December 4, 2012

The Best and Worst Beer Art of November

25 pages of labels on Beerpulse for the glorious month of my departure from my 20s, and there were some doozies. The best of the month, though, was probably in the area of minimalism.

For example, Just Beer had a couple new labels. The Horseneck is, I believe, actually a tweak of an earlier label:
Just Beer Horseneck Golden IPA label design
Nice permutation, just adding some hop vines to the interior of the horse head, but it's overall a very strong piece in one color. I also have a soft spot for those courier-esque fonts.
Just Beer Lump o Coal Porter label design
I love this label. The simplicity of the pint glass silhouette, the shading on the lump of coal, the dripping of, presumably, delicious porter into the glass... it all shows how you can make a great, striking label with no bells and whistles. Big fan.

(ed. I originally forgot to add these two labels, which I just like for simple cleverness and use of text. The first is by Just Beer, the second by Austin Beerworks)

Both solid and effective use of text.

Also, the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert has released labels for their big bottles. First, here were their old ones:

Fine, right, but nothing special. Mildly reminiscent of the Trappist labels, but a bit more designed. Certainly doesn't tell you that it's the only monastic brewery in the United States.

Here are the new ones:
Monks' Ale big bottle label design
Monks' Ale big bottle label design

Now that is a beer I connect with. Just the simple pictures of the monks from the monastery in soft black and white, with one color for accent. Classy, intimate, resonant... all of the things that make sense from a trappist-esque brewery. Awesome work.

Then we have the other side. 

City Steam Brewery, out of Stratford, CT, has a series of labels that might be best described as cutesy chauvinist.

The least offensive is the Innocence:
City Steam Innocence label design
I mean, okay, fine. Not really annoying until it's "recommended by lady librarians everywhere." I've known some librarians, and they are tend more toward smart, data-driven information junkies than large-spectacled  caricatures from some Bogart-wannabe's fantasy. But maybe they'd still recommend a stupid beer if it was really good.

It gets worse.
City Steam Blonde on Blonde label design
Oh boy, blonde beers represented by blond women. Never seen that before. "Oh, Mama!"? Really? That's the best flavor text we could get? Who's mama? Why are we exclaiming for her?  Because it uses hops like every other beer?

But wait, there's more.
City Steam Naughty Nurse label design
"Good for what ales you!" HA, GET IT?! Jesus. I swear, it was like they were concerned they hadn't used enough demeaning cliches. Sexy librarians, blonde beers, naughty nurses... Ugh. Full disclosure: my girlfriend is a nurse-in-training, so I'm a bit more sensitive to the portrayal of nurses than the average bear, but this is not a new or interesting thing, and it has nothing to do with making or selling good beer. The art isn't special, the ideas aren't original, and it's just kinda douchey.

Thankfully for City Steam, though, they are not the worst beer art of the month. Not even close. For that, we must go to Chefs in Black Brewery, a nanobrewery specializing in "high-alcohol farmhouse ales) in Iowa.
The Worst Beer Art of November
How many awful cliches can we get into one beer label?
First, we have an always-classy morning wood joke. Then we have an enormous-breasted, enormous-assed caricature of a blond woman holding a chainsaw. GET IT? IT'S LIKE IT'S A PENIS! WHICH SHE DOESN'T HAVE! WOOD! We threw in the tired "not just for breakfast anymore" joke so common to breakfast stouts, just in case someone would confuse this label with something original. And, for the number of times I have begged breweries to put artists' names on labels, I can't believe this is the one where someone decided to give credit. Congrats, Paul Schulz, you're responsible for the art that became far and away the worst label design of November, 2012. 

November 29, 2012

Big News From the Pour Curator

Hi there, Beerfriends.

So, a couple weeks ago, I teased a major announcement or something equally PRific in terminology. And I guess I'm about ready, since many of my readers already know about it.

A couple of times on here and as a commenter on other blogs, I've mused about the bloggers and homebrewers that "go pro." That is to say, they turn their passion into a livelihood, either as a brewery employee or some other paying role in the beverage industry to which we devote so much time.

Well, I'm doing it.

Early next year, I'll be launching The Colony Meadery with a friend and business partner.

We'll be creating bold and experimental meads (beverages produced from fermented honey) at a manufacturing incubator space in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

It's terrifying.

Also, awesome.

If you're interested in supporting us, we'll be launching a Kickstarter campaign after the new year. For the moment, you can sign up for our d-list on the page, or you can like us on Facebook to keep up to date with everything. If you've done this before and have advice, I'd love to hear it. If you're local, we'll continue pouring in pre-launch like at the Brew Works festival this weekend. Either way, we'll be trying hard to get delicious mead into your face very soon.

We're still in pre-launch, so we have a placeholder site. As for design... as you might imagine, I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so we're still tinkering. Fortunately, we have some time, because federal and state approval takes months.

As for this blog, this means that I'll have more time in the next few months to write every other week or so. Also, I'll be continuing to blog every so often for Men's Health and I'm also pleased to announce that I'll be doing a monthly column for the Gazette van Detroit on Belgian influences in American beer.

I'll try and keep all of this stuff separate, so as not to bore the folk that come here for the art, but I did want to thank you all. The success (such as it is) of this blog is one of the things that has given me the confidence to try this crazy venture. I hope to see you all at our opening in Spring.

November 19, 2012

The Curious Case of Budweiser's Project 12

This summer, Budweiser, the best-selling beer brand in the world, did something different. They called it Project 12.

"Project 12" started as an internal code name for the project, referring to the 12 US breweries operated by Budweiser (the flagship beer of Anheuser-Busch-InBev) and the brewmasters who operate them. Each brewmaster was encouraged to brew a beer that was not Budweiser or Bud Light or any of their other flagship beers. Instead, they were asked to create their own recipes. The only requirements were that brewers use the traditional Budweiser yeast and that the brews be equal in "quality and drinkability"to the flagship beers.

12 beers was a number that was "logistically difficult" to research for marketing, so the 12 beers were narrowed to six, and then sampled at events throughout the country over the summer in blind, unbranded tastings. The customers chose the three that ended up in six packs, which hit shelves this month. Each beer was identified by the zip code in which the brewery resides. The three beers that eventually won this crowdsourced contest were a golden pilsner from St. Louis (63118), a deep amber lager from Los Angeles (91406) and a Bourbon Cask Lager from Williamsburg, VA (23185).

A couple months ago, the folk at Budweiser were kind enough to speak with me about this project, which fascinated me for a number of reasons.

To begin with, one has to understand what a titanic brand Budweiser is. Whether or not one likes it or the product, it is one of the few brands that deserves the word iconic, and their beer empire has been built on a fanatical devotion to consistency and quality control.

As brewmaster Jane Killebrew said: "The hardest part of my job is to ensure that every Budweiser, quality wise, delivers consistency."

This is not a small thing when one produces about 100 million barrels of beer in different locations worldwide. And when one has a reputation for just that, I had to ask, why start trying to showcase differences in facilities?

"We wanted to celebrate both [the geographies and the brewmasters] within the context of the brand," said Killebrew, but she reinforced that was not the same as the breweries celebrating any type of individuality or difference. If that message sounds a bit vague and heady, you're starting to feel how I did.

"The differences are the personalities," Budweiser Vice President and Brand Manager Rob McCarthy explained. Those personalities don't showcase differences, though, when they produce Bud Light in different facilities.

So we have a product that is undetermined, and all that we know about it is that it will be under the same brand as the most consistent product in the world, and that product will really be a variety of three products, all of which are chosen not in focus groups behind closed doors, but by random people at blind tastings.

"We're kind of rolling with it," Killebrew said.
Budweiser Project 12 case design

If you were to talk to some people at big marketing firms and see how often they suggest "rolling with it" as an overall strategy for massive corporate clients, you would not find many instances. Which was why, at that moment, I had to stop and blurt out that none of this sounded like a big brewery at all.

To which McCarthy responded: "Exactly."

Lest you think Budweiser is being untrue to itself, I was told in no uncertain terms that the brand and company knows what they are.

"We're not trying to be craft. We're not trying to hide from Budweiser at all," Killebrew said. "Budweiser can never be a craft [beer]... We're a big brand and we're proud of that."

Fair enough. And I was also assured that this is in no way an attempt to convince a certain stripe of consumer that Budweiser is really a small brewery at heart.

"We know that there are a few that reject big brands. This is not for them."

Most product lines are launched from major companies after many months and millions of dollars in painstaking testing, focus groups, and strategic branding.

Project 12 is, of course, not doing any of those things. I asked if there were perhaps some higher ups in marketing or other departments that had voiced concerns about this. While no one on the call would go into much detail about it, it was clear that not everyone at Budweiser was in love with the less-controlled approach.

"This whole process started out as very collaborative from the very beginning, which was a bit of a departure for us," Killebrew said.
The team behind the Budweiser Williamsburg offering.

The use of a public crowdtesting process for product development seemed a big and uncertain effort more befitting BrewDog than Budweiser. But Killebrew did note that Budweiser's big seller Shock Top was developed through a "regional draft", a sort of limited pilot program to develop new beers. Those familiar with competitor MillerCoors might have visited the Sandlot brewery in Coors Field, where many beers are poured and tried by consumers. Some of those beers go on to nationwide launches under names like Blue Moon. So the departure may not have been as immense as one might think for Budweiser, and Killebrew placed it in a larger context of an increasingly bottom-up NPD (businesspeak for new product development)

"The company has really embraced, for new product development, that the consumer is really the boss," Killebrew said.

Of course, there's a difference between regional pilot testing and a nationwide bus tour with six unnamed beers for people to try, especially when navigating any corporate bureaucracy.

"Trying to get a group of people to agree on anything is a challenge," Killebrew acknowledged, but said the process has been helpful in many ways. "It's been a great way to get customer feedback,"

The rise of crowdsourcing (getting large numbers of individuals to aid in decision-making processes) has been accepted as a good way of building buzz and investment in the potential consumers, but it's usually for smaller startups and the tech world.

"The idea that Budweiser could do something like this.... consumers are open to it, and that really gave us creative [freedom]," McCarthy said.

There's also the element of competition, and encouraging debate between consumers as to which of the Project 12 beers they prefer. Not to mention, of course, the brewmasters who competed (and then collaborated) for spots in the final three.

"There is a lot of smack talk going on," Killebrew said.

Indeed, I had a few knowledgeable friends taste the initial six with me, and there was divergent opinions on most of the brews. One could consider that a negative, but a group of craft beer geeks disagreeing on products by Budweiser is in itself a sort of triumph.

The one thing I feel compelled to add is that everyone I spoke with about the project had a sort of disbelieving excitement about it, as if they themselves were not exactly sure how this had happened. Now, all the usual caveats apply: I'm just one guy, everyone was on the phone, people can fake things, I may be misreading, etc. But the sense of sincerely delighted surprise was very real, and they were aware of it. As McCarthy said:

"We're really having a good time with it."
Budweiser Project marketing piece


Okay, so I feel like there are two parts to this story. One is what I tried to do above, which is convey what Budweiser is doing, and how different it is. One could argue that even something like this is decidedly corporate, but I don't see how anyone could say it's not a gamble/experiment/departure.

The second part is analysis: Is it a good thing that Budweiser has encouraged - under the flagship brand - its brewmasters to express individuality, tie that to the physical plant where they work, and then release a mixed six pack of three beers that are at the very least quite distinct from Budweiser.

Before we get to that, some notes:

  • Original packaging concept work was done by New York firm JKR, and then finished in-house. For what it's worth, I think it's solid if not great. It definitely makes it appear as a limited-release, small-batch item.
  • If you're interested in seeing my opinions on the beers, you can see them at Men's Health here (spoiler: I liked the two darker ones, did not like the pilsner).
  • Here's how two of the beers poured in non-publicity stills. I have to say, the images Bud released are fairly accurate visually.

Budweiser Project Pilsner (St Louis)Budweiser Project Amber Lager (LA)

Okay, so is this a good idea?

First, this comes in the greater context of all the macrobrews getting more "craft" in their product mix, or at least trying to tap into the success of the movement. Fortune did a nice piece recently which had many craft brewers complaining that launching a product line and concealing its parentage (say, Shock Top, which does not mention its parent company of Anheuser-Busch-InBev) is deceitful. Obviously, this isn't that, but it goes to a deeper question in craft beer, which is if and why a craft beer lover must hate beer made by big breweries.

For a while, the party line was that big breweries make bad beer. This was why they were bad, because they deprived us of flavor and took up tap space with their big marketing dollars that sold an inferior product. I never bought this argument; of course macrobrews lack flavor, but many people don't want flavorful beer, and it's hard to call a business bad for meeting demand. Regardless, if they start making better beer and listening to consumers, then everyone who said this should start liking ABI, right? I won't hold my breath.

Some say that the big breweries are bad because they are big. This size leads them to consider capital above quality and costs about integrity. There has been plenty of arguing about what constitutes "big," but Sam Adams, the largest craft brewer, made a bit over 2 million barrels last year at plants throughout the United States. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are expanding to a massive new facilities in Asheville, NC. That's a bit of a hike from their homes in Chico, CA and Fort Collins, CO, respectively. Once a business has multiple facilities in different locales, quality control becomes the number one job of brewery employees, and arguably it does so well before that. Until we can agree on what "big" is, I'm not prepared to accept that a beer must be bad because the brewery that made it is so successful it needs lots of capacity. Also, that's just a really stupid argument.

These beers will not be ones I set out to find at bars, but I'm not really the target market. Arguably, these are aimed at Bud drinkers, trying to get them to branch out a bit. If that's the intent, or even the unintended effect, that's great for craft beer, not an assault on it. Just look at the quotes in the interview above; this isn't Bud pretending to be Redhook; this is Bud going a bit off the reservation.

Which is part of the reason why, though I kind of love the absurdity of this project, I think it's a pretty terrible idea for Budweiser.

The whole brand is built on a wonder of the modern world that is Bud's consistency. The brand stands for that one thing. The bowtie and script do not instantly mean quality of ingredients or flavor or even the fact that the beer will be "cold" (to which Coors has latched its train); they mean familiarity and reliability. A bottle of Budweiser in India tastes the same as it does in St. Louis. That's incredible, and they are right to be proud of that. But to do this rather strange messing with variance under the Bud brand seems like risky business to me. Why not do it under a different ABI brand? Go back and read the the very delicate tiptoeing that Bud  underwent with this project distinguishing between celebrating the brewmasters' differences and making it clear there's no differences between breweries. At the end of the day, it is really difficult to celebrate diversity and creativity while not sending the message that there might also be variation. That's a small risk for, say, Sierra Nevada, which still basically caters to an artisanal market, but it's a pretty frikkin' enormous risk for Bud.

So I'd be one of those muckety-mucks looking at McCarthy and Killebrew and going "I've got a bad feeling about this." But, since it's not my money and I don't own stock in ABI, I'm glad they did it. It could easily help grow awareness of different beer flavors, and I think it's a great sign that ABI is starting to become more responsive. Craft beer drinkers always asked for a more fragmented beer market; it would be a wonderful irony if it was Budweiser that helped bring it about.

November 7, 2012

That's Fine, But Who Won the United States of Beer?

So, as first reported on this blog, there was an election yesterday. Some guy won who had already won before, which probably gave him an advantage over his apparently synthetic opponent. It was a squeaker, because he only won by like 2 million out of 100 million votes, and a landslide, because he won by like 100 of the 540 electoral votes.

No one cares.

Well, that's not true. Plenty of people care, including me. But this is a beer blog, so here no one cares.

More importantly, let's look at who won the United States of Beer.

Here's how I'll break it down: There are 50 states, and I've broken them into five tiers. Each state in the top tier gets you five Beerlectoral Votes, each state in the bottom gets you one, etc. Each tier gets exactly 10 states, and the criteria are subjective from within my head, with lots of credit to Jay Brooks' collection of various beer political wisdom. I can assure you, it makes more sense than most congressional districts or the Electoral College. Here's the map of the election:

Tier 1: The Best Brewery States - 5 points each

  • Oregon - Obama
  • California - Obama
  • Colorado - Obama
The top three are pretty close to inarguable, I think. Lots of craft breweries, lots of great breweries. Obama cleaned up.
  • Pennsylvania - Obama
  • Washington - Obama
  • Michigan - Obama
The next three are solidly top tier, with many craft breweries and defined beer traditions. Again, Obama doing well.
  • North Carolina - Romney
  • Indiana - Romney
  • Texas - Romney
  • Missouri - Romney

These are all pretty debatable. Texas three years ago might have been bottom tier, but huge booms in Austin, San Antonio and elsewhere have really made it a great beer state. Indiana has some fantastic, interesting breweries and hosted the Beer Bloggers Conference. North Carolina has Asheville. Missouri has St. Louis, which has a great craft beer scene right under ABI.

Final Tier 1 tally: Obama - 30, Romney - 20.

Tier 2: The Contenders - 4 points each

  1. Vermont - Obama
  2. Wisconsin - Obama
  3. Illinois - Obama
  4. Massachusetts - Obama
  5. Georgia - Romney
  6. Alaska - Romney
  7. Maine - Obama
  8. Minnesota - Obama
  9. Kansas - Romney
  10. Maryland - Obama
Final Tier 2 tally: Obama - 28, Romney - 12

All of these could probaby have a case to be in the bottom of the top tier, but ultimately either don't deliver enough for their population (e.g. Illinois, Mass), or are still too small to have the density and diversity of the top tier states. Obama extends his lead, now 58-32

Tier 3: Upside - 3 points each
  1. Wyoming - Romney
  2. Oklahoma - Romney
  3. Montana - Romney
  4. Ohio - Obama
  5. Virginia - Romney
  6. Nevada - Obama
  7. Delaware - Obama
  8. New Jersey - Obama
  9. Nebraska - Romney
  10. Tennessee - Romney
Tier 3 tally: Obama - 12, Romney - 18

Here, I started giving major bonus points to the Jeff Alworth school of thought - that small states with more breweries than you'd expect are doing something awesome. So we see Nebraska and Montana and Wyoming (which, based on my GABF experiences, is responsible for a lot of great beer). We do not see New York or Florida, which both have good breweries (sorry, Cigar City!) but just too many people for me to be impressed with the overall brewery scene. Tennessee makes the cut based on Yazoo and more breweries than you'd think. Romney edges Obama here, and cuts the lead to 70-50.

Tier 4: In-betweens - 2 points each
  1. Idaho - Romney
  2. South Carolina - Romney
  3. Louisiana - Romney
  4. Florida - Obama 
  5. New York - Obama
  6. New Mexico - Obama
  7. Iowa - Obama
  8. New Hampshire - Obama
  9. Utah - Romney
  10. Alabama - Romney
Final Tier 4 tally: 10-10

Here we really start seeing some flawed states, like Alabama, and some good ones for whom there was just no room above, like Idaho and South Carolina. It's a tie, though, and that means Romney's cooked.

Tier 5: Some Work to Do - 1 point each
  1. Kentucky - Romney
  2. Arizona - Romney
  3. N. Dakota - Romney
  4. S. Dakota - Romney
  5. W. Virginia - Romney
  6. Arkansas - Romney
  7. Hawaii - Obama
  8. Rhode Island - Obama
  9. Connecticut - Obama
  10. Mississippi - Romney
Final Tier 5 tally: Romney - 7, Obama - 3

Not much to say. These states just don't have much of a brewery scene that's readily apparent.

OBAMA IS THE PRESIDENT OF BEER: 83-67 Beerlectoral votes. Axelrod and Plouffe really can win anything. Even if we give Romney Florida, he still loses.

Editor's note: This was entirely silly and a ridiculous exercise to get me blogging again. There are probably great breweries in low-ranked states to which I can't get access, so I'm going by distribution, Brookston's state beer pages (which probably became out of date almost instantly), GABF, and Internet research. 

It would, however, be cool if those of you who feel I've drastically screwed up, either in process or ranking, were to submit your own via Facebook or the comments. Then we could Internet-argue, and then not go into post-election Internet-argument withdrawal.

November 6, 2012

Cleaning Up the Gallery, and Looking Forward to Amber Waves

Happy Day of Elections, Beerfriends. Today we overthrow the government of the United States, and then go have a beer or two.

The last two months have been one recovery after another, from Great American Beer Festival to Hurricane to Birthdays, and beyond, and so the blogging has lapsed. No more. In the coming weeks, you will see here on these virtual pages the following:

  • An entire post about (gasp) Anheuser-Busch
  • A design look at the redone Website of the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
  • A major announcement for the alcohol-loving people of Eastern PA.
And, as they say, much more.

But first, I would like to look forward to an event in the spring hosted by two semi-local breweries, Dogfish and Victory. It is a pairing event, where they pair beer and art, and it is called (aptly, for today), Amber Waves:
Amber Waves Beer Art Event

Breweries submit a recipe, and a piece of art, both of which will be at the event at the CBC if accepted.

This is awesome, and while there is a tiny twinge of regret for me (I always hoped the Design, Drink and Be Merry show would grow into something like this), it is insanely awesome that these two breweries are doing it. I very much hope to get down to the event in March. More and more, we're seeing acceptance that art matters in beer.

Also, slightly sooner on the horizon is the Coast to Coast Toast, the massive day of Belgian Beer celebration by Vanberg & DeWulf. You can see what bars in your area are participating, or perhaps get a local establishment signed up. Of course, the Vanberg interest is obvious, but the reality of the day is less an overt marketing ploy than it is a day to celebrate the (still) unparalleled balance and complexity of the best Belgian beers. It is a GREAT opportunity for you beer evangelists to rope in some wine people who still think they don't like beer. Get them a Saison Dupont or a Posca Rustica, and see what they say.

All right, sorry for the short post after the long absence. It'll all make more sense in a bit.

Stay dry. Stay warm. Stay enfranchised.

September 2, 2012

The Best and Worst Beer Art of August, Including the New Renderings for Victory

Lots of stuff in the pipeline, Beerfriends, as I recover from a whirlwind August that included one of the best Musikfests I've had, a trip to San Diego, and lots of work.

But first, some art of the month. The first two honor my SD trip. We begin with the Ballast Point Indra Kunindra:
Ballast Point Indra Kunindra Label Design
It's an Export, or decent-size (7% abv) stout with a whole bunch of Indian spices. I had it when I was in SD at the tasting room and it was awesome. Did I mention I went to SD for a big Indian wedding? From a design perspective, what's cool is how BP unified their usual fish/sea critter theme with the traditional depictions of Ganesha, the elephant deity of Hinduism:
The eight tentacles remind us of the multiple arms and trunk, blending the two motifs well. They even get the soft, squinting eyes.

Next is a label that I just find amusing, particularly following a 3-hour flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Phoenix Sky Harbor:
Airways Brewing Company Final Departure Label Design

I mean, it's a bit silly, but I enjoy the self-conscious melodrama. Also, I just find a commercial-airline themed brewery to be fully of amusing potential.

In local news, Victory Brewing Company released renderings of its new planned facility in Chester County:
Victory Brewing Company New Brewery Renderings
New brewery renderings definitely count as beer art.
It's going to look cool, no question. But man, that is big. Remember when we used the term "microbrewery"? Good thing we got rid of that.

Okay, now for some bad label art. Our winner of this month's brewery to make the tired analogy to color of a woman's hair is... McCall Brewing
McCall Brewing Lemon Ginger Label Design
Get it? GINGER?? 
They get half a point for it being related to ginger, rather than just a red beer, and negative 50 points for originality and class. Also, that 2-D design isn't a great fit for a full-length view of a woman; it looks a little weird.

DuClaw usually has great label design. This month they have this:
DuClaw Bare Ass Blonde Label Design
I mean, we can let them off the hook because they obviously phoned this one in. And they get some points for not taking the obvious images of blond women or bare asses. Still... Why name a beer this?

Lastly, we have the folk at Bootlegger's Brewery doing a pretty bad imitation of a '60s psychedelic piece:
Don't get me wrong, it is not easy to do a good piece involving tie-dye, a VW bus, and bubble text. It always looks kind of forced and goofy, which is why it's really not a great idea to do it. And if you are going to use three tropes as a kind of cheap shorthand for hippies, you shouldn't be putting some very straight-laced serif fonts over everything. At least they're using QR codes.

August 3, 2012

The Session #66, and the Best and Worst Beer Art of July

So I've been off Sessions for a few months, but I want to get back on the proverbial horse, and this month's is fairly contained. Craig at DrinkDrank asked us what, if we could design our one perfect beer, it would be, assuming brewing skill and reality was no limitation. So here's mine:

ABV: 4.5 (so everyone would agree it's a session beer)
Hoppiness: Big and citrusy, but not cloying
Color: Ruby red
Sour: Yes. Bretts everywhere
Finish: Kolschy, round but crisp and clean

So it's a Sour Red Session Lagered IPA. If anyone makes this...

Onward, to lots of beer art. July was an interesting month. We saw some real ups and real downs from some familiar faces.

First, the good folks at Prism released the art for Love Is Evol:
Prism Brewing Company My Love is Evol Label Art

Very cool hand-drawn demonic heart that gets across the love/evol dichotomy. Font's a little hard to read, there's too much orange and not a big enough frame, but still great art. I like the rainbow referencing the Prism idea as the backdrop, as well. Quirky and distinctive, with some interesting and new ideas.

Then Prism also put this out:
Prism Brewing Company Red Zone Label

Hey, get it?! Red beer=redheads! Breasts! FOOTBALL!

Not quirky or distinctive or interesting or new. Just lame. Do better.

More good, from familiar faces:
Weyerbacher Brewing Company Winter Ale Label Art

Another new label from Weyerbacher, this piece combines the characters from other labels. We have the Monk, the scarecrow, and of course the Jester, all bundled up for the winter. That snowman is happy.

Jeez, man, playing favorites. Prism, Weyerbacher... all we need now is more work by Stillwater's Lee Verzosa--
Stillwater Migdal Bavel Label Art by Lee Verzosa

Oh. Well, ok. This one is brewed in Italy at Extraomnes, and it is a typically gorgeous piece. I don't love the dog, but they had to get the Italian brewery's logo in there somehow, and at least it doesn't get in the way of the crumbling tower of Babel. So awesome.

But did anyone do anything terrible? Well, we have this classy little piece by Hillcrest Brewing Company:

Hillcrest Crotch Rocket Label
Nothing says "craft" like using the word "crotch" in your beer's name.

How about more stupid frat-boy chauvinism? Thanks, O'so Brewing Company:
O'so O-toberfest Label
Oh, so you're an idiot. Get it?!
 But, you know, there's just not enough bad sophmoric puns there (outside of the caption). Can you help us, Southern Oregon Brewing aka SOB?
Southern Oregon Big Rack Label
When even your own moose is tired of the joke, it's time to stop. Just stop.
Whew, thanks for taking care of that.

July 15, 2012

Brewery Rundown: The Incarceration Art of Jailhouse Brewing

Greetings readers and beerfriends.

Another month goes by without a post, and I am shamed. I may have mentioned that I started a new job, which is a reason but no excuse. Still, I think I can promise more regular writing now that things have settled down. For those of you interested, check the end of the post.

But I'm jonesing for beer art, so let's dive straight into the work of Hampton, GA's Jailhouse Brewing Company.

Jailhouse's theme is pretty obvious, and they take a humorous approach to the subject that is generally more O Brother Where Art Thou than it is Rosewood. But criminal justice can be dark, and the guys in Hampton know it.

Let's start with the current artist, Carsten Bradley, who did the piece for the Prison Camp Pils:
Jailhouse Brewing Prison Camp Pils label

Bradley, whose work ranges from children's book illustration to brand design, has dome comic book work, and it shows in this label. It's a cartoonish, exaggerated scene done in an earthtone color palette. I think what is happening is that the guys are brewing in the prison camp, which I imagine would be frowned upon, and they were just discovered by the guards. Of course, it's pretty unlikely they'd be making a pilsner, since it's a cold-conditioned beer, but we can suspend our disbelief. Compositionally, the piece is well constructed. We've got the smoke and pipe forming a v with the brewer's paddle, moving the eye around the right side of the piece. The door in the left third opens into a scene set in a color that makes the darker foreground pop a bit. The guards coming to bust up the brewing apparatus are appropriately hulking, but fit with an overall piece that manages to avoid reminding us about actual prison camps.

Bradley has only done that label so far, and the only earlier artist to whom he could refer me was Jonathan Richter, an illustrator and animator whose clients include Hootie and the Blowfish and who did the label for the Reprieve Saison:
Jailhouse Brewing Reprieve Label

Obviously, a bit of different style. A much softer look from what looks like watercolors, and an appropriately peaceful scene. I like the way we move through the seasons from left to right, giving us an image that's both dynamic and serene.

Whether or not Richter is the artist of the other labels, they tend to be more in his soft, painterly mold than in the newer comic direction of Bradley.

Take the Misdemeanor Ale:
Jailhouse Brewing Misdemeanor Ale label

Similar in composition to the Reprieve, but less interesting compositionally. Instead of the name in wrought iron, we have a ribbon banner in the clouds, but otherwise the look is similar.

The Last Request barleywine takes the style and goes darker and up close:
Jailhouse Brewing Last Request label

This is one of those labels that starts to acknowledge the black humor of a penal system-themed brewery. The smiling face of the condemned black-eyed prisoner is unnervingly content in front of the guard checking the time and the faceless crowd in the back waiting for the execution. The fact that everything is out of proportion adds to the uneasy feeling of the piece, as do the black specks in the corners. Of course, one could raise some questions about the appropriateness of making light of capital punishment. Longtime readers will know my view on such things: If it would be appropriate on the walls of MoMA - and I think dark humor and satirical art would be - it should be treated with equal respect on a beer bottle.

From a practical perspective, barleywines are big beers often a little dark in subject nature. Because barleywines are so strong and appeal to a very hardcore beer-geek element, breweries can usually get away with some more mature stuff on those labels than they could on some of the more mainstream beers.

Speaking of dark, let's look at the Hard Time label from the Solitary Confinement Series:

Jailhouse Brewing Hard Time label

Annnnd... Jesus. Again, a barleywine, and a special series at that, so they probably wouldn't have tried this with a less extreme beer. But still. As rough as it is, it's effective. The one-color pencil-and-ink look does an excellent job of understating the disturbing image. For people like myself who believe solitary confinement is cruel and inhumane, this piece of art actually does a pretty good job of expressing why. Again, if you're one of those people that thinks putting anything on a beer bottle is making light of it, this crosses the line into insensitive, but I think that would be a tough charge to stick for anyone that looks at the piece for more than a second. Strong work. Off-putting, but sometimes that's what good art is supposed to do.

So that we end on a lighter note:

This label uses the hash marks in a more lighthearted way than the last label (though I suppose there's arguably nothing amusing about being denied sex). The redhead fits the old-timey look of all of Jailhouse's labels and looks straight out of prewar America. Again we see a limited color palette and a clever use of composition, breaking the image up into clear sections horizontally (certificate, peeking woman, wall). It's perhaps guilty of the redhead=red ale trope, but if so it does it in a fairly benign way.

This is one of those breweries where I think the art is fantastic and interesting, but I could easily see it crossing the line of taste with some markets. There are plenty who feel that the entire system of "corrections" is just not something for any type of light treatment. I think that by placing it in a historical framework, though, Jailhouse places themselves in fairly safe territory.

Okay, so I mentioned that I think I have a blogging schedule set up, and it will look like this:

I hope that will do a solid job of keeping me writing at a pace I can keep. I'll also have freelance stuff from time to time, I hope, and I'll keep yinz all posted on that as well. Thanks as ever for continuing to read and support this blog over the past two years. It's been a wild ride, and I couldn't be happier about keeping it going.

June 12, 2012

Lori Gilbert's New Look for Old Orange

Thanks to a comment on a recent post, I came across some new artwork for Orange, California's Old Orange Brewing Company by an artist named Lori Gilbert.

Gilbert's work, which you can see on her site, is diverse to say the least. For those of you too lazy to click or behind Pentagon-strength firewalls, her portfolio on her site is divided into the categories of "urban contemporary," "birds," "landscapes/seascapes" and "photorealistic." And the work in urban contemporary ranges from quasi-Japanese tattoo-like designs to a piece honoring the Los Angeles Lakers. Let's look at what she does for OOB:

The Old Dummy is an American Strong Ale. We see Gilbert's gone with urban contemporary, from the dripping paint to the swirling lines and medieval script lettering. Here's how the piece looks in a label:

Nice use of QR code there, though it just takes you to their site where, unfortunately, I could not learn about the history of the Old Dummy brand name, so I can't tell you much about why there's a train. I like it, though. The barrels are the only thing that seems weird. Of course there's no strict perspective, and the surreal/Escheresque thing work, but the beer isn't barrel-aged, so they seem out of place.

Onto the Thumb Master, an Imperial IPA:
Whoa that's a lot of red! This piece is like half video game, half old Communist propaganda poster. Again we have the dripping paint and snaking swirls, both used to great effect. This image is a bit cleaner, and I think the black backgrounds and accents really helps the design pop. This is the type of work that jumps out at you from across a beer store when it's on a bottle.

 Okay, onto the Pour Curator's litmus test for any brewery: How do we deal with the Blonde Ale?
So, yes, we used the cliche blond woman. Though we avoided all manner of terrible possibilities with the idea of a "backseat blonde" (Hey OOB owners: There better be a good reason for that name). This is consistent stylistically with the other designs, though, and Gilbert has kept the blonde classy (if a shameless waster of beer). Those who have perused Gilbert's portfolio know she is not afraid of breasts, but stays quite tasteful as a rule, so we see something similar here. Yes, she's an anatomically impossible Barbie Doll figure, but there's enough else going on that the piece stays interesting. The red trees, the text in the back, the design on her bicep, and the fragmented shapes in the lower right are all visually cool elements.

Last up, the Street Fair Kolsch:
Here, Gilbert has departed a bit and has created more of a straight street scene with some of her trademark swirls along the bottom to tie the design in. Nice shades in the sky and the hazy coronas around the lamps do kind of make it feel like a warm night where you'd love a crisp, refreshing Kolsch. The OOB logo in the bottom right is a tough forced, especially since it is probably better added as a graphic design element in the final label.

That may be, though, because the piece predated the label effort. Gilbert shot me a note explaining how she got involved in OOB:
This whole project started because I had an art show at their brewery and one of the owners, Jerry, wanted to do something really unique and different for the labels. The brewery is owned by four guys who all grew up in orange and they wanted to use a local artist for the full line of crafted beer!
So, it could be an adapted piece from before she started doing the lables. There a few images of her show at OOB on Lori's Facebook Page, if you're interested in the type of very non-threatening stalking on which geeking out about beer art thrives.

Nice work, and kudos to OOB for using a local artist. It's giving them a nice, defined look that I think matches their market pretty well and is distinct from their numerous regional competitors. Helps to have local talent in your brewery, of course, but there are talented artists everywhere, which is why there's really no excuse for having bad or even mediocre art on your bottles. It's a great way to launch a packaging effort and build ties to the community. I'll keep my eyes out to see if OOB and Gilbert continue rolling out interesting stuff.

June 6, 2012

Adrian Grenier and Justin Hawkins Discuss Churchkey's Return to a Simpler Time

Of all the breweries opening every week in the US, Churchkey Can Company has been the big story lately. Fueled by investment capital from Silicon Valley tech moguls and the star power of Adrian Grenier (better known as Vinny Chase from HBO's Entourage), the new brewing outfit, which has brought back the old-timey flat-top steel can, has torn up the e-waves with a media blitz most startup breweries can only fantasize about. So we now have combined an interesting brand, unusual strategy, venture funding, and a media strategy. And it's founded by a television star and... (wait for it) a designer, Justin Hawkins.

Has there ever been a more low-hanging fruit for the interests of the Pour Curator?

So when I had the opportunity to interview Grenier and Hawkins, I was excited. I may have been the only blogger more excited to talk to the designer than the celebrity, but there was plenty to go around.

What I found was that Churchkey is actually a few stories, and all of them are compelling in different, if occasionally contradictory, ways.

An Origin Story
The first thing to know about Hawkins and Grenier is that they are difficult not to like. And, at least on the topic of their new venture, they come off as genuine and engaged. It's quite easy to believe that this began, as the story goes, at a dinner party in December of 2010, where a discussion on the graphics of vintage beer cans left the two with a handshake and a promise to build a beer company that brought it back.
Grenier and Hawkins at their brewery in Seattle
"I think it started from a place of nostalgia and heritage," Hawkins says of the vision. And a conversation leaves one with the belief that he is the visionary, at least when it comes to pushing the idea forward.

Hawkins is forceful and talks quickly in sentences that have many clauses. He was on the line for the interview before I got there, and I am an obsessively early person. His business partner, on the other hand, came onto the line after about 15 minutes (he was at the gym) and speaks at the perfect speed for me to take notes. Grenier is more thoughtful and reflective, and his respect for the craft and brand is just as evident as Hawkins' excitement for it. It's pretty clear to me early on in our talk that is this study in contrasts that drives this company.

So where did this idea to bring the flat-top can come from, and why are they doing it?

"It kind of comes down to where we are as a society right now," Hawkins says. "We're at a great point where we can choose what we want our experiences to be."

There is of course the added sustainability advantage of steel, which is more recycled than aluminum. But there is more to the can-as-differentiator than that.

He continues: "We don't really make anything any more. We don't use our hands. We don't get our hands dirty."

This is kind of  a heady concept. We've gotten to a point where everything is easy. And so, now that we're here, we can actively choose to do things because they are harder. Hence Churchkey's tag "It's worth the effort."
It is hard not to think of Mad Men and the postwar nostalgia our nation is having right now. Even discussing it, Hawkins sounds a bit like Don Draper's carousel monologue when he talks about a longing for a time when things were maybe harder, but simpler.

It's certainly fascinating from a brand and strategy perspective. But one immediately understands the doubt. There is a fine line between branding and gimmick, after all, and craft beer is an industry of socially awkward bearded men concerned with specific gravity, not TV stars and designers talking about the visceral experience of using our hands.

Other than Grenier's name, the most common word used in the coverage of Churchkey so far is "hipster."

Now, that word, as Hawkins noted in our conversation, has changed a lot in the last five or 10 years, and has myriad meanings and connotations. But whether it's because of Grenier's home in Brooklyn, the throwback identity, or the way talk about doing something because it's harder walks the line between psychology and pretense, it's clearly something people see in the new company. So I asked Hawkins how he feels about it

"To us, it's a compliment in many ways," he says, acknowledging that probably not everyone means it that way.

"The term really came from the 1940s and 50s, with jazz and beatniks... I think it'll come full circle," he explains. "To me, hipsters, while they are trendy... they are also challenging the status quo in a way... they take things from trends to standard."

An Entrepreneurship Story
Hawkins was an agency designer before "getting interested in entrepreneurship."

The solo definition and design of a brand was a departure for Hawkins, who had little experience in the beverage industry at his previous agency stints.

"I'm used to working on a team," Hawkins says. He enjoyed the freedom of creating a business himself with Adrian, and its contrast to the groupthink that characterizes much of agency work.

The word Hawkins uses the most is "serendipitous," and one gets the sense that his wonder at the luck of everything is absolutely genuine.

He even suggests that an established brewery could not have made the bold choice to go with a totally different vessel, and that "two or three years ago, the flat-top can wouldn't work."

Of course, at the level to which Churchkey aspires, nothing works without someone making it work.

"We realized, 'holy crap, we don't know anything about beverages or the industry,'" Hawkins explains.

And so the Churchkey Team now includes CEO Ryan Sowards, a beverage industry vet.

"He has really taken the reigns and made this work really well," Hawkins says.
Sowards, Grenier and Hawkins.
Sowards, like many of the things helping Churchkey, probably wouldn't have been possible without the capital investment the company received from many Silicon Valley bigwigs. While many investors are not yet disclosed, CrunchFund's Michael Arrington is on board, and he is far from alone.

The decision to go to tech moguls for money was an inspired one, but Hawkins says that it was largely a "serendipitous" accident.

"We went through the stages of trying to find your typical investors and none of them really fit," he says, "We did not expect it to go so well."

I asked whether the investors were interested in the beer company as a real portfolio piece, or more as a passion project. The answer was that they seem to be a bit of both.

"I think that people who invest in beer are passionate," Grenier says, adding that "it's not a get rich quick scheme by any means... [I think] they saw an opportunity to do something a little different."

"I think it really comes down to: These guys are young, they love to do angel investing... and who doesn't want to be involved in a beer company," Hawkins explains.

Still, both Grenier and Hawkins agreed that the investors are not involved with Churchkey out of charity. It is a legitimate business opportunity, they feel, and the fact that there is a technological element may have made them feel just comfortable enough.

"Churchkey is really stepping out there and creating a new category," Hawkins says.

Again we are back to the question of whether a technology that is old, expensive and hard can be disruptive. But whether one thinks the flat-top can is a fad or a lasting differentiator, the reality is that the business of craft beer has changed, and the returns angels hope for are not as unreasonable as they once seemed.

For one thing, we have models for a big exit. I asked if last year's purchase of Goose Island by ABI for around $39 million affected Churchkey's conversations with investors at all.

The answer was that many signs of the industry's strength, from Goose Island to the booming growth numbers, all made the industry a more attractive investment space than it used to be.

Grenier acknowledged that "there's definitely a trend, a movement toward quality" and that "the craft brew industry has an upslope" compared to macrobrewing outfits, and that is fueled by a more aware consumer. "They want something that will enrich their lives," Grenier says of the

I'll make up some numbers here: Venture capitalists look for a potential 20x return or so, depending on the industry. A big brewery with media, etc. can be launched for $2 million. Assume you are an angel who drops $250,000 for 12.5% (pocket change ever since Google bought your algorithm three years ago). If the brand grows quickly and, say, MillerCoors buys it for $50 million in two years, you've quickly turned that percentage into $6.25 million, which is a 25x return.

each six-pack of Churchkey
comes with an opener.
So it's not a crazy investment, at all.

The next steps include a wider distribution, starting with New York City.

"Adrian has been clamoring to get the beer in his back yard," Hawkins says, agreeing that the move to the unofficial capital of hipsterdom will probably not lessen the association with the "h" word.

They are also working on apparel and beer shipping, an undertaking that will involve a robust website and a whole world of fulfillment and paperwork intricacies.

"It's a long road, and we're heading down it," Hawkins says.

A Craft Beer Discovery Story
Whatever else this unique venture may be (and it is unique), it is a story of how two men came to really love craft beer.

Churchkey Pilsner is a recipe developed by homebrewers Lucas Jones and Sean Burke, friends of Hawkins whose homebrew he enjoyed for years.

Hawkins says that the process of learning about beer caused him to evolve as a beer drinker. Early in the "research" phase, he noted North Coast's Scrimshaw Pilsner and some of the pilsners he had in Germany as inspiration for his palate, which was averse to hops. Now, Hawkins says, the same pilsners he used to like are less to his taste than some of the bigger, hoppier beers.

Grenier sees himself even earlier in the craft-beer-conversion process. His bio from Churchkey includes as the memorable beer experience:
"Drinking 40's with friends on a stoop, making fun of the yuppies who were going into some club that
wouldn't let us in, even though we wouldn't want to go in anyway."

"I humble myself to the educated palate," he says. "I'm trying to make it more sophisticated, but we're really lucky to have Sean and Luke."

The duo share a palpable sense of gratitude and respect for the beverage they now enjoy.

"I sort of took it for granted," Grenier admits about the beer he used to drink. "I guess I'm part of that movement because now when I order a beer... I want something [high-quality]."

"I'm just discovering it," Grenier says about his couple years of craft beer awareness, "and now that I have a lexicon to articulate it, it's become a lot more enjoyable."

And it is craft beer, make no mistake.

The brewing process of Churchkey is unique in the industry. It's brewed in Seattle, at their own brewery space, with six 60-gallon tanks. They share a wall with next door Two Beers Brewing Company, whose brewers manage production in the Two Beers brewhouse. Then the beer is fermented at Churchkey, and both breweries use the Churchkey canning line.

All future styles (the next will probably be an ale of some type) will be recipes of homebrewers like Luke and Sean.

"We really wanted to connect with a group of people who did something just because they were passionate about it," Grenier says of his and Hawkins' immense newfound respect for the work that home brewers do.

I asked if the two had considered contract brewing, still a bit of a craft beer taboo, but one that a brewery with major growth expectations would be expected to consider.

"We're open to doing anything we can do to get it to as many people as possible," Grenier says, with reluctance for the idea obvious in his voice, "but right now that's not in the cards."

Hawkins points out that it's not really an option, if for no other reason than no facility makes steel flat-top cans.

"It doesn't exist," he says. "No one has done this in 50 years."

Still, they are aware that almost no brewery struggles with demand as much as meeting it on schedule, and as much as production has already been an issue, it will only be a larger one for Churchkey in the months to come.

"The one thing we have that I think is unique is national demand," Hawkins says, which is of course a good thing, if one that requires the two entrepreneurs continue their craft beer learning curve.


It is of course possible that Grenier and Hawkins are slick men well trained by the good folks at Ogilvy, and that they are extremely charming and are relying on a set of skills (one is a trained actor, after all) to trick me into believing them.

But I don't think so. These are two guys who are deeply respectful of craft beer and legitimately happy and honored to be in business making it.
A can of Churchkey Pilsner.
The design is fittingly vintage-inspired, but still holds the clean look contemporary audiences crave (there's no paragraphs of looping script, for example). The logo of the circle with the openings is nice and replicable, and the blue is a nice color (Hawkins confirmed they would change colors, but not designs, for future styles).

Right, but what about, you know, the beer?

Of the two cans I got sent, one had been banged up pretty bad. This brought to mind an unheralded benefit of the steel can, especially if Churchkey explores shipping: They can take a beating and not explode or leak. This can had all of the carbonation and spit when I opened it.

Imagine an aluminum can like this.
Now, when I opened my can, I was not feeling like a beer. I'd been sick with a low-grade fever for a few days, and I did not want to drink beer. But I also needed to get this post up, so I went for it.

It was delicious. Seriously. Up there with my favorite US pilsners, like Victory's Prima Pils and Great Divide's Nomad. It's got a lot of hops in the finish, almost like a Czech style, and it's a very bold 4.9%. I would drink a ton of it.

Also, there is something really cool about it. It's got a heft and the opening is a great tactile experience. Maybe that makes me a hipster (especially if I admit I thought these were coming back about three years ago), but it is a really pleasant drink, which should matter in beer.

As a business, I believe it's a good bet. I think Hawkins is right that this is a phase of our society rather than a fad. I don't think that steel cans will return to dominate the market, but I think there will be a decently lasting niche for these cans, and I expect they will get interest from big buyers.

The price is comparable with other craft beers (recommended $9.99 per six pack), despite the steel can being a bit more expensive to produce. Hawkins said he didn't know if there was an economy of scale that could get the price down to that of other can lines, but my guess is they can get it close. More importantly, their investment means they don't have to worry about that right now and focus on building a market. Money helps you make money, and Churchkey's got it.

I know there are those who see a celebrity-backed "hipster" brand of beer in a gimmicky can with vintage design, and are scoffing. It's natural for those of us who cultivate skepticism, and on my bad days I can be pushed in that direction, too. But Churchkey is legitimate craft beer, and I think the men behind it are legitimately respectful of everything they are doing.