July 29, 2011

Some Innovation in Craft Beer Design by Sixpoint and Crabtree

Via beernews.org came this announcement from Brooklyn's Sixpoint Brewery:
(Brooklyn, NY) — Brooklyn-based Sixpoint Brewery today announced the “Spice of Life” monthly series of single-hop small-batch beers to highlight the flavors of different hop strains... The grain recipe for forthcoming Spice of Life beers will remain the same, with unique hop strains swapped in each month. As a result, the customer will be able to ascertain the influential character of different hop strains through a “controlled recipe experiment.”
All right, I'm actually not the biggest fan of single hop things. Generally, there's a reason we use multiple hops in beer. But along with this "experiment" came this:

I to say, I love this design piece. A request to the brewery for the designer/firm was not returned, so I don't know who the creative mind behind it is, but it's very well done. The easiest distinction between art and design is that design is function first and aesthetics second; it must first and foremost serve a purpose. This chart has a tough one: visually describing a flavor profile to people who may not know about hops or, worse, may think they know about hops and be wrong. It's a great way to map tastes, and it can be shrunk and stuffed into a pocket beer ratings book for those who have them.

Next we have the most aggressive use of QR codes yet in craft beer labeling, by Crabtree Brewery:

It takes to a page that (at time of posting) says simply "Here is your secret page about beer #1." One assumes that will updated when the label is approved and the beer actually launches.

On one hand, I'm not in love with the total lack of design. On the other hand, I do love the aggressive use of new social media tools, and the idea that the QR will take you to a secret page is potentially quite cool. The Fegleys Brew Works have been using QR codes on their labels, but the nice thing about the size and dominance of this is that it basically demands you check it out. As with all such matters, I will be interested to see what Brady Walen has to say. 

Lastly, some links for you on must-reads/sees:

July 22, 2011

Vanberg and DeWulf: An Interview on Importing, Three Decades in Beer, and the Meaning of Belgian Beer

"As an importer, I have three challenges," Don Feinberg says. The first is simple: "We’re always in a state of translation."

Feinberg is one of the proprietors of Vanberg and DeWulf, an importer of Belgian beer since 1982, including well-known brands such as Dupont and Scaldis. The creative minds at Vanberg agreed to speak with me about the joys, challenges and twists of creating U.S. identities for foreign craft beers.

"Whenever possible, we like to use the Belgian identity," he says, but of course that's not always possible or desirable. For example, one of Vanberg's imports, Brasserie Dupont's Foret, is organic, and so in its native language is referred to as "biologique," or "bio." And, understandably, Feinberg feels that, "Bio is not a word that I want to have to market in America."

The second is an externally enforced challenge, and one shared by every producer or importer of alcohol in the United States. That, of course, is the group of federal regulations imposed by the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates alcohol labels. For Vanberg and DeWulf, that includes the place the beer is made, the bottler, the importer, conversions of ounces and milliliters, sometimes a statement of process distilled into familiar TTB language like "beer brewed with ____ and ____," and anything else the bureau feels necessary.

The third, though, is where Vanberg and DeWulf starts to get more at the design challenges. "We want the label to match the personality and experience that we think the beer is going to have."

This, obviously, is a difficult and ethereal task shared by every label designer, but in the case of importers of traditional Belgian and experimental beers, it's only more difficult.

Though bloggers like me may find it boring, there is a reason so many American bottles have flowing rivers or exploding hops on the front; when a beer is driven by a single characteristic virtue, it is easy to communicate that. But traditional Belgian beer is defined by balance and a blending of flavors. It's usually designed to be drank in company and with food, and comes from centuries of history and culture with which plenty of even savvy beer drinkers in this country are unacquainted.
Don Feinberg at Zythos America,
Philly Beer Week 2011

Feinberg's solution to this is to essentially ignore the label's role as sales piece, and to focus on what he calls the "cultural and informational" function. "We’re trying to communicate, not sell," he says.

"We try to talk from the Belgian point of view," he explains. "I'm trying as best I can to squeeze the person’s head through the bottle."

The goal is to try to take the drinker to Belgium, rather than translating Belgian beer for American market.

That's particularly ironic, since Feinberg's history with Belgium began with the opposite task. From 1979 to 1982, he lived in Belgium, working for an American ad agency, trying to sell Corn Flakes to Belgians.

"I’m using that scaffolding," Feinberg explains of his turn to importing, which began in 1982. "But a lot of my training in advertising I use by trying to avoid it."

*                  *                 *

Chuck Robertson, with the New York firm Doyle Partners, has been working with Feinberg for more than 10 years. He has the job of taking what Feinberg tells him about an import, and trying to represent it on a label, while paying homage to a long history.

"They come with a personality outside of the beer itself," he explains of the additional challenge. "Many of these beers that are being imported come with a back story."

Again using Brasserie Dupont as an example, there is the history of the land, the farms, the family and the brewery. Even if Belgians might be as familiar with that lore as we are with the Budweiser Clydesdales and Busch scion naming conventions, Americans aren't. And so all of that needs to be incorporated into the design.

"We tend to try not to characterize the beer so much in the label as the brewer and brewery," Robertson explains. But even then, the goal is to represent the history, not make it more exciting. "We don’t create an elaborate audience characterization... What we tend to like, we hope other people will be attracted to, as well."

Okay, so that's hard, but one could argue that it is a similar task to that which faces any creative professional  who balances an established craft brand with a new beer.

There is another challenge, though.

The Doyle Partners' work
for Ommegang
(specifically, Tom  Kluepfel)
Robertson often has to design a label for a product he has never tried.

In fact, the last four labels he has had to design without trying the beer.

Whether it comes from Belgium or the depths of Feinberg's imagination (more on that in a second), the beer is often not available in the United States.

Having experienced a few minutes of Feinberg's passion for his products, I had to ask if that ever leads to disagreements between the creative minds.

"Yes, but we never come to blows," Robertson says, "Often, the misunderstanding comes from a verbal translation."

Trying to tell your designer about beer character, to paraphrase an old cliche, is a bit like composing about architecture.

So one solution is to use surrogates. Feinberg will ship non-beer products to Robertson that "express similar characteristics," in an attempt to get him something to work with.

Another strategy, of course, is trial and error. Robertson and the team will often start with ten to fifteen different labels, just to see if any of them are getting close to the vision.

Hard enough when it's a Belgian saison, but what about when it's a type of beer that doesn't even exist yet?

Two recent beers in Vanberg and DeWulf's portfolio, Hop Ruiter and Lambrucha, are creations of Feinberg's mind. And as anyone who has had them is aware, they are difficult to describe.

The Hop Ruiter recently took silver at the U.S. Open Beer Championships in the experimental category. Robertson was kind enough to share some of their process work.



All are good design work, and could potentially have been good labels, but the final one they chose was this:
The yellow and Belgian royal crest motifs suggest a beer with a bright and unconventional flavor, but still one steeped in tradition. There are no enormous, juicy hops adorning the label, like we might see on American Belgian IPAs. Stripes, strong lines, and medieval motifs contrast with the modern lettering, and the fact that the visual label is reversible, like a playing card might be, gives us a sense that there are multiple ways of seeing this beer.

"I wanted to make a beer that was 'hoppy' but was 'hoppy' from a Belgian Point of view." Feinberg explains. There was initial resistance to it, because American beer drinkers seeing the word Hop expected something closer to a West Coast IPA. "The flavors I gave them weren’t cascade and Amarillo."

According to Feinberg, that led to early misgivings by the online beer rating community, which over time grew to accept the beer for what it is trying to do. Though one should always be careful of using such things as a metric, the Hop Ruiter currently has a B+ (A- from the brothers) rating on Beer Advocate.

The Lambrucha, a 3.5% ABV blend of lambic and two fermented kambucha teas, recently won Gold at the U.S. Open Beer Championship in the experimental category.

"Lambrucha was an unusual product because it was… a new beverage category, so we didn’t know what we were going to do," Robertson admits. "We were literally siting in our conference room pouring lambic and tea from the store together to try to approximate the taste."

The conversations yielded more questions.

"Was it a beer, or was it a tea?" Robertson recalls "Was it a health drink or an aperitif?"

Those were existential questions, but they are also technical ones when it comes to the TTB and consumer expectations. For example, the beer label does not tout the beer as a "lambic," for fear that beer drinkers would buy it and be put off by its dissimilarity to other commercially available lambics.

"On a label you have to be very careful about what you say," Feinberg says. He recalled a time in the early 1980s when, as a co-founder of Ommegang Brewery, his goal had been to make the labels as Belgian as possible, which led to their often being placed erroneously on the import shelf.

From a design standpoint, Robertson settled on a deliberately ambiguous fusion of colors.

There is a lion straight out of a traditional Belgian motif, but it has eight arms. There is a shield in the upper left that would be recognizable as Medieval European, but it has Thai writing. The checkerboarding is European in theme, but the bright colors, lotus frame and green and gold border are obviously more at home in Southeast Asian iconography.

"It’s the marriage of two cultures, both literally and figuratively," he says, alluding to the wordplay of yeast cultures, along with the joining of European and Southeast Asian cultures.

"We were trying to not confuse but see if we could push together two cultures and see if we could create something new," Robertson explains. "You couldn’t quite put your finger on what the design influences were."

The brightness of the label does suggest the light, tart flavors one finds in a taste of the Lambrucha. "It has an exuberance and effervescense that the beverage has too," Robertson says.

*                  *                 *

Between technical glitches and the globe trotting involved in importing, it takes some time to set up an interview with Feinberg. So I had no way of knowing that it would happen to come on the same day that a story appeared in the WaPo about some of the newer Belgian breweries wherein Wendy Littlefield, the other half of Vanberg's executive team, was quoted by reporter Daniel Fromson as making comments that were not overly laudatory of the new breweries:
But these sorts of brewers, who often sustain themselves through exports to the United States, are distinctly un-Belgian. “Not letting people know exactly what you’re doing is the Belgian way,” says beer importer Wendy Littlefield, whose company, Vanberg & Dewulf, was one of the first to bring Belgian beers to America. “And also the tendency in Belgium is to be respectful of tradition.” 
Littlefield worries that these “extreme” brewers, who represent only a small fraction of the Belgian beer market, are overshadowing the traditionalists — or worse. Struise and Alvinne, she says, “really, arguably, are hurting the very culture that they claim to be arising out of.”
Now, in full disclosure, as a former reporter, this read to me very much like a quote taken a bit out of context. Sometimes when we write features, we look for opposed views and different opinions, and the journalistic instinct can be to use the quotes that best fit that dialectic, even if it makes the speaker seem a bit more one-sided. It's not sneaky or evil, it's just the craft and it can happen to the best writers, especially if it's a niche subject like Belgian beer, where it's not fair to expect reporters to be experts (Fromson referred to a quadrupel as a traditional Belgian ale, when it's nothing of the sort).

Well, as beer goes, that's a bit of a story, and I'm into the business end of this industry, so when life put me on the phone with Feinberg, I had to ask about it. Vanberg is a brand and an importer very much proud of authenticity, but what exactly does that concept mean to a person whose last creation was a blend of lambic and fermented Asian tea?

"Authentic doesn’t mean ancient, because then you’d never have innovation," Feinberg says, relating it to the old wine concept of terroir, a theory that the very land itself on which grapes are grown lends a unique flavor to the wine. Like in wine, the concept of authenticity in beer can both celebrate a beverage's unique character, but it can also be used to say that no one else can replicate it, something Feinberg is against.

"I believe in the concept of terroir... but it can’t become an excuse for exclusivity," he says. 
Brasserie Dupont, in Tourpes, Belgium

When it comes to some of the new Belgian breweries, to Feinberg, the distinction is one of identity versus geography. Think of it this way: is a restaurant in Thailand necessarily a Thai restaurant? Well, maybe, in a grammatical sense, but if it serves burgers and fries, then not in the sense that most people might mean.  Likewise, if a brewery in Flanders is making a great American style IPA, it may be making very good beer, but Feinberg and Littlefield would say it is not Belgian in any meaningful sense, other than strictly geographic.

"There are a couple brewers in Belgium who are making beer for Americans. We’re interested in Belgium, we’re interested in their traditions," Feinberg says. "There are certain flavors that are true to a type of culture, and if you don’t believe that, you’re one step away from making soda."

Feinberg makes it clear that he does not believe new international breweries (like de Struise and Alvinne) are bad or making necessarily bad beer. So I ask him if he feels that Vanberg's focus on traditional authenticity is, well, better.

"I think there’s something to be fought for and to be celebrated by being true to yourself. And I think that is better," he says. "If you came to visit me in Belgium, I wouldn’t bring you to the Hard Rock Café."

Littlefield also responded to me in an email, saying that she spoke with the author for over an hour, and that she wishes nothing but success for de Struise, Alvinne, and the other startups in Belgium, making the point that  "it would be really out of character for someone who has spent a career as a champion of the independents to slam Struise or Alvinne."

However, like Feinberg and others, Littlefield would draw a distinction between Belgian and what Stan Hieronymus called global in his response.

"More often than not the flavor profiles of these [new brewery] beers are not particularly "Belgian" as in balanced and harmonious/subtle," Littlefield wrote. "For Belgian brewing culture to be vibrant and authentic we think it still needs the regional independents with bricks and mortar and employees and community ties and history and stylistic distinctiveness. I think there is a bit of naivete in the beer geek community about the business aspect of the beer world."

*                  *                 *

The increasing challenges that come from a global beer market are just some of the things Feinberg and Littlefield have seen change in the almost three decades of Vanberg and DeWulf's role in the U.S. and Belgian beer markets.

As Robertson says, it poses plenty of new questions from a design standpoint alone. Some of the first labels Vanberg did were for Duvel, which at the time they had to change from white to black, because the American beer market at the time associated white labels with cheap beer.

"Belgian beers have now been introduced… it’s just not new anymore," Robertson says, noting that there's an increasing balancing act to maintain the artisanal quality and feel of traditional Belgian ales. "Some of the Belgian beers that are being imported and finding a foothold, there’s a potential for them to become more mass-marketed."

One thing that has gotten easier, according to Feinberg, is the comfort level the federal regulators now have with the breadth of beer as a product.

"20 years ago, if it didn’t fit into 3 or 4 categories, you were down in Washington DC pleading your case."
A photo of La Fleur en Papier Dore, by Kyoko Hamada, adorns the Vanberg site.

I ask Feinberg, as someone with the perspective of being around Belgian and craft beer about as long as the United States have had a market for it, where he sees the American market trending, particularly with regard to imports.

"America’s the home of the extreme," he says, noting that that extremism has changed focus recently. "You’re getting an interest in intensity moving away from hoppiness… into sour, local ingredients."

I ask if he shares my belief that the extremism will fade as the beer market matures.

"There’s only so much flavor and intensity you can experience, especially if you’re going to drink [the beer] and not just taste it" he says. "I think that’s where part of the whole session beer movement comes from."

Ed. note: Session beer is the class of beer with low abv (under 4.5%) and lots of flavor. For those of you new to this blog, I immodestly refer to myself as a low-level lieutenant in the session beer revolution

Feinberg sees the session beer movement as a symptom of a desire for many of the same things that one sees in traditional Belgian ales; a preference for balance, subtlety and (a word that has sadly been made taboo by macrobreweries) drinkability.

"This to me is what makes Belgium the heart of a complex brewing culture," Feinberg says. "There’s a lot of intense flavors, but they’re very well balanced. The flavors work together in a harmonious way."

July 18, 2011

Lots of Stuff in the Pipeline, and Lots of Bullets in This Post

Hello beerfriends.

I've got a bunch of stuff in the hopper (side note: I may be misusing that expression, since I can't find a good origin. The Internet seems divided.), including:

  • That piece I promised on the Weyerbacher rebrand (waiting on the first label to come out this week)
  • Label art for Anchorage (the post Blogger ate a few weeks ago), Stillwater (yes!), Adirondack and others
  • A taxonomy for beer labels
  • The Deschutes rebrand
  • A long and interesting conversation with Don Feinberg, (a founder of Ommegang and importers Vanberg & DeWulf) and his designer, Chuck Robertson of Doyle Partners on the challenges of designing for imports and strange creations (More on them below)
But there's a bunch of little news and notes to hit before I get those pieces up, so...
Two of many options
  • My father informed me that my comment on the knuckleball grip in last week's grumbling post on the normally good Brew Works label was misguided. I was familiar with the traditional knuckler grip of Tim Wakefield and Tom Candiotti, but apparently there are numerous grips, all of which count as long as the ball doesn't spin more than once or twice en route to the plate. I do think artist Alex Clare moved the fingers back off the laces for artistic purposes. I still think that figure is over the top, but the baseball knowledge should not have been impugned.
  • "Finally, a beer
    just for men
    who think women
    are idiots"
  • The Clown Shoes thing quieted down and went away, but I hope the issue doesn't. While I didn't find the labels sexist, there's still plenty of sexism in beer and it comes in lots of forms. For example, we have MillerCoors launching a Carling offshoot called Animee, for women. How do we know it's for women? It's clear, of course.
The beer... has an ABV of 4% and is put through an ultra-filtering process that removes its colour. It is flavoured with green tea and dragon fruit, and has a taste similar to an alcopop. Coors plans to trial the drink through sampling in pubs and bars before any wider roll-out. 
First we have Copen*hagen, now clear dragonfruit green tea beer. Great. No better way to respect your market than to stick to the idea that women don't like beer. Stay classy. Also, some bloggers have noted Minhas' Chick Beer, a wholly insulting concept in whose failure I will delight.
But, lest we forget that craft beer is capable of this, as well, I bring you another example of our willingness to tolerate the blatant and harp on the borderline:
Yes, it's called the Double D Blonde, and yes, the image is of a topless woman with blond hair and hops covering her breasts. It's an award-winning beer, and the design is generally well-rendered, if a bit militarochemical black-and-green in scheme, but try Google image searching for "Double D Blonde" and see if you get a picture of this beer. Again, we choose to focus on a robot with a gas pump?

Dude, I'm surfing on lousy design!

As always, your reward for reading the linksy posts is a lovely piece of label art, this one from Methow Valley, for the Conscious Culture Festival:
I guess one could also say this is sexist, if he or she wanted to, as it certainly has themes of sexuality. But I think it's a tasteful peace evoking the 60s roots of the liberal festival. What I like is the level of detail within the swirling border/hair. We've got a nice sunset, some lush looking flora and fauna, and label that very much communicates the "flower child" aesthetic and values (yes, "free love" was one of those, but this seems quite family-friendly to me). The watermark background lets them use a blue that makes all the colors stand out while still having some depth and providing us a close-up view of some of the more intricate parts of the image.

July 12, 2011

The New Brew Works Label Shows Why I Think the Clown Shoes Debate is Bizarre

With about a week passing since the Clown Shoes kerfuffle, debate is still raging - and with some surprisingly negative terms being thrown around. There's a debate going on over at Jeff Alworth's Beervana, where Jeff has made this surprisingly strong statement:
It's possible to take this discussion in a postmodern, third-wave-feminism direction and pose various questions about the nature of sexuality and agency. I absolutely guarantee that wasn't the intention of Clown Shoes. They knew there was a line dividing sexist and sexy and they danced across it with smirking delight, and in case anyone missed this act of transgression, they made the point clear in their text. I have no idea whether CEO Gregg Berman is sexist, but I do know he used these labels to draw attention--and sales--to his beer. Mission accomplished.
Perhaps he knows Berman (I certainly do not), but if he doesn't know Berman, and well... I think guaranteeing someone's intent is a bridge too far. Everyone involved in the creative process has said there was no intent to be derogatory, and so I think applying such strong terms like "sexist" to them is too strong.

Anyway, the other charge, which I find downright confusing, is that of racism, levelled by the original poster, Candice Alstrom, whose official statement has collected everything from thoughtful debate to silly comments about how the robot on the label is a stand-in for black people. Most of it, though, comes from this label (which, we'll recall, I loved):

No one has yet been able to explain to me how it is more racist to suggest that an angel might be of African or Latin or Asian descent, than it is to have an entire cultural history of angels being exclusively Caucasian.

There were some thoughtful comments left on this blog. One, by an anonymous contributor, suggested that she could understand how these labels would offend someone. Sure. Me too. They don't cross a line for me, but they could for someone. That's different from fostering a stereotype. The same commenter - like Alworth above - also suggested this brouhaha was caused - or at least invited - by Clown Shoes, who knew that provacative, sexist labels would draw attention.

As a general rule, I take people at their word unless I have reason to believe they are lying, so when Berman, the artists, and other people at CS insist they didn't want this, I have no reason not to believe them. Maybe Alworth does, but if so I think one has an obligation to share that, rather than just insist we know their intent better than they do. It's also worth noting that these labels aren't that new (and the hubbub is all in the last week), so one would have to suggest Berman et al. basically goaded Alstrom into her post, and then fed the media fire. I do not personally believe that happened, just on the principles of Occam's razor. Brady Walen's Crafted blog makes a nice point that, regardless of the intent, being polarizing is often good for business. However, commenter Matt points out that if you're all hype and no quality, no stunt will work for long.

The first commenter, Sud Savant, brought up a point I want to press on a little bit. His suggestion - with which I totally agree - is that it is very weird to focus on these labels when there are so many other, more sexist ones to which we could point. Sud suggests the macros (always an easy target for chauvinism), but one can do within our beloved craft beer, as well. One commenter on Alworth's post assured me there was lots of outrage, and all I can say is, as someone who's written about this specific niche for a year and change now, I've rarely heard it. Instead, one personal attack and some local media and it feels like everyone's going after the wrong person for the right reasons.

To demonstrate what I mean, I'm going to use a new example from an artist I like a lot, both personally and professionally, and it's from The Fegley's Brew Works, a brewery that used to be my local brewery:
I do like the use of a QR code. Also, that's not a knuckleball grip.
See what I mean?

If you're going to find a beer label offensive, degrading, sexist, or whatever, can we start with the thousands of obvious examples? This has a ridiculously figured blond-haired "woman" with cameltoe and enormous breasts pouring out of a stretched baseball outfit. Her measurements make Barbie look feasible. It is not poorly executed, but I think one can be forgiven for finding it a demeaning and even disgusting portrayal of women.

One could also say that it's just fun and games and I'm taking beer labels too seriously. I'd be up for that debate. In fact, I think that would be great for craft beer, to have a real debate about what is all in good fun and what is not. Instead, we have sanctimony fueled by personal grudges. Yes, I know that a woman can still produce sexist work, and the fact that there are worse things does not make bad things okay, but isn't it fair to ask why, when there are many, many, MANY labels like this showing up in craft beer, we are choosing to focus on one female artist who is drawing realistic women in a not-particularly-sexualized way?

July 9, 2011

3Floyds Gets Scary and Violent

Been a while since we looked at some label art. I don't know about you, but after all the debate over whether Clown Shoes is tasteful and what exactly is sexist, I could stand to look at some hardcore art this fine weekend. Let's check in and see what the always-aggressive 3 Floyds has been up to.

First, new art for the Arctic Panzer Wolf. You may recall the old art, which was a dark blue Red Sonja -style piece:
Here's the new:
Well, that's intense, all right. Definitely less Arctic Panzer, more Wolf. I actually don't like it as much. Yes, it's arresting and detailed and scary, but I just feel like scary creatures snarling at us have been done before. I like the text a lot, but to me it doesn't have the same evocative feel as the old art.

Next, some art for the Evil Power, a collaboration between 3 Floyds and the metal band Lair of the Minotaur.
You may recognize the style as belonging to one Phineas X. Jones, whom we have seen before working with 3 Floyds brewery soulmates Half Acre. There are more detail stills on his site, so I'll just use the one of the gun-toting minotaur:
Of course it's a mess compositionally, but it's supposed to be. It's just a mass of dark, heavily armed people and creatures fighting. Lots of detail to be unearthed the more you look at it, and it is a collaboration between a heavy metal band and a hard-edged brewery, so perfectly appropriate. Definitely fits the branding, though I wonder how closely it evokes the Imperial Pilsner that it represents.

Last up, let's look at another orgy of violence brought on by a metal band, the Amon Amarth Ragnarok.
More detail comes from the blog of tattoo artist Tim Lehi:

As you can see, a nice array of gory slaughter. Ragnarok is supposedly sort of like the Norse apocalypse, a preordained series of events, including a massive battle where lots of people and gods die. This is another great example of the increasingly common overlap between tattoo art and craft beer. It makes some sense that these two forms, both considered countercultural only recently respected as legitimate art/craft, would find some common ground. Also, the best tattoo artists are great at intricate, psychologically evocative works on limited canvas space, so their skills are a natural fit for label design.

July 6, 2011

On Clown Shoes, Sperm Label Art, and Selective Outrage

So much of the craft beer punditocracy became embroiled yesterday in a discussion about label art. Specifically, sex and sexism in label art. Generally, a reader of this blog might think I would I find that a positive thing, and in some sense I do. The problem, however, was that the discussion was started not as a serious debate over what is appropriate, but as what looks a lot like a personal vendetta by Candice Alström, one of the founding family of Beer Advocate and its renowned message board, against Clown Shoes Brewing Co.

She started a post that she was "done" with Clown Shoes, because she found the label art sexist and crude. Strangely, she pointed to a new label for a beer called the Lubrication. Take a look:
Okay, here's some of what Alström said:

Granted I didn’t find this one nearly as bad as Tramp Stamp and Brown Angel. But on Twitter, the first thing people pointed out about it was the “dong.” Of course the title of the beer is gross with that in mind. And with this Clownshoes being the tacky brand that they are, I have no doubt that it is all about the dong. 
I don’t get it. I don’t get why they have to go there to sell beer. We don’t need this kind of crap. Of course he can do whatever he wants, and I ask no one to agree with me if they don’t see my point of view here. I just don’t think we need to go there to sell beer. If these beers were any good, he wouldn’t need to go there to try and sell it. They are average at best and these dumb labels do nothing to help/change that.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you may recall that Clown Shoes' art, by Stacey George (a woman), won the poll on this site for the best art of last year, and I too find it excellent. So, unlike Alström, I do not come to their art thinking of crudeness and sex. But, even if I look for it, I don't really see it here.

Stacey George sent me the original artwork, an homage to Ed Ruscha's gas station pieces:

For those of you unfamiliar with Ruscha, here's a piece of his:
Right, so you see what the artist is doing. There's a retro-futurism thing going on with the robot, and lubrication will obviously call sex to mind for some (though the label text assures us that it's more about the beer's function as a social lubricant). As for Alström's contention that the gas line is positioned to be a penis... I mean, I guess if you want it to be. George swears it's not supposed to be. But really, with everything going on on beer labels, this is what we choose to pick on?

You want to know what type of label art I find offensive?
That is lazy, chauvinist and insulting to the audience. It's not that I don't see how some could look at some of George's labels and see sexualized women; but to pick on a talented woman artist for a gas can and a robot when we've got a million Lil' Lady's Horny Devil Cleavage Ale out there suggests to me that Alström, rather than a legit argument to make, simply has a bone to pick with Clown Shoes.

Fortunately, the commenters on BA showed some sanity in their complaints, arguing that a non-Alström who had posted the same thread would have had it deleted instantly. The post was locked after 325 comments with a somewhat opaque last word by Jason Alström. If you want, there are links to everything (including Clown Shoes owner Gregg Berman's sarcastic response), as well as a very intelligent comments conversation happening over at Beerpulse. Also, George has written an eloquent response on her blog, pointing out that offensiveness is entirely subjective, that the Brown Angel art was partly inspired by Do The Right Thing, and that the German for "tramp stamp" translates roughly to "ass antlers."

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think there are some great debates to be had over whether and what art - especially that sexualizing women - is tasteful on craft beer labels. Hell, who would love that debate more than I? But the journalist and beer lover in me also feels like, if one has a beef with a brewery, they should just say so, rather than deciding to hide behind some faux-critical stance. And to use one's message board for a purpose that one would not allow to others is just hypocrisy (a vice which Larry Flynt calls the "greatest threat to democracy" in my friend's interview. Yes, that was a plug).

Particularly strange, to me, is that this comes up around the same time as the release of one of the most bold (and potentially off-putting) labels I've ever seen in craft beer:
Now, the B and W Bros have already gone to town on this label, by the very creative folks at Smuttynose. But this is just a reminder that when people get worked up over a robot (or, earlier, a woman in pleasure), that's a good sign there's a personal thing going on. If we're really concerned about a beer projecting an image of something one might not find appealing... there's sperm on this label, and in case that wasn't disturbing enough, the sperm have heads of real people.
What is a Homunculus? There are several different definitions that come from psychology, alchemy, and preformation. The word itself is Latin for, “little human.” As you can see from the label art, we were captivated by the preformationist usage of the term. The name was discovered during a brainstorming session. We didn’t want to call the scaled up brew by its original name, so out came the thesaurus. We saw “homunculus” was a synonym for “gnome” and the rest, as they say, was history.
I should note that I am not as put off by this label as many, partly since I (obviously) view the label art as a piece of branding and design that may relate to the beer, but doesn't necessarily suggest the beer's flavor. I think it's fun, goofy, and the faces make it clear it's a joke. Plus, it's Smuttynose... they do some crazy label art.

But to argue over whether a gas pump may or may not suggest a male organ, when we've got a label with sperm on it, or to suggest the name "Lubrication" alone is "gross"... well, I'd say that goes beyond selective outrage. We've got beers called Yellow Snow and Golden Shower. I think everyone understands what ingredients aren't in those.

Still, from a marketing standpoint, I think these bold gestures are probably best reserved for products that appeal to a core craft beer crowd. They're more likely to be interested in the product inside the bottle and less offended or made queasy by a label. For the Homunculus, a big beers series offering, that's obviously  the case, and for Clown Shoes, that appears to be their target market to begin with.

July 1, 2011

Session #53: Redemption Swig

Ed. note: There is no design, art or business discussion in this post. Sorry.

So this month for the Session, John Holl at Beer Briefing wants us to tell a story:
One thing about drinking a lot of beer is that occasionally you’re going to have a bad one. Perhaps it was infected or spoiled by light. Perhaps the brewer or brewery was new and still working out the kinks on a particular style. Regardless, you couldn’t finish the beer in your glass and moved onto the next one. 
His story is one of a Smuttynose, which was skunked or old and soured him on a relatively good brewery for nine years.

I'm sorry I misjudged you. Can we be friends now?
The problem is, mine was Smuttynose, too. The IPA to be exact. I had a bad one somewhere along the line and (this was before I realized the fickleness of QA that so many craft breweries face) I went several years before having another one. It was after one of the Design Drink and Be Merry exhibition openings... the first one, to be exact, when my buddy Shaun and some guys from Bullfrog were down for the opening. We went out afterward to a great local pub, The Ugly Oyster, and everyone was pleased to find Smuttynose IPA on draught for $2.00 a pint.

Everyone but me, of course.

When I voiced that opinion, Shaun, Koch and the crew stared at me like I was an idiot. Then Shaun called me an idiot. So I ordered a Smuttynose IPA and found an enjoyable bouquet of citrusy, hoppy deliciousness.

Great story, right? Okay, fine, here's one I bet no other Sessionista will throw out this month.

I was in Egypt at the end of 2010. Glad I went, because I think travel there will be dicey for a while. And let me say, it was a great trip to what I found to be a wonderful country with some truly first-rate people.

No, not that Stella.
They do not, however, do beer well.

Despite its rich brewing history, modern beer in Egypt was ranged from undrinkable and dangerous for a while, and then was deregulated in the 1980s and is now merely terrible. It has two main beers, both made by Heineken, and both bad on a level even a Bud drinker would find unappealing. I have been known to enjoy an Old German or a Genny Cream Ale in my time, but Egyptian beer did not cut it.

It's also hot in Egypt, as you may have heard, leading one to crave a decent beer after a week or so.

Yes, that's Akhenaten.
About 10 days into the trip, we're our Nile boat coming back down from Aswan, and the guide book tells us that there is a large expat population in our next stop, Luxor. This population apparently supports a true British-style pub, the King's Head. At this point, the prospect of even a mediocre beer was enough to drive me straight there.

On draft I found no Fuller's, no Bass, not even a Stella Artois on draught. They may have had Guinness, but trust me a nitro stout was not on the docket for me that day.

They did, however, have Heineken, which I ordered along with a pizza I dared to hope would be thoroughly mediocre (it was).

I got my large, cold, glass of Heineken from the tap, and took a sip.

It was, arguably, the most delicious beer I've ever tasted.

So you see, redemption is often just a matter of context.