Beer talk runs the gamut from the frat-boy refrain "Beer is beer" to craft beer enthusiasts sparring in fermentation terminology. If there is any "art" to the drink, it lies within the bottle, and rarely will the conversation veer to what's outside it: the label.
"It's not like you can open up the beer and try it in the store. So what is that other thing that's going to make them buy it? It's the visual aspect," says James Flames, the artist who designed the label above for L.A.-based microbrewery Brouwerij (a Dutch word pronounced like "brewery") West. "I look at rows and rows of labels, and it's a real feast for the eyes. Like being in the world's smallest gallery where all the artwork is squished together."
Flames' design for the Tripel brew -- as with all of Brouwerij West's upcoming labels -- is more artfully conceived than many of the other hops-and-grains, typography-heavy, St. Pauli girl-style or simply bizarre labels that tend to dominate the beer shelves. To avoid this worn-out iconography, Brouwerij owner Brian Mercer has given all the artists on his roster almost total creative freedom.
"Basically he said the magic words, 'You can do whatever you want.' He just said, 'Go to town,'" says Flames, who took about a month and a half, 50 to 100 sketches and four totally different versions to complete the label, which hit shelves six weeks ago.
While Brouwerij West isn't the only brewery that appreciates label art, it is a visionary in the local Southern California brewing scene, as prioritizing art over branding might be a way for smaller, lesser-known, local breweries to get seen and, more importantly, remembered. In addition to allowing artists free rein, Mercer is producing only 6,500 bottles -- each numbered -- of each label, which means that limited editions will be the rule rather than the seasonal exception. "He's throwing the whole brand-recognition thing to the wind," Flames says, "and basing it on this new fresh artwork grabbing people."
Which is either awesome, problematic or both. After all, careful, successful branding relies in part on the customer speedily recognizing a product. If the labels, however cool, change every couple of months, the brewery's brand continuity can be compromised, which can in turn threaten sales.
But Mercer isn't really worried. He jokes a lot about the possibility of "going broke," but working with the artists as business partners -- not employees -- to him just "feels good." For him, the labels are less a marketing tactic than a way to satisfy a love of art that isn't "dumbed down," a phrase he's fond of using to critique branding-bloated visual culture. "Maybe it's growing up in L.A. and seeing too many movies, but if there's no mental work for me to do as the viewer, if I don't have to pick up some rocks to look under, I lose interest," he says.
Mercer is a self-described "failed photographer" whose first forays into the beer business began with selling Belgian caramelized sugar syrup -- the kind used to brew beer in Belgian monasteries -- in the United States. When Mercer started Brouwerij West a year and a half ago, he became disenchanted with all the designers he tried to work with -- they were all about straightforward branding. The same lame commerciality.
Last August, tired of "bumping against the machine of marketing," Mercer began contacting artists from a list he had been developing, offering them the chance to design a one-run-only label with just a few restrictions. Nothing too graphic or gory. No fields of barley. Had to be "smart." And if necessary, the name "Brouwerij West" could be squished off to the side, or barely visible at all.
Gina Kelly, who designed the label for the Blond brew, tried to look to the competition for inspiration, but concluded that few breweries were doing anything risky. "There might be a female figure swooning at the moon. It's pretty cookie-cutter even when it's executed well," she says.
Flames visited a store that sells local beer in Asheville, N.C., where he is based and which boasts a strong craft brewing scene. Scanning shelves full of more traditional designs, he noticed a few that were "really edgy and kind of weird." "I thought, 'I do edgy and weird; I could do better than that,'" he says.
Flames went with the comic book-influenced look that he first came to love as a kid through the works of well-known artists such as John Romita, John Buscema and Alex Toth -- though he says the Tripel label is more inspired by Michael Allred.
He also chose a palette of stark black and white. "I don't know if I had any other reason other than I thought it would contrast the hell out of everything out there," says Flames. Plus he added "this very kind of spooky image of this three-layered lady, who was kind of sexy, which has that appeal."
Kelly derived the idea for her design, in part, from the taste of the beer itself. "I've always wanted to do a house fire. Drinking the beer, a house fire came to the brain. There's the fruitiness, smokiness, it had all these complexities," Kelly says. "But it was refreshing, too" -- hence the rain. Plus, as an animator, she wanted to create a sense of movement, to pull the viewer in.
In some ways, though probably not intentionally, Brouwerij West has adopted the aesthetic and marketing function of "gig posters," which are concert or band posters, sometimes vintage and always limited-edition. In fact, many of the artists with whom Mercer is working -- Justin Santora, Ryan Duggan, and Flames -- have designed gig posters for acts ranging from Local Natives to Black Flag.
According to Kelly, who made a living designing posters for artists including TV on the Radio, Beirut and Andrew Bird before going to animation school, there's a whole culture to these posters. At a Comic-Con equivalent called Flatstock, held about three times every year at the different big music festivals (the most recent event was at SXSW in Austin, and the next will be at Pitchfork in Chicago), artists set up tents with mini-galleries of their works, some fetching upwards of $1,000.
The upsurge in gig posters is in part a nostalgic response to the digitizing of media like music and books, as many people try to recover the comfort of owning physical objects. Current bands release vinyls all the time, and the publishing industry has responded to the eclipsing of hardback sales by ebooks in 2011 by creating more beautiful books. Brouwerij West might have hit upon a similar realization -- that people are increasingly responding to novelties, and are bucking the growing sense that objects are hyper-disposable.
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Currently, Mercer has about 15 artists working on designs for future labels. New designs for the Saison and Quad brews will roll out in four weeks. As of now, Mercer's "passion project" is just an experiment, but he's hoping it will take off.
"Maybe it's more nuts than it is brilliant," Flames says. "But it could be brilliant because it is nuts."