a moratorium/ban is the copying/interpolation of the old OBX logo that has been overdone to the point of ubiquity. Especially with a visually evocative name like "three heads," this boring redux is a missed opportunity. But it's one of those things that can be redone in the future, and it's not ugly or anything, so let's get to the good stuff:
The Blimey English Pale label has a great union and juxtaposition of London and the traditions of the British guard, and a '60s hippy style, down to the peace symbol., The thin, bony elongated digits and neck play up the hippiness (not a word) of the guard. Note the composition: The tall guard forms a vertical line up the right, with Big Ben as a counter on the left, and the exaggerated angle of the famous double decker bus drawing our eye between the two.

The '60s theme continues with their IPA, The Kind:
This is clearly a reference to the fact that marijuana (cannabis sativa) and hops (humulus lupus) are closely related in the flora kingdom, and we should in no way consider this to indicate that founders of 3HB like smoking weed. The hippy guitarist in the image looks based on on Jerry Garcia., delightfully plump and unwashed. The soft halo of the lighter tan around him and his guitar lends itself to the chillness of the image.

Now to the most adorable skunk you'll ever see:
The Skunk Black IPA label is just the fusion of the things you'd expect to see: A skunk, hops, and a dark color palette to suggest the dark, roasted character of the Noonan Black Ale style (I really hate the idea of any term that describes something as both "black" and "pale"). Once again, we will assume no intentional use of marijuana puns. This skunk has big, cute eyes and his stripes even kind of have a fun, jagged bounce to them that reminds me of Mary GrandPre (who did the Harry Potter cover art in the US). Again we see Firlit's great composition, with the curves of both the skunk and the hop vines suggesting movement and drawing your eye around the piece.

Lastly, the Java Sutra:
This is pretty awesome. Firlit's style remains one of children's illustration, but this time dealing with a fairly adult suggestion, except that the couple in bed is a coffee bean and a hop. Brilliantly, this is amusingly salacious, safe for kids, clever, colorful, and - most importantly - suggests the flavor of the beer. It's like a coffee bean and a hop had a really good time in a lot of different positions, causing some mild but enjoyable chaos and settling into a pleasant aftermath.Nice use of complimentary and contrasting colors to keep the image jumping out.

For those geekishly into such things (i.e. me), I do have a question. The two appear to have switched places in the revelry; the hop flower is of course female, and the women's clothing is on the right side. But the coffee cup is on the right side as well, and the beer bottles are on the left. So did they roll around enough that everything was scattered? Were they enjoying each others' beverages before their romp? And is it me, or is the bean kind of angled away from the hop? Maybe it's running late for a meeting.

All in all, great work by Firlit. I look forward to seeing more stuff by him and Three Heads.

April 19, 2011

Rene Magritte Would Have Loved Facebook

Wendy at Vanberg & DeWulf reached out and asked me to take a look at some of their Belgian artwork. One poster in particular caught my eye:
I'm a huge Rene Magritte fan, so this Dupont poster is a huge want for me. It's put together by Doyle Partners, who once did the work for Ommegang. It references this wonderful bit of surrealism:
Technically, he's right. It's not a pipe, it's a picture of a pipe.

I've been trying to figure out if there is other label art from Hampton, GA's Jailhouse Brewing Co., because their label for Midnight Special is awesome:
Great pencil-and-ink piece that's sort of an interpretation of The Polar Express-meets-The Great Escape. The overhead perspective makes the train seem enormous, and the inmate seem surprised and the whole scene magical, as if the train is a fantastic visitor. Anyway, if any of you find other label art by them, please let me know.

Some news and notes:

Summit goes retro to celebrate the Cullen-Harrison Act
Eddie Morman's Abita Bottle paintings

Lastly, as some of you may have noticed, I'm closing in on one year writing about the branding, design and art of craft beer. I've added a Facebook page on the right, and if you enjoy this, I'd appreciate it if those of you with FB accounts could "like" it. For those of you cringing along with me, I'll explain:

I like writing about beer art and business. I think it's important, I take it seriously, and I want to get better. For people like me trying to make a vocation - or at least a more successful avocation - out of beer writing, the strength of our personal brand is what we trade on. There are things about that that are unmeasurable, of course, but the measurable things are easier to point to, and one of those is "likes." Also, and far more importantly, as I try and separate my beer writing from the rest of the things I do, it'll allow me to make sure you get the content you actually want and care about. I'll be linking more articles and posting polls and such on there, so think of it as a way for me to get more content to your beer-art-loving faces.

Man, we really live in the future.

April 18, 2011

On BrewDog, Publicity Stunts, and the Point of Marketing

So BrewDog is at it again.

By "it," I of course mean creating a beer designed to cause hubbub and publicity. You may recall their earlier works battling for the highest ABV in beer, battling again for the highest ABV in beer, and wrapping $1000 bottles of beer in roadkill. This time, the Scottish brewery is poking a little fun at the upcoming royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton with a tasteful little number called Royal Virility Performance. It is brewed "Viagra, chocolate, Horny Goat Weed and ‘a healthy dose of sarcasm’." 
Cue the outrage? Cue the outrage.

Jack Curtin and the B&W Bros have already lamented this "over the top" gesture as being too much about marketing and not enough about beer. In the coming days, others will join them.

As you might imagine, I will not.

First, I encourage everyone, as always, to chill. If a brewery in Scotland wants to pull a fun little publicity stunt, then let them. The Royal Wedding is the biggest damn deal in Britain since Diana died, and some might say that, in a country that's had wars and recessions recently, the fact that a wedding can bring us all to a halt is a more proper subject for lamentation. But I've never been a fan of lamentation, so humor is good, too, and that's what this is.

Second, no one chiming in has tasted this beer, but this isn't 12 bottles of 100 proof "beer," this is a 7.5% ABV IPA. It might taste good, and including virility aids in drinks - as anyone who has visited Latin America is aware - is a very old tradition that is unlikely to ruin flavor. It might be a perfectly well-crafted beer.

Third, the people getting pissed are probably pissed at exactly the same thing that pisses off BrewDog. Here, I will excerpt the press release:
With this beer we want to take the wheels off the royal wedding bandwagon being jumped on by dozens of breweries; The Royal Virility Performance is the perfect antidote to all the hype. A beer should be brewed with a purpose, not just because some toffs are getting married, so we created something at our brewery that will undermine those special edition beers and other assorted seaside tat, whilst at the same time actually give the happy couple something extra on their big day... We want to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are and products marketed according to an event rather than their flavour is an example of what’s wrong with the industry. There is more to brewing and tasting beer than putting a royal wedding label on it, so we’re showing everyone just how ludicrous it is.
Look, in the US, we do not have eleventy billion commemorative brews being released, but in the UK they do, and most of those are by places that don't care as much about beer the rest of the year as BrewDog does (at least, that's BrewDog's feeling). So they released a beer to poke some fun.

Finally, the point of marketing is to sell beer, and I'm sure this - like much of BrewDog's creativity - will do that. Yes, antics are amusing, but they're designed to draw attention to - and sell - good, solid, craft beer. This isn't just a stunt, it's part of a persona BrewDog has cultivated. The number of people whose inner snob this might bother is much lower than the number of people who will hear about a good craft brewery because of this, and that punk revolutionary spirit will be found in their beer. From a design standpoint, I see these stunts as a great, creative extension of branding. BrewDog now lives a form of performance art that is rare and surprising. Yes, it would be great if the world suddenly all realized small craft breweries produced a great-tasting product and no one drank any Bud Light ever again, but in the meantime part of craft beer's growth worldwide is because people in the industry get how to market to exactly in creative, edgy ways that ABI would never consider.

Relax, everyone.

April 16, 2011

Brewery Art Rundown: Tony Beard's New Albanian Artwork

I have a theory that the next great craft beer state is Indiana. I say this not because I know anything, but because I am continually becoming aware of interesting Indiana breweries whose beer I can not easily get in PA. From an art perspective, I've written about Sun King and Three Floyds, both of whom do good work in their respective media. But so far, the best art I've seen in the Hoosier State's beer scene might be coming from New Albanian Brewing Company and artist Tony Beard.

Many of these pieces are relatively new, but Beard has a lot of great work going back a ways that is posted here. Let's start with collaboration label for the C2, a beer by NABC, O'Fallon and Schlafly.
So right off the bat, we have a good look at deep, rich colors and textures, and the magical/fantastic style that characterizes much of Beard's work. In this case, the wood nymph-like creature exhales smoke from a volcanic mouth, while the bark-like skin and the bright, rich green suggest to us that the smoked beer is also hardy and bold in flavor.

The Thunderfoot Cherry Imperial Stout similarly channels a sci-fi/fantasy vibe.
We see an enormous foot emerge from a swirl of stormclouds to threaten the city. The sinewy structure of the foot and swirling clouds are reminiscent of a tornado (we are in the alley, after all), and the tag of "Ultimate Urban Renewal" is a pretty dire piece of black humor. I particularly love the fact that we watch all of this through a double hole in brick walls, giving it the feeling of a welcome, cleansing destruction of the dark, blighted city, rather than the bad thing that an enormous stomping foot would probably be.

Here's this year's piece for Gravity Head, an indescribable beer and event thing that they do every year:
Unlike previous years' space themes, this is a Thomas Pynchon reference, playing on the tarot theme from his huge and famous novel. Eerie, awesome, and a little disconcerting, this year's logo does a lot with a simple idea and only one color (irony with the idea of a "rainbow"). The falling figure gives us both movement (and plays to the gravity theme). The tarot cards and different logos relate to the format of the event, where multiple beers are involved.

I mentioned there is some old work up, and that appears to be because Beard and NABC update looks often. Let's look at the Hoptimus, their imperial IPA.

Here's the first:
The Hoptimus name lends itself to the obvious hop robot pun, and this was pretty straightforward.

It was updated to:
A far more original work, and note that Beard was able to use his earlier work both in the robot's emblem and at the top bar.

Finally, the most recent piece:
Here, a background of gray gears not only sets a tone but really pushes the robot out of the background in a way that the straight black of earlier years did not. Now we really get the fact that this beer is "stern stuff," from the imposing nature of the 'bot, and the steampunk look of the label and lettering also makes it clear that drinking it might be a fun experience.

Many of Beard's pieces are influenced by Communist Propaganda art of the 1920s and 30s, like this poster he did for the brewery:

I really, really like this piece. The arc of the hammer, the angled beam of light  that widens to the right (could call to mind train tracks on which the laborer is working),  and the simple form and color palette all work. Particularly effective is that Beard is definitely not afraid of empty space, which serves to isolate the figure in a more heroic way, and makes the simple lettering at the top and bottom more dramatic without being ostentatious. Fantastic stuff, and I'll have to keep my eyes out for more of Beard's work. Really, if I ever run out of good beer art (unlikely, as I fall farther behind), I could do probably two more posts based just on the stuff he's posted.

A few notes and links:

  • As breweries continue to get more ambitious and effective with social media tools, we're going to see more things like this app from Abita, which lets you find any Abita beer you want nearby.
  • Via Stephen Beaumont, the guys at Notch Session Ale won a very competitive Business Plan competition.
  • Box Vox has some good stuff on the bottles of former Staten Island Brewer Bechtel.
  • The B&W Bros had some thoughts on beer censorship in Canada. Boy is that label ugly.
  • The Fegley's Brew Works released a statement about the fight with Troegs over the word "elf." This seems like it is going to go to court, which will be long and expensive, but I think it probably has to. Because the Fegleys have been using "Rude Elf" for so long, and because Troegs hasn't protected "elf" against other breweries, there's a case here, and my contacts on both sides don't indicate anything close to conversations that will resolve this amicably. As many others have said, it does suck when it's two of your own favorite, local breweries.