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.


  1. I like all of the Jailhouse Art save for the "Last Request" one. To me it isn't "unnerving" and "uneasy" as much as it is deeply disturbing. I understand that they can get away with the more mature theme because of the "hardcore beer-geek element," but speaking purely personally, I don't think I could bring myself to buy or drink something with that label.

    Congrats on all the work that is coming your way, and thanks for continuing to share your excellent writing.

  2. But like I said, isn't art supposed to be disturbing? I mean, pretty much all compelling art of any kind about capital punishment, from the movie Dead Man Walking to Nick Cave's The Mercy Seat, is disturbing. There is no powerful art of which I am aware that takes the position that killing someone is awesome and worth celebrating, but if someone knows of any (Rick Perry poetry maybe?), please share it; I'm happy to be proven wrong here.

    Of course, there's a difference between acknowledging disturbing art's effectiveness and wanting to consume it. I don't even want to own Eraserhead, for example.