June 27, 2011

Winners, Losers and Hats

First, two beery things won Dieline 2011 Awards, though neither were strictly craft.

New Zealand's Rochdale Cider uses a nice variant of the stencil-on-brown paper look to take home a 3rd place award:

And, in a move I confess to finding puzzling, Miller's High Life redesign brought home a second-place award:
Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the Champagne of Beers, but the stated goal of "[allowing] Miller High Life to move beyond below-premium and reclaim its status as the iconic American beer" is a bit of a stretch. It's fine, but nothing about the rebrand makes me want to spend more money on High Life.

Still, congrats to firms Supply and Landor Associates, respectively. Hopefully, we'll see more craft breweries consider entering their design in these contests in the years to come.

Then, in a press release that featured quotes by Mother Theresa and Calvin and Hobbes, hat retailer Real Deal Brazil (whose wares I guess were worn by Woody Harrelson in Zombieland) announced a new stripe of beer gear that I think I would be remiss if I did not feature.

Behold, the Craft Beer Cap Hat:
 For a closer look at the potential bands:
Nice work, and some caps that even zealots and collectors would find impressive, though this looks very diyable. I could make my own with a drill and about 30 minutes, it feels like (though the hat would still cost money). Still, neat idea. We'll see if see any of these at GABF this year.

Lastly, Adam at Beerpulse last week drew my attention to these new Beck's labels:
As you might imagine, I like these first two. I'm a Warhol fan and I'm interested to see what beers these pop art-inspired labels represent.

Then there's this:
Just in case you thought an art reference had moved Beck's and breweries of its ilk past using nearly-naked women as a main marketing ploy, well... they haven't. Look! It's artistic! Sigh. As one Facebook commenter noted, it will still be Beck's.

June 25, 2011

A Modest Proposal: No More Tarts, Devil Chicks, or Mermaids

One of the areas where craft has succeeded is in attracting to beer more female drinkers: women with refined palettes (generally, women do have better tasting range than men), those with sympathy for the craft and community-friendly nature of craft breweries, or just random fans of hoppiness that also happen to have two X chromosomes.

This is a good thing for the craft movement, and it helps that our beer industry is more focused on actual things, and less focused on busty lifeguards, referees, or whatever it is the macros have decided constitutes "marketing" this week.

But we are hardly blameless. Every now and then, I go on a bit of a tirade about how lazy designers at lazy breweries use sexily depicted ladies as some type of personification of their beer. I have said I think this plays to a frathouse element that is at best limiting one's appeal and at worst doing damage to craft beer as a whole.

And here are some examples of what I am talking about:

Every year, Bridgeport Brewing brews a beer called the Stumptown Tart, and puts on it some type of scantily clad pin-up woman in a color that implies the flavor of the beer.
It's not as bad as it could be, given the classic look of the woman (which they hold pretty constant), but why are we doing this? The word "tart" is a synonym for promiscuous woman or a prostitute... it is not a nice word, and I don't see why we had to jump to a woman for it. It's like the need to associate "blonde" (as in the type of ale) with a busty woman with blond hair; it's just lazy. I get that this beer has brand equity and it's not going anywhere, but I cringe every time this label shows up.

What's that? You're unaware of more sexual innuendo?
Red Ryder! Get it? RYDER! Ride her! And she's got red hair! Label text even talks about the beer like it's a feisty woman who wants to have sex with you (Really, she doesn't. Because she's not real).

Seriously, stop it. Your designer, Barret Thomson, is talented. Don't squander good work on a cheap joke.

Then there's the whole she-devil thing:
I used Trade Route Brewing Company because it displays less talent than normal, but there are lots of breweries that use the devil-chick motif. It's not even that it's always bad. Look at Rapscallion Brewery's:
Not exactly a Raphael, but she looks like a lovely, intelligent young devil who enjoys beer and clearly understands the importance of proper glassware. And the brewery is called Rapscallion, for crying out loud, so it has to have some mischievous connotations. If it were just her, I think we'd all be fine.

But this is overdone, okay? We've had enough. Putting flames on your label, horns over boobs, and using the word "bitch" in red font is the epitome of lazy marketing. Do better.

Then, we have mermaids.
First, an image of a naked lady with a fishtail in the actual beer may not make people want to drink it. Second, yes, this is bad design, with the bright pink and childish renderings. But the important thing here is that, like with the devils, this has been done too many times for it to ever be as clever as you think it is. No, the reference to Dolly Parton does not make this somehow funny.

Now, of course, all things can be done well.
Tony Beard is awesome, and this actually is a great piece, in spite of the fact that it uses the bad-girl cliche, the mermaid cliche, and the busty blonde cliche. The reason it works is because of details. The mermaid actually resembles a real person, with tattoos and piercings. Yes, she's unrealistically hot and shoving her chest at us, but at least she could be a real person. There's some respect for the subject and viewer there. Do I wish they hadn't given it a stupid name? Of course, but at least there's a there there.

And the Smuttynose Star Island Single is a great example of how to use photography and fantastic themes together to create good art.

Admit it, this is pretty cool.
But again, just because someone talented did it well, that doesn't mean we need to see a lot more of it. There are too many mermaids, devil chicks, and strumpets on labels out there. It's old, it's lazy, it's boring, and it's chauvinist.

I call for a moratorium on all of these things, along with the freshman year Halloween parade of "sexy" angels, and the much-addressed blondes-as-blondes idea, which is so lazy it refuses to use a synonym. Before we can have any more of this rote, mindless marketing, I say we must see the following things on craft beer labels:

  • A fat devil (male or female)
  • A merman (photographed or drawn, but without a trident. Poseidon definitely doesn't count)
  • A female figure with glasses and a book (no, I do not mean a "naughty librarian")
  • Scantily clad men clearly designed to be manwhores, illustrating your beer's loose morals and willingness to bend the rules
  • Any IPA or Imperial Stout marketed primarily with the color pink
  • A lack of the word "sassy," "naughty," "playful," or "teasing" on any label for an entire year

When all that has happened, perhaps naked-she-devil-prostitute-mermaids will be new again. Or perhaps enough time will have passed that people will realize they can do better. Either way, some time off can't hurt any of us.

June 21, 2011

Alexander Keith's: Great Marketing Effort if the Product Were Different

So, a couple weeks ago, "Canadian" brewery Alexander Keith's had a virtual tasting with its brewmaster. I was excited for this type of social media effort, something I hope more breweries will turn to, but they scheduled it for a night when I had to teach, so no go.

I quoted "Canadian," because Alexander Keith's is brewed in the US by Anheuser-Busch InBev in St. Louis. The brewery was established in Nova Scotia, in 1820, but it's now owned by ABI property Labatt. So, as one might imagine, I was a touch skeptical about the quality.

They did, however, send me beer. And anyone who sends me beer gets a writeup.

First, the beer (they sent three):
Lager: It was astringent and thin, with no real flavor to speak of except a kind of bitterness. I'm spoiled by Yuengling, but this was at least crisp.
Pale: It was not noticeably hopped, generally devoid of character and lifeless. It had that medicinal taste common to macrobrews, but I'm not enough of beer scientist to understand what causes it.
Brown: I guess it was the most interesting, but not the best. It had a cloying caramel flavor, but still minimal body. The color was a nice dark brown, but I didn't like the flavor at all.

Okay, so nothing to get excited about. Wikipedia tells me that their IPA is not very hoppy or strong, but is a huge seller in Canada, and I would have enjoyed at least trying that. Perhaps once distribution is running at full speed.

From a marketing perspective, they definitely attempted to make this foray into the craft market. For one thing, they reached out to craft beer bloggers. For another, look at the design and swag (I'll use the picture Jon shot at The Brew Site, since it was much better than mine:
courtesy www.thebrewsite.com 
Notice the Irish imperial pint shape for the glass, and the gratuitous references to Nova Scotia. They very much want this to be a foray into the import/mainstream craft movement. That's at least a little bit dishonest, since it's brewed in Missouri and owned by a macrobrewery that is as American as it is anything else. For more eloquent commentary on this, hop over to Kate Pizzuto's blog, Gonzo Gastronomy). Rather than quibble over honesty and integrity, though, I think it's just as important to note that this tactic has been tried before by ABI, and it's failed.

Shock Top, the American Ale, the attempt to make Michelob something craft-like... all of these efforts were designed to get ABI into the American craft beer market in a way their rival, MillerCoors, has been able to manage with Blue Moon and its other properties. And now we've got a story about a Scotsman in Canada, and a virtual tasting with the brewer. The problem is the beer is bad, at least to a palette expecting craft beer flavor, and that's been the problem with all of ABI's craft-esque offerings.

I really admire the marketing plan, and I certainly appreciate being sent beer, but right now I just hope those ideas catch on more with craft breweries, because Alexander Keith's fails to deliver on its unspoken promise to be an authentic brand with a distinct taste and style.
Clearly, busty wench costumes constitute "beer marketing" in all cultures.
I wonder if ABI's efforts to grow its high-end brands will continue down this wrongheaded path. The purchase of Goose Island seemed promising, but has yet to generate anything large-scale, and now people think that might have had more to do with self-distribution in Illinois than growing a brand. Alexander Keith's US launch was marketed at least partly to a craft audience, but the product tastes more designed to compete with Moosehead than Sierra Nevada.

June 15, 2011

The Many Designs of Samuel Adams

Boston Beer Company is the largest craft brewery in the country, and so produces a lot of design. Among hardcore craft beer geeks, I've been surprised at how much disdain gets thrown their way, considering I've always found their beer to be well-crafted and they've been incredibly good corporate citizens (recently, they've started an entire lending program to aid small breweries).

Part of it, I'm sure, is that the more experimental Sam Adams beers do not reach everyone, and the flagship beers like the Boston Lager or the Noble Pils are often anathema to hop heads. From a branding perspective, Sam Adams is (obviously) focused on tradition and history. Compare the punk motifs of 3Floyds or the gargoyles of Stone with the work of Boston Beer's artist Dahl Taylor (currently artist of the imperial series), whose landscapes and portraits are straight out of Winslow Homer. And then there's always the fact that it is in many craft beer drinkers' nature to look for the next small, new thing, and so a large, 25-year-old, successful, consistent brewery can strike some as unsexy.

From a design and branding standpoint, though, Sam Adams is an interesting case for us, because, like few other breweries, they have:

  • Lots of beers and many product lines into which they fit
  • Relatively unlimited resources when it comes to marketing
  • To balance building a national brand among people who are largely new to craft beer with a portfolio of interesting and experimental beers aimed at existing market

There are seven labels here, but they really represent only three or four design styles that Boston Beer uses. As one would expect from the largest craft brewery in America, Sam Adams is an expert at designing very distinct looks for each of its lines, which makes for a kind of mini-brand within the larger beer company.

First, let's look at the basic Sam template, here displayed by a slight tweak in the seasonal label for the Revolutionary Rye:
You recognize the shape, which is two trapezoids stapled to an oval, and the internal frame with a ribbon banner and large lettering of the brewery, which is the dominant branding element. The art in the background is there for those of us looking for it, and is often intricate and interesting, but it's only an accent. The point of most Sam design is the branding, which makes perfect sense, again, for a large craft brewery with national reach and branding to consider.

Okay, so now that we have that. here some labels for their series of oak-aged beers; here are the label works for the New World Tripel and the 13th Hour Stout.

Both pull heavily on historical looks, the New World more of a nautical theme and the stout a industrial revolution-era clock, and both use a similar design layout, with an right-center large circle and design spreading out. The use of one light color on black, with just one more added for the banner keeps the design clean but eye-catching, and the asymmetric layout and scattered elements keep the image dynamic and give the impression of movement. These labels are pretty far afield from the standard Sam labels, so we know we're in for something quite different from a Boston Lager.

The Sam seasonals and one-offs tend to use a much more traditional motif, with their familiar label shape, a round window, and a banner through the middle.
Both the Rustic Saison and the East-West Kolsch labels use a hazy image to conjure feelings of warm weather and summer. In both cases, the huge banner that covers a great deal of the art furthers the effect, though I think we lose a little too much of the image. The layout is familiar enough that we know the beer will be fairly close to the usual Sam Adams characteristics, but the art suggests the beer will be of a richer, less finished character.

I've looked at some Imperial Series labels before, but here are two more:
Again we see the one major color, with a black background and heavy all-caps medieval text on the left third or so of the label. Interestingly, the Double Red adds a second color for the trunk of the tree. The die-cut of the label is the same shape as standard Sam labels, but almost nothing else is. These beers might as well be produced by a different brewery. Unlike the barrel-aged ones we saw above, there's no central, colored version of the "Samuel Adams" wordmark; all we have is the black stamp on the upper part of the image. The Double Red is a little more successful, but in both cases I feel like the art is overpowered by the design and the huge black field on the left.

As you can see, Sam Adams plays with their design a great deal in an attempt to balance multiple aims. Generally, I think they do a great job of walking the fine lines between brand consistency and variety. There are certainly multiple ways to do this (see, for example, Stone, Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada, who all use different strategies), but I'd call Boston Beer Company's the most professional of the bunch.

Ed. note: 
I actually requested to do an interview with their art and design department about the challenges they face, but the request was denied. I'll admit I was bummed (and I am now even more envious of our friends at Lost in the Beer Aisle), but as I've said before, this industry is full of overextended people with not enough time, so I try not to take such things personally.

June 11, 2011

Another Batch of Avery Redesigns

We are almost done with Avery's redesigns, I think. We have to be, right? Just a quick look at three more.

First, the Czar, which will remind us of the previous label updates. First, the old:
Like their other old labels, it looks a bit dated. Here's the new:
As we've seen before, larger central image, a more dynamic frame, and a more nuanced background, combined with the large A logo and the banner for the name. And just as we've seen before, a vastly improved label.

Avery has also redone a couple of their darker, Demons of Ale labels. Here's the old Mephistopheles label:
And here's the new one:
Less drastic difference, but the elements are the same. the angular form is suggested, rather than overt, and the delicate background images add nuance. The best changes are probably the vastly improved lettering and the loss of an unnecessary color.

We see the same thing in the Samael's:

June 10, 2011

Student and Concept Work

There's certainly plenty of good design out there in the professional craft beer world (lord knows my backlog continues to grow), but it's worth looking every now and then at some of the standouts from the huge amount of student and concept work that is developed without the fetters of a client.

As with all such work, we're looking at ideas, not feasibility of the product. It pretty much goes without saying that a lot of this would not be usable for a craft brewery of normal budget without heavy alteration.

"Publican Brewing Company," designed by Daniel Rodriguez and linked via LovelyPackage:
Rodriguez taps into a very classic look, down to the wooden crates in which some bourbons are sold. I think there is probably a niche for a brewery that would like to develop a steampunk-based brand (as opposed to Dogfish and others that use it selectively for some things), or for one that delves hard into pre-industrial revolution nostalgia. The problem is that this specific is a little too hifalutin, without much of a sense of humor, and it feels stuffy to me without a real brand with insanely good beer to justify it.

"Bearded Lady Microbrewery," designed by Christopher George and linked from his Behance site:
There's more good process work to be found on the site. I like the splashing of color on pen-and-ink, Edward Gorey-esque work. It keeps it from being morose like Gorey's, but still makes the line-driven work the point. I'd be interested to see if there could be label design that incorporated inconsistent splashes of color, so that the yellow circle in the "Crystal Ball" label, for example, would be slightly different in every label? Might work with a limited edition.

"William B. Allen Family Tradition," designed by Trace Thoma and linked via TheDieLine:
Thoma does some actual industrial design work, re-engineering the six-pack brilliantly. Now, I have no idea how well this would hold up in actual use, but I will say that the traditional six-pack is dying for innovation. I understand the realities of die-cutting, but it's not a particularly wonderful design right now and there's a lot more than can be done with it. Hopefulle work like this will encourage some reinvention in the industry.

"MUG Pub" designed by Ivan Maximov and linked via TheDieLine, also looks at this same issue:
Very cool, though this raises even more issues of usability. I dig the whole soup-cup beer vessels, but there would need to be some thought put into how to drink from them. The most intriguing part of this is that it allows for a six-pack-to-go from draught beer, something that currently does not exist and that would be a HUGE boon to drinkers and bars alike. Right now, we've got growlers, which are flawed in many ways (such as the fact that you have to want to drink a gallon of whatever beer you're buying, meaning you've had it before and you know you love it and you can drink a ton in rapid succession).

"Un Peu Beer" designed by Sanyukta Kothari and linked via the Behance page: 
From the designer:

“The dessert beer is called Un Peu, French for ‘a little’, which is exactly how an indulgence like this should be. It is bottled in small and slender 180 ml (6.3 fl. oz.) bottles, a size carefully chosen based on the unusual product category. It is also packaged in 2-packs, rather than 6-packs, as it is... a dessert beer, that calls for a more sophisticated and intimate drinking experience. Like a special date, with a close friend, or over fine conversation late into the night. Drawing from the rich, warm colour palette of the Moulin Rouge and the ostentation, the label graphics depict the heady crescendo of flavours in the beer. The type is inspired by the French Art Nouveau typography of the late nineteenth century, and has been re-drawn and embellished to fit the modern context. The 2-pack has been designed to resemble a bag, perfect for gifting.”

Interestingly, we haven't seen much "dessert beer" marketing, which is a bit surprising. Part of the problem is revealed by an error Kothari makes in her description of the target market:
Beer connoisseurs, cocktail drinkers, the adventurous and non-conformists, the hedonists. For people who like to sip their drink slowly, and savour it, and enjoy it in the company of close friends at a hip nightspot or even at home. 
The problem is that "beer connoisseurs" are not generally "cocktail drinkers" looking for a "hip nightspot" or dessert beer. Of course, many are (like myself on occasion), but generally the concept of flavored beer is one approached with wariness by craft beer people here. The largely male core market likes hops and big flavors, so a product like this could be hugely effective in growing the craft beer market, but would likely not be a turn-on for the existing connoisseurs.

"Skylab Brewing Company," designed by Jessica Lutcza and linked via Oh Beautiful Beer, features a combination of shaped packaging and use of 3D glasses to bring out the space-age theme.
I think the six-pack holder is the strongest part of this, though there's something retro about the paper red-and-blue 3D glasses that makes me think anything but futuristic. Maybe, once 3D technology in TVs becomes more popular, there'd be a way to incorporate that.

Then, sometimes, a student spotlight makes a valiant effort and totally misses the point.

"Arrogant Bastard" by Thanh Nguyen, is a revamp of the classic Stone Brewing beer in a variety pack to combine the three varieties available:
Let's assume that by Pale and Strong he means regular and Double bastards. The idea has real merit; it's an iconic beer in multiple forms, so a neat-looking variety six pack could well be worth thinking about for the folks at Stone. But the whole identity of Stone Brewing Co, with which we might assume Thanh, as a Cal-Northridge grad, would be familiar, is the opposite of this clean, refined look he's given it. It's a neat exercise, kind of like seeing what it would look like if Garret Oliver ran Stone for a day, but it's so completely off-brand that it's amusing.

And, to tease the coming post on the Weyerbacher redesign, we have a student attempt at it from Madaline Moninghoff of Syracuse University's design program (linked via TheDieLine):
From the designer:
No matter how hard your day, Weyerbacher takes the edge off. Located in the rustbelt of Easton, Pennsylvania, Weyerbacher brewery provides local, great tasting beer. The re-branding of this microbrewery showcases the history of Easton and the unique beer that is made there. The design includes historical stories about men from the Easton area and what they went through. This links the present day local beer drinker to what happened in their town years ago.
The only problem, of course, is that Easton is not in the Rust Belt. I actually kind of wonder if she knows where Easton is (on the border of New Jersey, across the Delaware from Phillipsburg), since this would be a fantastic campaign for Penn Brewing or Iron City or Reading Premium or Yuengling or Straub, but for Weyerbacher it makes close to no sense. Easton is mostly a college town and, while the downtown has some blight, it's definitely less post-industrial than almost all of the other towns in Pennsylvania. Even Bethlehem, right next door, and Allentown, just beyond, it's Lehigh Valley neighbors, have significantly greater industrial histories than Easton, whose commercial success was tied much more to the river and canal than mills or mines. Also, Dan and the Chrises at Weyerbacher make sophisticated, bold, often high-abv beers that millworkers would find bizarre.

All that said, the use of a community and old photographs as the basis of a beer's brand is a fantastic idea. There's not a ton of photography used in beer design (Smuttynose aside), and this is a nice way of using something different and tying local history in. Brooklyn is doing something like this with the High Line, but that's more glamor with a bit of history than deep embracing of a community. New breweries could really think about a jazzed up version of this as a good way to establish roots quickly. 

June 7, 2011

Redhook's New Look, Two Months Later

So, in March, Seattle, WA's,  Redhook revealed a totally revamped look. Redhook is a member of the Craft Brewing Alliance, which is the part-ABI-owned group that includes Kona, Widmer and, until recently, Goose Island.

Redhook has been a big name in the quasi-craft-beer world for a while, so its revamp was covered heavily by beer bloggers and design people alike. I thought about wading in, but honestly had little to add to the excellent examinations I'll link herein. So instead, I decided to wait a couple months, and see if I felt at all differently about the revamp then. 

Here's the logo:

Armin at Brand New had this to say:
Although the logo didn’t change its form, its application is far better than the previous one that relied on awkward bevelation. The distressed look is perhaps a cliché for Northwest-down-to-earth brands, but it pays off here giving Redhook an appropriate “aged” look. I would have given them bonus points for actually distressing the logo (even just biting some off the edges) rather than just applying a texture on top the sharp vector logo.
At the time I though the "distressed look" was a bit cliche, now I think I agree with this sentiment close to 100%. It's an improvement, certainly, though it could have done a bit more.

The centerpiece of the revamp is the new bottle, a squatter, old-school style that was seen in the 1970s and earlier, but is unique in today's craft beer market.

Jeff Alworth at Beervana performed one of his brand dissections, in which he spoke with Redhook brand manager Robert Rentsch"
[We wanted to] celebrate our heritage. Reconnect with our roots and be true to what the brand is all about--going back to those early days. We used that as a starting point for all the decisions that came out of that. Our prior bottle was a longneck, and it was a little precious, we thought. We wanted something a little more real."When we first started bottling, we were using the old style 'heritage' bottle... We considered that for a while, but then we looked at some older, stubby-style bottles and that gave us some inspiration. It felt right for Redhook."
As Alworth points out, the bottle has roots specifically in the Northwest. The Daily Pull's Brady Walen also had some good thoughts focused around the decision to keep or discard beer names.

In terms of branding, there's some interesting stuff going on here.  It's evident that Redhook is looking to simplify its core lineup; it's heading down a path of using or emphasizing a beer's style as its name.  But the reluctance to change completely drop "Long Hammer", due to existing brand equity and recognition, demonstrates some compromise to the overall effort... It's a challenge that is experienced by all breweries.  Should beer names at a brewery follow a consistent theme?  It all depends on the brand.

I'd add that there is yet one more tension between beer names and brewery brand, an area where design can play a big role. Still, two months later, this seems like less of a big deal. Everyone knows what Redhook is, beer and brand-wise (i.e., a brewery that has never found a strong identity and beer that is always is just a bit more middling than one might hope) and these tweaks have not noticeably altered any of that. They probably could have changed - or not - just about every beer name; it's not like they were messing with any universally renowned product lines.

Then there's the ad campaign, which you can still see exemplified at the time of this posting by going to the Redhook site. I'll use Walen's screenshot:
Other examples, found on billboards and the like, via Trendhunter:

Trendhunter tells us:
The Redhook May 2011 beer ads were done by ad agency Frank Unlimited, and feature semisexual lines such as “Redhook’s okay with you staring at his new package.” These cheeky lines make the beer sound as if it’s taking about itself in the third person—very amusing!
Hint: if you have to write "very amusing!" at the end, then it wasn't. Frankly, this is where it came off the rails for me two months ago. Personification? Redhook is a man? Why is that funny?

And two months later... it still seems remarkably awful. In fact, the more I've thought about it, the worse it feels. They had me at the beginning, with the new bottle and the distressed look and the clear new vision of a back-to-basics "authenticity" approach. Then you add this bizarre element where the brand is a guy, and apparently he's a jerk. How does this fit, or help, the brand at all? Laying aside the fact that it's blatantly inhospitable to women drinkers, the campaign just seems frat-house-oriented, which is not usually a good strategy for a craft beer audience.

One last thing I wanted to touch on was a comment by Alworth that was too excellent not to repost, in light of the new bottle:
It is a fascinating irony that the industrial design of midcentury has now become a stand-in for authenticity. That old regional beer [from which the bottle shape comes] was anything but authentic. Yet our nostalgia for a time when Americans made things, when we were naively optimistic about rocketing into the future, is one of the most potent elements in beer design. So by referencing the industrial age--the moment America was furthest from artisanal craftsmanship--now suggests to the modern brain the idea of authenticity. The contrast between this new bottle and the old bottle is a lesson in psychology. One resonates on a subconscious level, one resonates not at all.
No wonder he's number 1 or 2 in the Wikio rankings.

June 3, 2011

Session #52: The Case for Collecting Craft Beer Art

For Session #52, Brian Stechschulte of All Over Beer chose the topic of breweriana, or beer collectibles. That is, as he puts it: "What old or new beer related items do you collect and why?"

While I am weirdly obsessed with the business, branding and design of craft beer, and I write about that here, I am still just a craft beer nerd who loves the flavors and character of real beer. So I've got much of the same stuff that everyone else does. I've got t-shirts that I feel compelled to wear at craft beer events to signal myself as a member of the club. I've got a cabinet full of glassware I use every now and then for tastings but mostly to look pretty and remind myself that - even though I rarely observe this at home - deep inside, I care about the vessel in which a beer comes. I have a growler covered in pithy stickers declaiming the superiority of hops. But it will surprise no one in the world that I am going to use this post not just to talk about collecting craft beer art, but to advocate that others who want to collect think about it as a hobby.

Here is why:

Art is usually flat and fits on walls.
Seriously, this is a big reason. I know it seems silly, but with just my little array of t-shirts and glasses, I have come to appreciate how awesome it is when a collectible can go on a wall and not take up floor or drawer space. Even sculptural art in craft beer is usually small (like tap handles). As Americans, we collect stuff far more often than we need to, and that stuff takes up room we can use to store food, beer, or (gasp) spaces to gather with friends.

Art does not need to be expensive.
Probably the biggest barrier to casual fans collecting art - aside from just not thinking about it - is the feeling that art is expensive. Trust me, it's not, or I wouldn't have any (note the pun in the title of this blog). On my walls right now I have signed pieces by Carey Stoudt Matson of Stoudt's Brewing, Wayno of East End Brewing, and Great Sex Brewing that all cost under $50. I have some bigger stuff by Jason and the team at Sierra Nevada and Erin Fuller at Furthermore, and almost nothing I own cost more than a couple hundred. Whoa! Hundreds?? Remember, you think nothing of dropping $20 on the right bottle of beer, so keep it in perspective. Would you rather have 5 more t-shirts and 5 more glasses, or a unique piece of incredible art?
Erin Fuller's bird litho for Furthermore

Yes, it's true, it helps that I had access from running a show, but I promise I paid full price and only bought things that did not sell to others (of which there were many). The point is that, especially with graphic design, prints are almost always affordable, and you can find things to fit your price point. Which brings me to:

Beer art is not hard to find
Seriously, it's not. Almost all of your favorite brewries hire artists, either in-house or, more commonly, as freelancers and contracted firms. Artists - at least the ones who work for craft breweries - like money, and generally like beer. It is easy enough to find them (many have websites) and see what a print costs. I have known some brewery artists that such beer aficionados that they've traded work for some rare or cellared beer, though don't assume that will be the case. New breweries, especially, are largely strapped for cash and would largely love to sell you a limited-edition print of their work. Buy something at a high markup and think of it as a reward for supporting a small brewer.
Randy Mosher, homebrewing maven and designer extraordinaire.

Of course, there are breweries like Dogfish Head that have made printmaking and selling a part of the business, so there's a very easy place to start. Beer Drinker Rob sent me these photos of the great Marq Spusta pieces he got from DFH:

Art is different.
Everyone has a glassware collection. Not everyone has canvases of the work for Life & Limb or tins of Matt Polacheck's Coney Island Lager series. It's a good niche for those looking to be into something different. That's why it appreciates in value. Now, no one should go buy prints of Ralph Steadman's work for Flying Dog just to resell them later, but take care of a good piece of art and it will retain value a heck of a lot more than that t-shirt you wear twice a year. More importantly, the beer art on the walls of your living room or man cave is excellent conversation starter.

When you buy art, the money goes good places.
Artists and breweries, as I may have mentioned, need money. And you want them to succeed. Look, when you buy a t-shirt or a glass, there's some markup to be sure, but your overall contribution to the brewery after tax is what, a few bucks? When you buy art, you're largely paying for the time and talent of the individual (and maybe for framing). That means that the money goes straight to people who need and appreciate it (more directly if you do it in cash), not to a manufacturer in some other country that makes the glasses or shirts. Look, you buy your local brewery's beer more than you might otherwise because you want them to stay in business, so why not take that a step further and reward yourself with something really cool?
You are the type of person who collects art.
This is maybe the biggest objection, and to me it's the one that makes the least sense. Look, art isn't just waterlilies and cubist nudes. It's anything that someone used their creative talent to generate with an eye toward aesthetics. So those beer label designs you think are cool count. You don't need to have an opinion on Rembrandt or Pollock to know when you see something you like. If you care about the effort that goes into your beer, then you care about the things that make artists and designers tick. And if you like the work, why not buy some and enjoy it at home?

If it's something you're thinking about and want a little more information, or even just want to know what artist did what, the Curator is here to help. Just drop me a line and I'll do what I can to chase down a name or website of an artist for you.
The work of Ska Brewing's Dorn Roberts

Some of the most successful collector started by buying the artists they liked, as cheap as they could. I'm not saying your favorite Brewery's designer will start fetching Picasso auction prices, but the point is that those collectors didn't need financial return to be happy; they had the art they wanted. The only thing worth a warning about collecting is that, like all hobbies, it can get addictive. Once you buy a piece or two, you start to keep your eyes out, and then before you know it you don't have enough wall space.