August 31, 2011

On Bohemia's Frida Kahlo Packaging, and Communicating with Craft Beer Markets

Okay, so two months ago, I got a press release from Heineken-owned Mexican beer Bohemia. They unveiled some new packaging celebrating Frida Kahlo. It was interesting, celebrated an artist, and they did this very cool contest through Facebook (a nice social media campaign) for artists, with a panel that included Kahlo's grand niece and a curator from El Museo del Barrio in New York.
Ernesto Camacho, who won first place in that contest.
Now, I am a fan of Frida, a fan of celebrating art and artists, and, from my time in Mexico, even a bit a fan of Bohemia. As the big cervezas go, it's right behind Pacifico and Montejo as my order of choice.  I was also interested, from a business and branding standpoint, in the effort to market this Mexican beer in the states, using a Mexican artistic icon. They are in some tough territory, but I was intrigued. So I sent an email and asked to have a conversation with some of the creatives behind the packaging. The PR firm, Formulatin, has an interesting niche.

I was told to put my questions in written form and send them. So I did. Then I waited.

And waited.

A few days ago, and about a month after I gave up on hearing from them, I got responses to my questions. I wrestled with what to do with them, but I decided to post them, because I think they illustrate why craft drinkers have such skepticism of large macro-owned beers.

It's worth pointing out that these are basically unsigned, so I have no idea who wrote them. I've made no changes, but I've italicized some lines I thought were especially valuable.


If Formulatin is handling PR, what designer/firm handled the packaging, and what was the process like?
We wanted to make sure we captured the essence of both the Bohemia brand and Frida Kahlo, and Design Bridge in UK helped us accomplish this with their design. In order to maintain Bohemia’s inspiration and respect of Mexican folklore, we used hammered gold, metallic cream, and brown tones for the thematic labels which are inspired by the colors of Aztec tradition. We incorporated Mexican symbols, like flowers, hummingbirds and monkeys that are also often found in Kahlo’s artwork. The neck labels of the exclusive 12 oz. bottles prominently and tastefully feature Frida Kahlo’s face and stylized signature. We used a similar motif and color palette for the six-pack carton, however, Kahlo’s image and favorite Mexican icons are placed within a piece of papel picado, a traditional hand-carved tissue paper.

The first line of the release said this was in part to celebrate Kahlo's 104th birthday, but your email suggested that was more of a timing element than an inspiration... how did Bohemia decide to focus on Frida for this project? 

Prior to identifying Frida Kahlo as an appropriate platform, we asked ourselves, “What is Bohemia?” We see it is a “bohemian” brand, one often associated with art and an open mind. Of course, as a Mexican icon, many of us are fans of Kahlo’s art. In addition, we discovered that Frida, herself, was a fan of our beer, which is evident in a picture of her sitting at a table surrounded by family and enjoying a Bohemia. 

With this special edition of Bohemia, we toast to her passion for excellence, leadership and her love for Mexico. We launched the packaging in Mexico last year to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of Independence and after its success, we wanted to allow art and beer connoisseurs in the U.S. to celebrate Frida Kahlo’s legend with us as well. 

Celebrating an artistic Mexican icon in the United States is an interesting choice. How does it fit within Bohemia's larger US strategy? What do you think is Bohemia's niche within imported beers (perhaps other imported Mexican brands owned by Heineken Intl). 

Bohemia has tremendous potential among general market consumers who look for a unique taste. Although it is owned by a macro-brewer, Bohemia is made in a Mexican micro-brewery with imported hops from Czechoslovakia. These elements give the beer a craft-like texture, similar to European brews from the region Bohemia is named after. Considering Bohemia celebrates the art of brewing in each bottle, the brand needed to create a platform that reflected this characteristic, while still remaining true to its Mexican heritage. 
The monkey looooves Bohemia.

Frida Kahlo is a Mexican icon who was not only unique but was known for her craft. When we found that there was an incredible awareness around the “Frida Kahlo” brand, not only among Hispanics, but across all cultures, it made sense to partner with Frida Kahlo estate. To announce the relationship between the brand and the artist, Bohemia launched the Frida Kahlo Challenge: an art contest searching for the next surrealist artist. The contest lived on Bohemia’s Facebook page, where entries were shared with fans, as well as historical information about Frida and Bohemia. This initiative set the stage to unveil the commemorative packaging, while aligning Bohemia to an art platform.

How did Bohemia select the markets where the packaging would be available?
The Bohemia Frida Kahlo packaging will be available throughout key U.S. markets such as Ariz., Calif., Colo., Ill., Nev., N.M., N.Y., Texas and Washington. We are distributing the limited edition bottles in the same markets we currently distribute Bohemia. These markets represent our strongest distribution channels, selected to reach consumers efficiently and give as many people as possible the opportunity to enjoy the beer and its new limited edition packaging. 

Particularly since my readership is largely a craft beer one: How does a brand like Bohemia walk the line between selling beer and selling packaging (a common criticism of macro-owned beer brands)? More generally, I suppose I'm asking about how a large company looking to grow a brand in the US market tries to maintain authenticity.

For Bohemia, it is more than just the packaging. The relationship with the Frida Kahlo estate allows us to bring to life an art platform that is of interest to beer and art aficionados across the nation. More than just primary and secondary packaging, adults 21 and older can obtain booklets at retail locations featuring some of Kahlo’s daily inspirations and illustrations that allow consumers a glimpse into her “bohemian” world. Restaurants and bars will also display Frida thematic table tents, coasters, and specialty glassware. The Frida Kahlo experience was designed not to overshadow or take away from the product itself, but to align with a name that emphasizes the brand’s authentic and unique characteristics.


Salma Hayek is awesome.
If that read like a long press release to you, you're not alone. There is some good information there, but it's drowning in marketing speak and talking points that, to my eyes, come off glib.

And I think this, in and of itself, is actually valuable.

I read a post by the great Jack Curtin that asks whether the growth of private label beers and macro-craft labels like Blue Moon is a threat for the industry. And that's a good question, but part of what craft beer people love about craft breweries is the personal connection. Whether it is the feeling that we know the owner from a night in the brewpub, or whether we just feel we know Sam Calagione or Carol Stoudt as ambassadors for our cause, there's a feeling that craft breweries, in general, care about their consumers. Even the rock star large craft brewers talk endlessly about their process and goals and feelings, and we like to believe we can feel the passion. If they do say something we perceive as insincere, we get very offended.

Bohemia's firm sent an email to me, I responded, and in so doing I tried to ask interesting questions about strategy and direction. Two months later, the unattributed response I got back tried to convince me that Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma, with it's 3 gigalitres of production (8.5 million barrels) is a microbrewery (that's about twice as large as Sam Adams and Yuengling combined), but more importantly seemed to avoid delving into the nuts and bolts of the process and challenges.

I get that this is how marketing reads in the corporate world; I've written stuff just like it. Generally, the mission is to stay positive and upbeat, no matter what, like a politician. But when someone asks you about your niche in the industry, or walking a tightrope of competition in new markets, and you respond with more stuff about your Facebook page and collateral material, that answer's not going to be satisfying. Part of good marketing is understanding your audience, and the people at Bohemia wouldn't be the first to miss the mark when it comes to translating values for a craft beer audience.

This is a very cool project, and I think Bohemia and Design Bridge have produced some cool design for it. My guess is the people involved are smart and interesting. But if they're planning to play in the "premium" space in beer, they're going to run into the fact that this market prizes authenticity. Craft drinkers pay for a personal connection, and it's tough to get there with ad copy.

I expressed my disappointment to the folks at Formulatin, and I said I'd love to talk with them if they ever want to have a general conversation about marketing Mexican brands to the vast Latino market in the States. Hopefully I'll get a chance to have that talk.

August 27, 2011

On Funkwerks, Māori Symbols, and Cultural Appropriation in Branding

So, a couple weeks ago, Fort Collins, CO's Funkwerks submitted a label for approval to bottle an imperial saison they call Maori King. The label looks like this:

The Māori people are an indigenous group, numbering almost 700,000, of New Zealand. I believe the best term for the design you see is a kirituhi, an image derived from the Tā moko tattooing from the Māori traditions. And if I have that wrong, it is because I, like Funkwerks co-owners Gordon Schuck and Brad Lincoln, basically didn't know anything about the Māori until 24 hours ago. Having had several friends who have been to NZ, I knew the correct pronunciation and that the indigenous group existed, but not much more.

One thing I did not know, for example, was that they have a king, named Tuheitia. Or that a label like this would spark an enormous amount of outrage. And, as with all such kerfuffles, it is tough to make out exactly how this went wrong.

Several things do seem clear, though.

First, the brewery did not intend to offend anyone. Of course they didn't. No brewery, let alone one with a good reputation, makes a practice of intentional offense. The name was conceived by brewery spokesperson Jean Parker-Renga, who told the New Zealand Herald it was in honor of the Rakau hops (a not-uncommon varietal with NZ roots) used in the beer. So, when Lincoln offered to send a case of beer to King Tuheitia and suggested he would probably like the beer, he probably didn't mean that to come off as glibly as it sounds. Schuck's statement asking for a dialogue seems incredibly sincere, to the point where his mention of his own concern with indigenous people's issues here does not seem in the slightest bit "some of my best friends are..."

Second, from the predictably ridiculous Facebook "debate," it is clear that the biggest divide here is not between jerks on either side, but between deeply seated cultural ideas, and that neither side is getting the other. I can not comment on Māori customs, but I can say that having a beer named after oneself here is pretty much an honor (unless you're a member of the Marin Institute or MADD or something). It's a good thing. I'd be honored, and so would most people I know. Being associated with alcohol is not a source of shame; heck, the current governor of Colorado started Wynkoop brewery. Clearly, though, that is not the case to many Māori, who see it as degrading. Even more, though, one gets the sense that even using the term and imagery for an outsider is deeply offensive to some Māori. The closest I can get to my own experience is if a group of non-Jews launched a beer using Judaic names and images, but that doesn't seem to get it quite right, either. Clearly, cultural appropriation of the symbology and likeness is itself anathema to some.

Third, people need to stop analogizing this to the Witch's Wit controversy of Lost Abbey. While there is a case to be made that witches were a persecuted group whose burning we should not in any way promote, even centuries later, they are not an indigenous group of a totally foreign culture, and this beer wasn't bottled for years before anyone raised a complaint about it. The Witch's Wit debate was all within one culture; we were speaking from different viewpoints, but of relatively common experience.This is very different, and the venom being put forth from the offended party makes me think that some type of interpretative common ground (which I advocated for Lost Abbey) seems very unlikely.

The only people defending Funkwerks are non-Māori. The very fact that every comment from Māori commenters amounts to "screw you, American jerks" means that either every person commenting is just an anti-American racist, or (more likely) that this is such an obvious affront to them that they literally can not conceive of how we wouldn't get that. The fact that we are totally mystified at the unanimous ferocity of their response (there is nothing overtly negative about this label!), shows that, yeah, they don't get it from our side, either. Some interpretative text and a donation to a NGO seems unlikely to fix this one.

I reached out to a friend who's a teacher in New Zealand for her thoughts, and I think it's worth sharing a few of them with you:
...One of the things about the Maori people is that they feel that any and all things to do with their culture is "tapu" (or sacred and untouchable) to all other cultures. They hate anyone appropriating Maori images or words in any context, and they make huge deals about it when that happens. However, they are such a small group of people in a tiny country on the other side of the planet that it seems unreasonable to expect people to know that... Yet the Maori seem to take it as a given that everyone knows that anything to do with Maori is sacred and cannot be used except by Maori.
The friend went on to note that plenty of Māori-themed things, from images to jade, are available for sale in various tourist outlets in NZ, so one could be forgiven for not immediately understanding what is and isn't untouchable to an outsider. Also, due perhaps the understandably insular culture, it's apparently not even clear to people in NZ what the Māori expect and want from other cultures. The whole thing, again, indicates to me that there is a vast divide of cultures here, and that one needn't understand it fully to acknowledge that it is real.

So, that said, there's really only two options for Funkwerks:
  1. Pull the name and label. This doesn't have the brand status of Witch's Wit, so the only costs are a redesign. The label hasn't even been approved yet. 
  2. Keep the label and name. They probably weren't selling much in NZ, and I'd be surprised if many Americans found the name offensive. A few will know about this controversy, but even the ones sensitive to it (like myself) will mostly understand this as a cultural issue which we at best have no real standing to adjudicate, even with our own dollars. The loss of actual sales - and even the probability of lasting brand damage - is consequently minimal. 
I think they should pull the label, rename the beer, and move on. Whatever risk they might have is minimized, and it's probably closer to "the right thing to do." No one here will hold it against them, and I'd really hope that most Māori - even the very angry commenters - would realize an honest mistake when they see one, and accept the correction for what it's worth.

That said, as of now, Funkwerks has definitely been the more civil of the two sides, and if they choose not to cave to a bunch of people baselessly calling them racists and pigs, well... I can kind of understand that, too. I don't see the percentages in it, but stronger things have been done for pride, and again, the real downside to their brand is probably minimal. Still, I think when one can avoid hurting people, one should.

Now would be a great time for someone way more knowledgeable than me to chime in on the comments. Does this change your view of an otherwise progressive brewery? What would you do if you were them? At this point, should we even accept the premise that some cultural things just can't be used tastefully?

August 26, 2011

I Survived the Trail of Beers to Bring You the Best and Worst Beer Art of the Week

Well, beerfriends, I've returned safe and sound from the Trail of Beers, where we did hit 23 breweries in three days. There's a full wrapup coming on my new side-project, details to come, but I thought I'd share some of the art highlights here:
A mural at the Yuengling brewery in Pottsville

The last three pictures were all murals on the patio at Old Forge Brewing Co.

The Old Forge mugs are hand-crafted, with that awesome hanging device for display
More from Old Forge
The Naked Dove logo, in stained glass
Probably the coolest logo we saw
The bathroom hallway at Market Street in Corning

The Inn at Turkey Hill uses old farm equipment in artistic ways.

A cool clock at Berwick Brewing
Okay, onto the best and worst art of the week.

The bad this week is from a brewery I like, New Zealand's Epic Brewing. And it's not so much terrible as it is a cautionary tale:
This is why we do not put light, bright pink on a light gray background. It hurts the eyes. Seriously, I have to keep looking away from this post because it causes physical pain behind my eyes. This is like last week's Ancient Lakes label in the sense that it's a very easy mistake to prevent, and that it might seem small. But just like last week's, you are kidding yourself if you think this stuff doesn't matter.

Okay, now the good, and it comes from St. Augustine's Mile Marker Brewing:
This was in the running for last week's, and then an anonymous commenter on last week's post mentioned it. Now, that person could well be the owner of the brewery, but the piece is still good. It's a little Christian Riese Lassen or, even more, Wyland, in style, with smooth colors and a fantasy-esque color scheme. Yes, the font is a distorted Papyrus, but it's not as bad as some. The art is done by Mile Marker VP of Marketing and wildlife painter Mark Mueller. According to the Springfield Brew Crew Blog, wildlife is heavily tied into the brand and operations of Mile Marker:
With a name like Mile Marker and a sea turtle on their logo you might think that this brewery is eco-friendly. And that would be a good assumption since Mike and Vance plan to support many animal-centric charities. Spent grains will be donated to Diamonds in the Rough, an animal rescue charity that specializes in saving work animals — particularly horses — and nursing them back to health. They also plan to align themselves with sea turtle rescue agencies in keeping with the spirit of their logo.
Especially in a socially-conscious industry like craft beer, actions and sustainability are all part of a brewery's brand, and this sounds like a well thought-out branding effort, from beginning to end. I'll look forward to seeing more of what Mile Marker has to offer.

Teaser: Tomorrow, we look at Funkwerks and the dangers of cultural appropriation.

August 19, 2011

Best and Worst Beer Art of the Week, and Your Alma Mater Brewing Co.

Just a quick update this week, as I am off on the Trail of Beers:
You are jealous, admit it
First up, a two bits of related news:

California brewery Sudwerk has launched a beer called Aggie Lager in conjunction with UC Davis. The brewer, Jay Prahl, is a grad of the Davis brewer's program, so it's totally appropriate in every way. It is noteworthy because, in the same week, LSU's new beer, the Bandit Blonde by Tin Roof Brewing, was submitted for label approval:
I assume that even though LSU's mascot is the Tiger, there is some significance to the Bandit. While I think this design is pretty dreadful, that's not why it's here. It's here because I believe it to be a harbinger of things to come.

A private label beer is,  frankly, a huge opportunity for Division I athletics at major schools and, for that matter, professional sports teams. Sports fans will buy anything with their team's name on it, and that fanaticism is even greater for school allegiances.

At the very least, there is no reason more schools will not find a local brewer to produce a branded easy-drinking beer. What's more, schools, being technically nonprofit, can devote some part of proceeds to scholarship funds and give everyone a reason to feel okay while they drink. If you don't follow such things, college football is big business, and school's are looking for every penny. This is a big, easy way to do it. As for the hypocrisy of selling alcohol branded by a higher education institution... hypocrisy has not stopped them from jacking ticket prices while not paying players, so I think they'll get over it. If you're a fan, would you rather drink a cold refreshing brew made nearby by a local supporter of the program, or by a massive Belgian-owned corporation somewhere else? Of course, naming rights to beer could also be sold to Miller or NAB or ABI, especially at a professional level (e.g. Pittsburgh Steelers Black and Golden Ale?). Bold prediction: This will happen everywhere within 10 years.

Okay, art. 

For the good, we have two new pieces by Long Island's Blind Bat Brewery:

Okay, the first one I obviously love because I am a huge fan of Rene Magritte, and I am fairly certain this is  a reference. Even if I am wrong, though, it's a nice piece because it's simple, striking, inviting and cleverly suggests the lightness of the beer. A 3.4% pale mild ale, it's a beer even the General of the Glorious Session Beer Army could love. The second label, the Eye Chart Ale, is just a simple, clever label that does its job in a nice, minimal way. Memorable, striking, cheap to produce, and clean in design.

Okay, now for the bad, and this one kills me because I like their logo, and it's another session beer:
Okay, a couple things: 
  1. Papyrus is the new Comic Sans. Stop using it people; it just makes you look amateurish at this point.
  2. When you put something light brown on something else that's light brown on a background of light brown and gray, with gray and brown fronds coming up, no one can see anything.
  3. When you take that and put yellow lettering over it, it's like trying to salvage a plate of cold Chef Boyardee by covering it in mustard. 
I can't tell if Ancient Lakes was trying to take the dubious route of making it seem like their skeletal logo was hiding amidst barley and brown kelp fronds, but even if we give them that generous benefit of the doubt, this still fails miserably. Nothing's hiding, it's just unviewable. Nothing's distinct in the image, I have no idea how this beer tastes, and that yellow is actually painful to look at. They give us a crunched URL for their Website, which looks like they put even less work into that.

In all seriousness, this happens a lot; it is a brewery that decides it can not pay or barter with a designer for a few hours of work, and instead hands the job to an amateur with Photoshop or (gasp) Publisher. Of course I understand not every fledgling brewery can afford a firm or talented artist to do every label, but a few hours of refinement can usually be coaxed out of a knowledgeable patron for a case or two. For that matter, I know programmers who will knock out clean, basic Websites for $250, and some of them would do it for beer. Even if the concept is there, a small amount of time and skill with color manipulation would make labels like this look a lot better. One doesn't need a high-priced firm to make elements stand out and colors contrast, and whatever costs it might take, the damage to a brand from amateurish design can be far more costly. Put it this way: If it looks like your label was thrown together by an amateur, a part of me is - consciously or not - assuming that's how your beer was made, too.

August 16, 2011

So Much to Report, Including a Critical Look at the New AHA Logo

Man, lots going on this fine week, in the Pour Curatorial gallery and beyond.

First, a big hearty cheers to our friends overseas who have shown this blog some love recently. Firstly, there is this excellent post by Allgates Brewery on beer branding. Then there is this mention by Pumpclip Parade's Jeff Pickethall, who is a critic of some of the worst art and branding of the UK's real ale scene (a pumpclip is a real ale equivalent of a tap handle, for US readers). Jeff wrote this excellent piece in the Guardian that addresses the issues of poor and tasteless branding in an eloquent way.
Best of the year, according to people.
  • Other good analysis in the recent flurry of branding conversation came from Mark Dredge of Pencil & Spoon and Boak and Bailey's
  • Unrelated but related, Lew Bryson noted potentially literal dilution of a brand by breweries who change recipes to get under the 3.2% abv limit of some states.
  • Nice breakdown by Adam Nason of the numbers from the Craft Brewers' Alliance. Kona is growing, but the recently rebranded Widmer and Redhook are not seeing results.
  • Apparently the Collectors of Canadian Brewery Advertising awards a best label honor every year. This year, it went to Springs' Olde Sailor IPA. I think it's nice, but not revolutionary. Still, one can see what's appealing about it for those who collect (and usually are more traditionally/ historically inclined)
  • The Brewers Association has unveiled a new committee designed to help brewpubs, particularly with server education. Given the mission, I'm a little puzzled by how many larger brewery names are on the panel, but it'll be interesting to see what they do.
  • The big news for me is that, on Friday of this week, I will embark with friends (including the notorious Jim Shan of Philly Beeraholic fame) on the Trail of Beers. It is a three-day tour of central PA and NY, hitting more than 20 breweries for visits. Day one gets us from Eastern PA to Ellicotville, NY via the Route 80/45 corridor; day two is the Finger Lakes and Ithaca; and day three is a descent back to PA through Route 15. It's an ambitious roadtrip, but will let us get to a lot of non-exporting beer producers in the area. Obviously, I will bring you the highlights, but if you're in one of those areas and want to meet us for a pint, feel free to shoot me a line.
Okay, our art today comes via the American Homebrewers Association, which this week unveiled its new logo. Let's look at both:
So as you can see, it's a dramatic change and shift in look. The old logo was much lighter and had only one graphic element, the grain sheafs, to go with a serif font and a (strange) MT Extra established date. The new one is a contained circular logo with less stylized grains more elements enclosed in a much more concrete form. Per the release from Gary Glass, Director of the AHA:
The new logo incorporates several graphic elements that represent the fundamentals of the hobby, including a hop cone, a barley stalk and a tall glass of beer, on a circular background that evokes the shape of a bottle cap. The AHA staff and our graphic design team worked hard on this redesign, and we're thrilled with this new visual representation of the AHA, our members and the broader homebrewing community.
First, the bad: I'm not in love with the whole bottle cap thing. I saw a gear, which is already too common a motif for industries that do not use gears. The color scheme is the same brown-and-yellow/orange we see everywhere in craft beer. It's not bad (and yes, I get the thematic links), but i'm seeing too much of it.

Now the good: The addition of actual beer things, like a glass and a hop, was important and necessary. It could no longer be the logo of a breadmaking store. Also, they've fixed that font issue. Most importantly, maybe, the new logo is much more versatile for merchandising. This will look A LOT better on shirts, hats, growler bags and tattoos bumper stickers. It's confined and definite, and looks like a logo. As an AHA member, this makes me look more serious and less geeky.

Mostly, that is the big point we take from this. Before, the AHA logo was one of a loose group of amateurs, a true grassroots (barleyroots?) movement with a governing name and acronym. Now it has the logo of a clear, defined, present entity. It's branded and ready to do business, lobby politicians and do whatever else associations do. This transition is a coming of age, graphically speaking. Most of what we want a logo to do is convey an identity, and the design team at AHA has certainly achieved that, turning the look of their organization from one of loose amateurism to one of serious and united craftsmanship.

August 13, 2011

Adventures in Label Shapes and Characters with Jester King

So one of the posts I'll be putting up soon is on the use of shape in beer label art. Generally, most breweries stay boring. They stick to the rectangle, maybe with an occasional subtle curve in the top if they're adventurous. Part of this is just cost; it's not feasible to do a lot of different die-cuts if you're small, because you'd have to redo your labeler for every one of them. 

Of all the US craft breweries, Austin's Jester King Craft Brewery might be the one using shape in the most interesting way. Their labels are generally composed of a central image in a circle, with a horizontal stretch that includes a couple panels of interpretive text, and that wraps around the bottle to meet the circular frame on the other side. Sadly, I have not been able to find the name of their designer.

Here's their label for their Commercial Suicide, a 3.3% session beer:

Label copy:
Oi! We’d like to think those punks who hung out in Stoke-on-Trenth back in the last ’70s listening to Discharge and Motorhead would have had a good time raising a little hell with this beer. This is our tip ‘o the hat to them, saying thanks for taking the shots and abuse that made it okay to dress the way you want, wear your hair the way you want and live your life for yourself and those you care about. Protest and survive kids…
So there's some clever punk references happening, and the guy with the mohawk is a bit creepy but generally well-done. Readers by now can predict that I like how his hair and chin overlap the frame, making him pop out at the drinker. He looks back to the left, drawing your eye to the text, and as detailed as it is, the image thrives with few colors.

Here's the central image of their Boxer's Revenge:

Having an image this close up gives you a sense of how the frame looks like it is aged or decaying, particularly on the right side. It is a subtle change, but - in addition to simply adding visual interest - I imagine it makes the point where the label wraps around a little smoother. This horse continues the goofy/creepy theme we saw above. Check those eyes out.

Here's Drinkin' the Sunbelt, their collaboration with Mikkeller:
Nice fusion of the Jester King shape, satyr and style with the familiar Mikkeller mug shot profile motif. Around him, the sun-like disc helps give the circle a sense of movement it might otherwise lack. We know that the reference to the mug shot is intentional in part because he's the only character that doesn't look left.

Lastly, a close-up of their Black Metal:
Right, so again with the the creepiness that is sort of funny. Here you can see they've played with the metal frame. It is still unbalanced and asymmetrical (awesome), but they've added a sharp, medieval character to the grayscale work that fits the theme and central character well.

All in all, they have a nice blend of detailed, well-drawn figures that go well with their label layout. Both are just different enough to be distinctive without being too weird or alienating, and both create a real brand for Jester King that clearly communicates the type of brewery they want to be.

August 12, 2011

The Best and Worst Beer Art of the Week

So I'm going to try out a new feature here. Every Friday, I will post a good and bad example of design from the preceding week.

First up this week, the good, and it's by New Albanian artist Tony Beard, whose work is an early contender for best art of the year. This is a propaganda-style poster for the brewery's efforts in Wisconsin:
Yes, it does say "Albaniana," which might be changed (though I like it). Nice execution of the traditional style, down to Art Deco fonts and the slanted banners for the text. The red woman saluting is neither scantily clad nor dressed in pink, but just a person who clearly like beer. Three colors, a play on an established style, and industrial distressed look all make this a nice piece.

Now for the worst of the week:
Oh, another sexy devil chick. Yay. What is it with breweries thinking it's always Halloween at the Delta Sigma Phi house? Look, breasts! But she's red, and has horns/a tail! And... breasts! Drink our beer!

Eddy and Iggy's actually has some non-terrible design, but I saw this and had to put it up as the worst of the week. Even if it wasn't just a not-particularly-well-executed retread of a tired trope, the name alone is terrible. First of all, that's not how you spell "scarlet," and there's nothing clever about spelling it incorrectly. Second, let's try to keep words like "harlot" from being regular parlance for sexy women, because the word means something specific. Third, she's not a prostitute, she's some type of devil or demoness. Did you really need that rhyme, or was there just no cute way to misspell "succubus?"

August 9, 2011

William Sleator: A Non-Beer Non-Design Obituary

(Ed. Note: Today's post is not about beer, as the title implies, so my beer and design-focused readers may want to skip it. I'll be back to my usual beer design investigations soon. I do see a link, however, in the fact that today's subject inspired a great deal of my general geekdom, which may as well be defined as the tendency to learn deeply about things on a systemic and detailed level, particularly if a complete understanding of that thing is practically or theoretically impossible. Whether learned or inherited, that drive is absolutely what drives me to dissect labels art and branding campaigns of craft breweries, and it was stoked in me at an early age by certain figures like the late man I discuss in this post..)

Young Adult Sci Fi is big these days. We've got Harry Potter breaking all sorts of records from box office to Barnes and Noble, and we can only assume these records will be broken by Katniss of the Hunger Games. If we expand the genre to include all things fantastic, shirtless werewolves and glittering vampires step in to remind us exactly how nuts the market is for Junior High imaginative drama. The genre is an enormous engine, enough so that it has been granted the ultimate designation: a chic abbreviation for industry insiders of YASF.
hotlinked from Onion AV Club

Before there were all of these, though, there was William Sleator. Sleator, who died last weekend at his home in Thailand, wrote YASF novels in four decades, spanning every sub-genre from straight sci-fi to critters and ghosts to The Cube-style sadistic experiments. Whether basing a book on a role-playing game or teenagers with strange abilities, his characters managed to resonate with young readers in that special blend of escapism and relatability that so delights fans of bespectacled wizards today.

As you might imagine from the fact that his obituary is appearing here, the young me was a big fan.

If we chart my developing geekdom, the first influence was likely Edward Packard (author of the most engaging and weird Choose Your Own Adventure books), followed by Brian Jacques and the talking rodents of Redwall. But my 4th to 6th grade was dominated by Sleator's strange universes and cruel people. The reviews, like those by The NYT and the AV Club, highlight his other gifts (as a pianist and composer) and his legacy more than his writing ability. 

This is the edition I read. Yeah, '80s.
If you want a quick look at his work, Adam Cadre has a good intro, as well as a defense of Sleator as an master craftsman of tropes. Interestingly, Cadre refers to the period that I loved as Sleator's weakest (though I was certainly reading things from prior years without knowing it). I actually think of his as a bit better than that. His moody, often repressed teenage characters resonated with us disaffected preteens precisely because of the way they did not show the emotion that we could tell was boiling under them. In this way, he is closer to a Ray Carver than a Madeleine L'Engle, depicting a noir-esque world of repression that only occasionally showed its hand when pushed to the absolute brink (as in The Duplicate or House of Stairs). His characters were willing to face down the weird and unknown, look wistfully at a girl (or, occasionally, guy. Though Sleator was gay, his books were not yet of a time when gay teenage characters could be written openly. Still, some of his best written relationships seethed with homoeroticism; if no one has written a paper on the sexual tension between the protagonist and his evil clone that chases his girlfriend in The Duplicate, I will be stunned.), and then try to move on carrying the damage that has occurred from the unspeakable things that they have helped transpire. In short, they are an adolescent's dream vision of him and herself as anti-hero.

Most of the obits note how, despite a strikingly film-friendly style and structure (limited characters, a lack of overwriting, the right demographic, snappy and innovative plotlines), none of Sleator's books were made into movies. Hopefully that will change in the years to come. If Sci-Fi writers are mostly considered after their time, one can only imagine how long it takes for a serious critical appreciation to find a sci-fi writer who wrote dark yarns for kids. Or perhaps history will largely forget him, just as it no doubt has countless other deserving authors. Art is like life; it is often unfair and good people with good intentions and ability get screwed by things outside of their control. If anyone understood that, it was William Sleator.

August 5, 2011

Dave Murray's Cubist Beer Art

Via Trendhunter came these insanely cool pieces byToronto artist and illustrator Dave Murray. Murray takes beer cans and bottles of classic brands and depicts them in a style that blends cubism and Pop Art:
A premium beer at popular prices!
Pabst is probably the best piece, art-wise, but I think they're all pretty strong.
How do you say "grrrrr" in German?
Lowenbrau's got a little more Braques than Picasso.
Not craft, but Sapporo is pretty good beer.
He has many others, from Steigl to Stella to 40s of Max Ice. They're available in limited edition Giclee prints for the very affordable $65, or three for $150. Yes, I will probably be purchasing one as soon as I financially recover from all of the Kickstarts on which I've been chipping in lately (Congrats again to Mike and Nate of Wildnerness Brewing). Maybe if we buy enough, we can convince him to do craft ones? Or a Yuengling?

You can see more of Murray's art on his blog here.

Also, this has nothing to do with Murray, but I saw this come through
Surf Brewery has a few beers with packaging, all in a similar style (black, one color negative outline), and I think this is one of the better ones compositionally. I just thought the look was interesting, and particularly could be valuable on cans if the text would be minimized/eliminated.

August 2, 2011

Pow! Smack! Whoosh! American Brewing Company!

One of the Seattle area's newer breweries is American Brewing Co.. If you clicked on that link, you can see their Website is hardly a monument to design, but I thought their first three labels were worth a comment, because it's a fairly good look at how to use a consistent brand and theme while incorporating differences for specific products.

Okay, we'll start with the obvious: PLEASE STOP REPRESENTING YOUR BLONDE ALES AS BLOND-HAIRED YOUNG WOMEN. Just stop. But that aside, it's not bad. The woman is fully clothed, not a supermodel, and the movement of the hair into her face adds to the swirling feel of the background. That background is the basic building blog of American Brewing's design, as we'll see. It may seem a bit overdone, like one expects Batman to be flying out at us with his fist outstretched, but it is eye-catching, gives us movement and interest with five real colors, and has a splash of difference with the hop chain in the top left. Details are helping: The sharp slanting of the bottom and top bars, along with the fact that some radiating beams overlap those borders, give it a dimensionality. There look like there are some readability issues with text, especially the tiny TTB info at the top, but one solution to federally regulated information is to pretend it's not there. The lettering in the swirling radiating lines is totally unreadable and needs to be fixed, but the color scheme matches the beer, and the star logo embedded in her shirt will be back.

One of their first beers was the Breakaway IPA (good name):
Less swirly, more striking, this gives the squat, foreshortened hockey player a nice hard-charging effect. No overlap on the bottom border except for his skate, and now we've got two (2) hop vines, to let us know it's a hoppy beer, I guess. Color scheme here obviously fits the name of the brewery, and here our star is flying away at top left like a chip of ice (or a puck he's missed?).

By the time we look at the label for the Caboose Oatmeal Stout, we can identify the theme as a major part of the branding. Color reflects the beer here, and the star is on the side of the caboose. The jagged radiating strips make it seem like a runaway, out of control caboose, perhaps, but at least we're paying attention. Top border is there, but almost obscured by brown bolts, and the one thing overlapping the bottom is curiously the UPC code.

On their own, they're not the strongest designs, and they overdramatize pretty mundane subjects, but together they form the basis of an identifiable brand that clearly communicates its products while keeping some design elements consistent. As anyone can see, that is not a given in the craft beer world. They need to fix some things with readability and make their website better, but this is a brewery we might keep an eye on to see how their brand evolves.