Vail Ale with Altitude column: The art of the beer label
Ryan Summerlin December 4, 2012
Craft brewers are an amazingly creative lot. We do things unconventionally, dissolve boundaries, and have elevated our craft to an art form. We brew diverse beers with myriad ingredients to create rewarding experiences. There’s almost nothing more satisfying for a brewer than witnessing someone taking that first sip of a new experimental beer and watching the expression on their face as they realize that it is at once complicated, delicious, and unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
Technically however, I’m no longer a brewer, in the sense that I’m not actually the person in the brew house making the beer; my role has evolved into that of Marketing Guy. My rewards begin before a customer takes that first sip, when they’re looking at row upon row of bottles and cans and they reach in and choose one of my beers. Sure, it’s probably more likely that they have already had that particular beer and know it is one they enjoy, but in my mind it is just as likely that they chose the beer because of the label!
“Beer is art,” Randy Mosher, author of “The Brewer’s Companion” and “Radical Brewing,” for which he did the layout, the cover, the illustrations and the photography, once told me. “What could be more fun than extending the vibe of the beer and brewery to encompass the package as well? That bottle and 6-pack are really extensions of what’s inside. The liquid can’t speak for itself in the store.”
When we started Ska Brewing 17 years ago we wrote a comic book that told the entirely embellished story of our humble beginnings, up to our epic battle against Rotgutzen International Beverage Corporation (www.rotgutzen.com), and all of our labels at the time were illustrations taken from the comic. To this day the story continues to evolve as Lana Lovibond (True Blonde) takes on Rotgutzen’s CEO, Mr. Pinstripe. Our original artist, Dorn Roberts, still illustrates our labels, and the original characters have most recently revealed themselves as mythological figures on our newly released Seasonal Stout cans.
The stories and sources of craft brewing’s label art are as varied as our beers. Consider former Colorado brewers (now located in Maryland), Flying Dog, whose label artwork is by Ralph Steadman, probably best known as the illustrator for the late Hunter Thompson. Or arguably craft brewing’s most iconic label, Fat Tire, a watercolor painting from New Belgium president Kim Jordan’s neighbor, Anne Fitch. Or Dogfish Head, which has used art from Jon Langford, a founding member of the legendary British rock band, the Mekons, as well as sketches from brewery founder Sam Calagione.
In my world, going to the beer store is an art show in itself, one that comes in two rewarding acts: when I get there and I get to see all of my brewing brethren’s work outside of the bottle, and when I get home and get to taste the masterpiece within.
Dave Thibodeau is the co-founder of Ska Brewing Company in Durango and Peach Street Distillers in Palisade. Ska Brewing recently celebrated its 17th anniversary. Peach Street opened in 2004 and its award-winning spirits are made with local ingredients and are distributed throughout Colorado. Peach Street was awarded the prestigious “Distillery of the Year” award for 2012 from the American Distilling Institute.