Used to be that what’s on the inside is what counted, but in a rapidly changing craft-beer landscape overflowing with a variety of hoppy concoctions, it now seems that what’s on the outside is what matters most. Store shelves are no longer a place to merely display product; they’ve become de-facto art installations, and the products are no longer merely alcoholic beverages; they’ve become works of art. For modern-day microbrew artists, the canvas of choice: a can.
The artist handling the graphic design work for HenHouse Brewing Company is the “one-man art department” of Josh Staples, who worked with the owners at a warehouse facility prior to the brewery’s taproom opening in 2016. Unlike other local breweries, HenHouse has a particularly noticeable mascot taking center stage on its cans: the hen. “Animal logos are iconic,” says Staples, “and people can relate to that and the love of nature.”
HenHouse’s founding members hold a strong connection to chickens, hailing from Petaluma. Staples grew up on a farm and chose a “Petaluma-style hen” as inspiration for the HenHouse mascot. “I had a few renditions of the hen, and it went from being ornate to a little more realistic,” he says. “I tried using a wood-cut print at first, then combined hand-drawn elements. You can’t have a brand called HenHouse and not have a hen. We want people to know it’s a HenHouse beer when they see it.”
HenHouse’s recognizable lineup of beers catapulted the brewery into something of a ruler of the roost for the North Bay craft-beer scene. The brewery developed a hardcore following of hop-heads, eagerly anticipating releases of their “conspiracy theory” line of India pale ales, like the Chemtrails IPA, throughout the year.
As the brewery’s tap list has expanded, so have the designs. The hen has found herself standing atop a mound of cash outside a bank vault for the Inside Job IPA, directing airplanes as an air traffic controller on the Denver Airport IPA, and going where no chicken has gone before, standing on the lunar surface in the Hollow Moon IPA.
“As a kid who grew up interested in conspiracies, it’s fun to play with them in my art now,” Staples says. “But it’s also tricky because you want to make it light and relatable, and when putting the hen in there, I try to make her safe.
“In the beginning,” he adds, “she was stoic and always on her own, but when we started putting her in outer space and driving tractors, I wanted to make sure she still looked dignified.”
Staples’ favorite design outside of the conspiracy theory line is a brut IPA called Joy Delivery System. The design is a fantasia of frightful fun, featuring a hop-juggling, unicycle-riding beer can, a giant clown face, hot-air balloons and, of course, rainbows. The Joy Delivery System artwork serves as a delightful tapestry of amusement, conveying the euphoric sensation one might feel after imbibing the brut IPA.
“It’s really colorful and wacky, and reminded me of an ’80s cartoon puzzle. We actually ended up releasing a jigsaw puzzle based off that label,” he says.
Although Staples and HenHouse continue to push the look of their cans to new frontiers, Staples prefers to rely upon an old-school aesthetic.
“The creativity and the hand-drawn elements are most important to me,” he says. “I still draw on paper. We have several binders full of hand-drawn designs at the brewery.”
Flying the Coop
While there aren’t binders full of hand-drawn designs at Cooperage Brewing Company, the taproom features an eclectic array of artwork from local artists on its walls to accompany the eclectic spectrum of suds on tap. The hop-forward hub serves up its flavorful style in spades with a frequently rotating list of IPAs. Owner and head brewer Tyler Smith estimates that Cooperage has brewed 140 different beers in just three-and-a-half years, deviating from the brewery’s initial intentions to focus on barrel-aged, sour beers.
Bay Area-themed ales such as Steph Curty and McCurty Cove, to name a few, are reaching cult-like status among a dedicated fan base of North Bay beer buffs.
Cooperage recently unveiled its inaugural beers to go in the can: fan-favorite Kegslayer IPA and the Smeltron 3030 DIPA. Local designer and HenHenouse brewery shift supervisor Nicky London-Sorgman was tapped for the designs.
“We can literally go anywhere with these cans because of their crazy beer names,” London-Sorgman says. “Sometimes I have to ask what the names of the beers mean so I get the inside joke.”
The Kegslayer IPA design of a heavy metal heroine, slaying her way through a mound of Cooperage kegs with a sword, was created as a surprise tribute to one of the brewery’s original tasting rooms members, Rachael Ingram. The design, created by an artist who designs for Cellarmaker Brewing in San Francisco, was initially intended for T-shirts; however, the beer and corresponding shirt’s popularity made it an easy choice to can. With the existing image in place, London-Sorgman provided the final touches, adding a few more destroyed kegs and a post-apocalyptic wasteland to the backdrop.
For the Smeltron 3030 can, a riff off Oakland-based rapper Del the Funky Homosapien’s collaboration with S.F.-born producer Dan the Automator, London-Sorgman decided to take a giant leap in the future by visiting the past.
“I knew I wanted to do a space scene, so I dove into the world of imagery with Deltron. They have a ’50s noir, futuristic-space thing going on, and that’s what I used as a reference. Then I came up with the idea of having hops as aliens attacking people, like
Mars Attacks meets The Simpsons aliens,” he says.
The resulting image is a whimsically wonderful, pulp-art space odyssey—which could also serve as tasting notes to describe a few of Cooperage’s beers.
“Tyler [Cooperage owner and head brewer] is the easiest client I’ve worked with; he’s so laid back and chill. I have so much freedom with him. He’s willing to make a constant variety of beers, and it’s translated into the product and the art,” London-Sorgman says. “We talked about keeping the cans standardized and simplistic, but I told them we shouldn’t because they have such unique beer names.”
Another Sonoma County standout garnering well-deserved attention for its inspired beer names is Windsor’s Barrel Brothers Brewing. The brewery is a family affair, founded by brothers-in-law and a father-in-law in 2015. The brewery started canning in June 2016, and now produces some of the most inventive labeling and flavors on the market. Barrel Brothers works with a friend in Phoenix to create all of its labels, although brewmaster Wesley Deal admits that his brother-in-law, Daniel, deserves more credit than he does in visualizing and developing the design process.
“Craft beer is like skateboarding was—a little alternative that pushes the boundaries as far as you can get away with,” Deal says.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not so much in the corporate world; Barrel Brothers received multiple cease and desist notices for a few of its designs. The brewery’s take on a 40-ounce malt liquor bottle reimagined as a WD-40 can, and its tongue-in-cheek usage of a certain basketball team’s logo raised a few eyebrows.
“The WD-40 concept came together over a couple of beers and throwing stupid names out there. We ended up going with my initials,” Deal says. “The beer is hand-labeled, hand-wrapped, and we even put the red straws on there by hand,” Deal continues. “Because of how hands-on it was, we weren’t planning to produce a high amount of it, but we had people flying in from around the country to add it to their 40 collections. I didn’t know people had 40 collections.
“Eventually, we had to stop producing it. WD-40 sent us a funny cease and desist letter. We also got a letter from the NBA on our Taking My Talents to New England Hazy IPA label.”
One Hazy IPA label that’s safe for now is State Sponsored Juicing. Deal says several concepts came together when creating the design. “The Russian Olympic ban due to juicing was a current event [at the time] that many people were aware of,” he says. “The beer itself has the duality of being a juicy IPA, but also one that’s on PEDs because it’s so intense. The hazy IPA style is also exploding in a way that the style itself is practically ‘state-sponsored.'”
The brewmaster’s favorite design thus far is their take on a Pilsner-style beer, aptly named, Dad Pants. Deal points to the label’s vintage jean-theme, complete with a braided belt looping across the top of the can as playing on the notion that the Pilsner style has “traditionally been your dad’s beer.” The design is equal parts simplicity and boldness, a proper representation of the liquids commonly found inside the brewery’s cans.
But the modern craft-beer world sure isn’t your dad’s frothy pint from yesteryear. “Beer is around 5,000 years old, but how it’s being sold now is so new and changing so fast. Social media is accelerating that. Beer buyers started ordering our beer through social media because of how many posts are popping up of our beers.”
This developing trend in the beer market prompted Barrel Brothers to alter its approach when whipping up new brews. “We started with how the beer would taste, then we’d think about how the label would look. Now we start with the label first,” Deal says. “Everyone wants to try a new beer. They almost don’t want to drink the same beer twice anymore. Consumers want something they can say they found first.”
Although the brewery benefits from a strong social media presence through creative labeling, coupled with a consumer base’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for more, Deal acknowledges the importance of the product itself. “You have to make a good beer, first and foremost, to stay in the business,” he says. “The modern craft-beer consumer can taste the difference between good and bad, fresh and not fresh.”
Despite the staggering number of craft breweries reappropriating, reimagining and remixing the way beer is brewed and viewed, there remains a small contingent of microbreweries opting for a “less is more,” scaled-down approach.
Santa Rosa’s Moonlight Brewing is renowned for crafting classic beer styles for over 20 years, and Fogbelt Brewing Company has developed a unique, albeit understated, look behind its brand of brews since opening in 2013. Fogbelt’s theme of a tree-lined setting under a dense layer of fog is the staple imagery for many of its flagship beers, the majority of which happen to be named after coastal redwood trees found only in the fog belt. The brewery rarely strays away from this region-centric marketing, a concept that took root from the beginning, says Fogbelt’s principal graphic designer Paul Hawley.
“The theme comes from our personal affinity with the area,” he says. “Besides, what’s better than hiking in the redwoods and enjoying a nice IPA afterward?”
Hawley comes from a wine background, designing labels and serving as general manager for his family’s winery, Hawley Winery in Healdsburg.
“I wanted a label that looked somewhat high-end and got away from the loud and cartoony stuff,” he says. “At Fogbelt, we want the label to show that we take the beer seriously and that we aren’t going to make fun of what’s inside.” What’s inside is a refreshing elixir as crisp and cool as any coastal morning fog.
For Hawley, the challenge is developing fresh ideas for the label art but keeping it consistent with the brand. “If we suddenly released a label that had android-armadillos, people might be like, ‘What the hell is going on at Fogbelt?'” he says.
Android-armadillos notwithstanding, Fogbelt has branched out on occasion with imagery outside of the forest. Fogbelt’s Wet Hop series of cans featuring a head full of hops is a label Hawley designed based on a Soviet, anti-alcohol propaganda poster. Hawley removed the original illustration’s inclusion of hawks inside an empty mind in favor of hops.
“I think reappropriating images is more out of necessity. We don’t have a huge staff of graphic designers. We have to work with what we’ve got,” he says. However, Hawley doesn’t consider himself a graphic designer, “just a guy who taught himself Adobe and likes to tinker around.” Hawleys says that Fogbelt plans on expanding its portfolio of label art by recruiting local artists to design original labels in the future.
An original design of note for Fogbelt from a packaging standpoint is its recently released Godwood Triple IPA. The label of the 12-ounce can displays a giant redwood ascending up the side, and when one Godwood can is stacked atop another, it displays the full-sized image of the tree. “I was just playing around with the format and seeing how I could turn it into more of a canvas,” Hawley says. “We’ve seen the one-upmanship of hopping rates, ABV, and other ingredients, and now what’s left is the packaging—it’s almost an arms race to outdo one another with the hippest and coolest label art.”
A ‘Can-Do’ Attitude
As Sonoma County’s craft-beer landscape continues to evolve and recreate itself with ever-changing brands and styles, one thing appears unanimous among those in the North Bay craft-beer scene: cans and the art wrapped around them aren’t going away anytime soon. The 16-ounce, four-pack of cans has established itself as the standard format of packaging for most in the industry.
“Breweries have to buy in bulk, so more breweries are going to cans, and it’s easier now to go with labels,” Barrel Brothers’ Deal says. “Printing companies are now offering more product options for labels.”
Cooperage’s Smith believes the need to stand out and further enhance brand recognition will only increase in the immediate future. However, he feels this approach mainly applies to breweries looking to dominate certain retail spaces. “When it comes to over-the-top designs, do you need it? No. If it’s for the grocery store, it should stand out,” he says. “But the brewers who’d rather sell their beer at taprooms and bottle shops are more about the freedom of expression.”
It’s this freedom of expression that London-Sorgman feels separates the craft-beer can from the corporate behemoths. “Labels help put a face to the personality of the brewers who make the beer,” he says. “The people at Cooperage like to have fun, and it shows in their designs.”
As much as London-Sorgman appreciates the creativity and independence found in the art of the craft-beer world, he also understands how such a bold style of branding can leave a bad taste in some consumers’ mouths.
“People could look at the labels and say we’re trying too hard—’Just be a beer, be a silver can.’ And that’s totally OK. I get that,” he says. “But if you don’t like the labeling, you don’t have to buy it. If I can get someone who doesn’t drink beer to stop and look at the can, then I’ve done my job.”
Fogbelt’s Hawley likens the art of the can to a cultural touchstone of the past. “The craft-beer can is like the record album; it’s an opportunity to show the world the culture and personality of your company,” he says.
HenHouse’s Staples, who says the most he’s spent on a single beer was $20, primarily because of the artwork, shares in Hawley’s sentiments. “It’s like any art form,” he says. “There’s going to be something different that will appeal to everyone.”