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The People and Stories Behind Craft Beer Art

The next time you are at your favorite tap house, pause and look at the detail on some of the bottles, posters and handles. Each one ties in the taste and a story. The imagery has become as much a part of the craft craze as the brews themselves. Even though these artists are pushing themselves to new levels and directing the flagships of their own breweries, there are only a handful of breweries in the United States that employ them full-time. Two are right here in Indiana. The Midwest has turned heads from craft industries across the country. The quality brews are blazing trails, but so are their labels' unique artistic designs. For the artists creating them, the process remains in constant motion.

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"I have been drawing since I could hold a pencil," said Shane Brown, in-house artist at Sun King. Brown has had a thumb on the craft beer pulse from a young age (he was a bartender at craft beer bars since he was 19, starting in Ohio). At the time he was completing a degree at Columbus College of Art and Design. Like so many artists, Brown quickly realized that mixology pays a bit more than hopeful sketches. He worked downtown at various craft breweries and bars, all the while sneaking in his artistic abilities when he could. He began doing chalk art to spruce up the daily drink specials or welcome signs. It was only when a friend--now one of the owners and Brewers of Sun King, Clay Robinson--stopped by his bar to chat about what would soon be an Indianapolis staple.

"At the time it was a top secret project, getting Sun King started, and Shane agreed to create a logo and get paid once we were up and running," said Robinson. "We kept creating more and more beers, our need continued to grow for art."

It became clear that to keep up with the demand, they were going to have to bring Shane on as a full-time artist. "The guys wanted to be the 'kings of the town' and have the brewery of the city," said Brown. Sun King was the first to truly mobilize the craft beer industry in the Circle City.

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Clay came to him with the name. He wanted Brown to base his drawings off of the Mayan Calendar. Brown made the image into his own character, transforming the four heathens to the four elements of beer. Today, there is not a Sun King can, shirt or image that does not have this Mayan face hidden somewhere in the design. For example, in the 99 Balloons poster the hot air balloon has the Mayan face.

If it needs a visual element and came from the brewery, Brown has had a hand in it.

"The branding of this brewery is everything to me," said Brown. Each four-pack of Sun King cans you might pick up on the way home or poster you may see at your favorite bar, shows just the tip of the iceberg. Brown has spent years getting his design routine down to a science. Today, he says it usually only takes him about a day and a half to make a new label. He is given the name of a beer, usually thought of by the brewmaster or friend of the brewery. From there Brown is able to sketch out ideas based on the style and any associated history with the pour.

Although Brown does most of his work in Photoshop and Illustrator, he considers himself to be an illustrator over a graphic designer. Each design begins with a sketch. That is then scanned and fine-tuned with a digital stylus.

The recent switch to shrink-wrapped cans has made a world of difference for Brown. Before, he was limited to only vector art (allowing him to use only seven colors) from Illustrator. Now the can labels are printed off on a clear sheet in full CMYK color spectrum, cut to size and heat shrunk to fit snug around each pint.

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Although all the colors are now accessible, Brown likes to keep them in line with the most noticeable ingredient. For example Osiris has a lot of green and orange, highlighting the floral hops. The Orange Blossom (Brown's favorite) is a wheat bursting with citrus notes. Brown drew the  entire piece with colored pencils, markers and ink pens.

"Given the rate at which we come up with and execute ideas at Sun King, we couldn't do it without a fully functional art department," said Robinson. "We certainly save time because we aren't outsourcing and going back and forth with another company to get things done. But at the end of the day it just makes sense for us and how we do things."

Bigger breweries such as Sun King often have an in-house artist, or at least the same person overseeing the artistic vision of each design. Three Floyds, located in Munster, Ind., has won the hearts of beer geeks (the local ones move in migration following whatever location has tapped Zombie Dust that week). Three Floyds brews are some of the top-rated in the state, and this brewery has taken on a lifestyle all its own due to the artwork.

Jim Zimmer, part of the husband and wife team that designs for the Chicagoland company, has found value in labels that are inconsistent. "A lot of people are drawn to not having a set or feel for your products," said Zimmer. "Everybody at the brewery understands what the brand is. Everybody understands what type of art belongs on a label for Three Floyds. Whether it is a Gumball Head or Apocalypse Cow, it all seems to work together."

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A slice of Zimmer's juxtaposition in style is perfectly sampled through the Zombie Dust and the Jinx Proof labels. Zombie Dust has not only created a cult-like following, but has brought a new style to craft labels. The yellow-and-gray-tone sketch has almost a heavy metal album cover feel. An audaciously quiet color choice for such a fully hopped beer. The Jinx Proof lager takes a Sailor Jerry tattoo approach and works in bright blues and echoes the content's smooth finish.

Zimmer has been working for the visual side of Three Floyds for six years now. He and his wife have only taken them on (they freelance  now) in the past six months. Zimmer's art has created a breadth of style and standards that are now  easily recognized as Three Floyds'. By knowing the brand as well as they do, the Zimmers can develop an idea and call on other artists if they feel their skill set is not the best for a particular job. They will track down an  artist that fits the direction of the desired design, explain what they want, have them draw it, and then take it to the brewery and revise it from there.

"The creative process for design could be 'run with it,' here is some description and a name, here are some visual ideas, or artwork to build off of," said Zimmer. "There isn't a set process. That is one thing that makes it really fun."

Zimmer got his position at the recommendation of a friend who worked in sales at the brewery. Currently Zimmer Design is redesigning the website and overseeing the majority of brewery's graphics.

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"It is really kind of a living breathing thing," said Zimmer, discussing the process of creating each label. One of his favorites is the Moloko Milk Stout, which is an echo of the Clockwork Orange milk bar and main character, Alex. The label adds a colorful head to a dark brew.

Bold choices are the name of the game with any type of branding, but in an industry that hinges on creativity and innovation, bold is the bottom line.

For New Albanian Brewing Company (NABC), just outside Louisville, it  stands out from the rest by bringing in a story with each beer. The plot is not yet dawn out for the public but the dots are waiting to be connected by Anthony Beard, the graphic illustrator for NABC. He works full-time for this rapidly growing new brewery, and he has worn about every hat it has to offer. After wrapping up his degree in film production from Webster University, St. Louis, Beard returned home to New Albany. There he picked up a job working in the NABC kitchen, and he eventually moved to a brewer's assistant position.

"Later on they found out I could draw, sketch and had computer skills," said Beard. "The rest was history."

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At one point in the not-so-distant past, he worked prep hour in the kitchen, moved to brewer's assistant throughout the day and designed labels at night.

At first his art began (like that of Sun King's Shane Brown) as simple chalkboard design. As the brewery expanded, so did the images. Beard and Roger Baylor (owner and brewer) both agree that having an in-house artist has worked for NABC.

"There are definitely benefits to talking to the guy who is representing your brewery daily," said Beard. "I know what they expect out of me. Everybody here is always looking at everyone around them to always be better. I think that is really important ... I see them as comrades. They are actually people who are fighting with me."

"He brings us a very distinctive identity and is a part of our overall package," said Baylor of Beard's role with the company. "If he were not around at this point, it would be very similar to a rock-and-roll band changing singers."

Once Beard focused on art full-time, he moved his canvas off chalkboards and into Photoshop. But what stands out about NABC art is the skeleton of a story, waiting to be written. Almost all of the beers have a corresponding character in the comic book imagination of Beard. Like all well-loved characters, these are starting to find themselves in a hodgepodge story.

"If we were ever to do a story line with them, it would be almost completely random," said Beard "None of them make any sense to be in same world together. I always think that they would each have their own story though. They would each have their own character in the cast to play."

While there is a variety of styles and themes with each label -- ranging from Wild West to a dystopian fictitious world -- each one is easily recognized as being from the world of 'New Albania,' a coined phrase used by the brewery staff to describe their close knit community. Here Beard's characters, like Elector and Hopitmus, can interact in a comic version of New Albania. Each of the labels has gone through its own transformation.

The Tunnel Vision label has been revised three times now and has finally settled into a Medusa temptress, backed by a high ABV (alcohol by volume), caramel malt backed beer.

The Hoptimus, lives up to its name as an imperial IPA. The design is an '80s throwback to the Transformers comics. This was one of Beard's first label designs and has stuck since. Some go through plenty of revisions, while others are a clean copy from the beginning.

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"I think a constant evolution of the labels is going to happen," said Beard.

He used to work on paper but has switched to Photoshop now to get the detailed colors Beard tries to push himself into.

"My sense of color is probably not as heightened," laughed Beard. Most of his early sketches and films were only ever seen in black and white. But his strong red and brown pallet is starting to see some hues of blue.

The Naughty Girl brew is named after the very generic phrase, so Beard thought an iconic mermaid image would be the best match.

"I wanted to put her in with the punk scene," said Beard. He decided early on that he didn't want the focus of the piece to have an overly sexual tone. He chose to have a culturally taboo, tattooed and pierced mermaid grace the bottle.

Beard doesn't base his imagery off of the beer's flavor. He recounted being told that the Naughty Girl label 'really matched the taste.' In his mind a hoppy Belgian IPA and teal blue label are not exactly two peas. "Blue and hoppy doesn't really work for me, but I thought it would work for a label," Beard said.

One of the most beloved beers that NABC has to offer is the Elector imperial red ale. Elector was brewed on the Bush vs. Gore Election Day. The original clip art, produced by Baylor, was a devil handing out beer to a line of voters with the phrase "making democracy pointless" -- a jest at the upset caused by the Electoral College during the election. The beer itself was a happy accident.

"The original process at the time was to make a winter warmer," said Baylor. "It didn't sit in the keg well and had more of an amber hue to it and was hoppy. We decided we liked it and wanted to keep it."

Not only the timing of the beer, but its accidental fall into the good graces of the brewers made the name 'elector' the only fit. Beard began to play with the original design, and he quickly determined the character was a "bureaucratic she-devil." The character appears on other labels and is the front-runner in New Albania.

Beard has flirted with the idea of making a comic book to give these misfit characters a home, but he doesn't spend much time trying to make all the characters match or look like they should be in the same space, like so many popular comics.

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"It doesn't matter that this devil woman is talking to this robot," said Beard.  "That kind of juxtaposition is what I kind of like. You don't see that a lot."

Nevertheless, not all of the brews have a matching character. For example, the Community Dark looks something like a wine bottle, and is a spin on the name of a local park. Another that doesn't have a character is the Solidarity label. For this one, Beard felt that no character could ever be made. The beer is a testament to the labor movement, a political theme that is strong throughout NABC.

"We are all working-class types that work at the brewery," said Beard. "So we try to keep that working-class mentality in a lot of stuff we do. Every once in a while we will have something like Solidarity or Community Dark that speaks to that working-class imagery."

Comic-like characters and political struggles have all emerged as themes throughout Beard's labels. But the world where all of these characters live is a much quieter tone.

Baylor spent some time in his 20s backpacking throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It was during his travels that he began to collect some of the Communist propaganda that now (and has since the barbecue joint-turned-pub) covers the 'Red Room,' a room in the brew house. Baylor's collection has played a key role in the artistic direction of NABC labels and created a sense of community among staff. All political implications aside, the idea of unity and a singular class is something that the craft industry as a whole has anchored.

Microbrews are reinventing the way people think about beer, and in turn, where we find art. It is only appropriate that the artists designing the bottle labels are bringing together comic-like characters and their hoppy liquid counterparts. Some artists are in galleries and others are in your favorite corner bar. Both should be critiqued, admired and discussed.

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About The Author

Emily Taylor  /  IUPUI

Emily Taylor / IUPUI

Bio:
Emily Taylor is currently in her last year at IUPUI where she is studying Journalism, Philosophy and Political Science. She is a freelance writer in the Indianapolis metro area where she lives surrounded by her books, far too much coffee and a mangy mutt named Blissful.

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