Cando at­ti­tude

The Irish brew­ers putting their all into de­sign

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY AMY O’CON­NOR

It’s no se­cret that beer has un­der­gone a sig­nif­i­cant makeover in re­cent years. Far from the pints of plain on which we were raised, the dis­cern­ing beer drinker now has a plethora of craft beers to choose from. Whether you’re par­tial to a tart grape­fruit ale or a sturdy cof­fee stout, chances are there is some­thing out there to sate your ap­petite.

Not only are craft brew­eries ex­per­i­ment­ing with taste and flavour, they are also rein­vent­ing how beer is mar­keted, with many com­mis­sion­ing artists and il­lus­tra­tors to de­sign their la­bels and en­sure they stand out from the crowd. Where beer pack­ag­ing was once ut­terly ho­moge­nous, it now ex­ists to show­case de­sign and per­son­al­ity. In­deed part of the thrill of vis­it­ing an off-li­cence th­ese days lies in study­ing the eye-catch­ing art­work on dis­play in the fridge and wait­ing for one to take your fancy.

Here are some of the Irish craft brew­eries turn­ing their cans into can­vases.

When Matthew Dick set up Bound­ary Brew­ing, a co­op­er­a­tive brew­ery in Belfast, he says that two things were clear from the off.

“The two strong­est senses I had were that Bound­ary needed to be shared with oth­ers from the start and that my friend John’s work would look amaz­ing on can la­bels,” he re­calls.

He was re­fer­ring to his life­long friend John Robin­son, an artist who spe­cialises in con­tem­po­rary land­scape paint­ing. At first glance, Robin­son’s painterly style is a far cry from the busy il­lus­tra­tions you typ­i­cally find on beer pack­ag­ing. But Dick had a hunch it could work and en­listed his friend to work with him.

It rep­re­sented new ter­rain for Robin­son. “I’ve never done any­thing like this be­fore,” he says. “In fact I didn’t re­ally know what it would look like.” None­the­less he was “ex­cited by the chal­lenge of in­ter­pret­ing beer into paint­ings”.

So how does one go about in­ter­pret­ing beer into paint­ings, you ask. Be­fore Robin­son gets to work on a new la­bel, he typ­i­cally tastes the beer in ques­tion and as­sesses its flavour, body and ap­pear­ance. That, in turn, sets the tone for the art­work.

“When I make a land­scape paint­ing I of­ten go for a walk on the beach or in the for­est,” he ex­plains. “This sets the at­mos­phere for the paint­ing. With the Bound­ary work the beer is the ex­pe­ri­ence that acts as the an­chor for the paint­ing, which then takes on a life of its own as the paint­ing de­vel­ops.”

In­spi­ra­tion can strike from else­where, too.

“Some­times a con­cept re­lated to the par­tic­u­lar beer in­forms the paint­ing,” he says. “With the Push & Pull se­ries, the con­cept of dif­fer­ent hops be­ing pro­filed each time made me think of ‘push and pull’, the the­ory in ab­stract art where over­lap­ping lay­ers of paint cre­ate the im­pres­sion of re­ced­ing space. This formed the start­ing point for the paint­ing.”

For Dick, the part­ner­ship has been noth­ing short of a match made in heaven.

“For us, it’s be­come a great rep­re­sen­ta­tion of who we are at our core,” he says of Robin­son’s art­work. “‘Be reg­u­larly and or­derly in your life, so you can be vi­o­lent and orig­i­nal in your work’. That quote from Gus­tave Flaubert is where we got our name from, and I think it’s re­flected in John’s work and our la­bels.” Robin­son con­curs. “I think the art is suc­cess­ful be­cause it’s sim­ple and au­then­tic,” he says. “Even though each piece is dif­fer­ent, they are clearly all con­nected. We have won the space of art on the can. It’s our thing. That gives us free­dom to ex­per­i­ment and peo­ple still recog­nise it as us.”

Ay­oun­g­op­er­a­tion

Since belly-flop­ping on to the scene in 2015, Wexford’s Yel­low­belly Beer have es­tab­lished them­selves as one of the coun­try’s lead­ing craft brew­eries. In that short space of time, they have re­leased more than 200 beers, a pro­lific out­put for such a young oper­a­tion. While no two Yel­low­Belly beers are the same, one con­stant can be found across the range – the mis­chievous mus­ta­chioed man who adorns each and ev­ery la­bel. Known as Yel­low­Belly, he was con­ceived by the brew­ery’s creative direc­tor Paul Reck. “We would never be happy with generic-look­ing la­bels so we cre­ated a char­ac­ter to rep­re­sent our brand in Yel­low­Belly,” he ex­plains.

Reck de­signs and il­lus­trates the art­work for Yel­low­Belly and each la­bel fea­tures the epony­mous char­ac­ter front and cen­tre. What he’s do­ing de­pends on the beer. For in­stance, the pack­ag­ing for Belly Dance IPA de­picts him throw­ing disco shapes that would make John Tra­volta blush while It’s El­e­men­tary Ses­sion IPA fea­tures him wield­ing a vi­o­lin in a nod to Sher­lock Holmes. In other words, it doesn’t take it­self too se­ri­ously.

“We have fun with what we do and we want that sense of ir­rev­er­ence to spill over into our au­di­ence too,” he says. “We like to poke fun at our­selves and at pop­u­lar con­ven­tion. We cre­ate most of our con­cepts with our tongues firmly in our cheeks.”

As far as Reck is con­cerned, the brand­ing works in tan­dem with the brew­ing of the beers. “We don’t think one could or should ex­ist with­out the other,” he says. It’s all about fa­cil­i­tat­ing a con­nec­tion be­tween the cus­tomer and the brand. For that rea­son, the brew­ery has cre­ated a whole uni­verse for Yel­low­Belly. Not only does he ex­ist on their brand­ing, but he also stars in comics and games cre­ated for their web­site.

“Through this fan­dom we can con­nect in ways few other brew­eries can, of­fer­ing an

We have fun with what we do and we want that sense of ir­rev­er­ence to spill over into our au­di­ence too. We like to poke fun at our­selves and at pop­u­lar con­ven­tion. We cre­ate most of our con­cepts with our tongues firmly in our cheeks

ex­pe­ri­ence that long out­lives the emp­ty­ing of a glass,” he says.

And it seems to be work­ing. Reck says they reg­u­larly get feed­back from peo­ple de­light­ing in their lat­est artis­tic out­put – a just re­ward for all the work he puts in.

“We spend a lot of time on our con­cepts and our la­bels be­cause we gen­uinely care about how we are per­ceived by our cus­tomers,” he says.

“It gives us great pride to hear how bar staff and cus­tomers are just as ex­cited to see the pump clip art of a new keg of beer as they are about tast­ing the con­tents.”

You cer­tainly couldn’t ac­cuse Hop­fully Brew­ing’s brand­ing of be­ing sub­tle. Since start­ing pro­duc­tion a few years ago, the Clon­shaugh-based out­fit have be­come renowned for their bright, vi­brant de­signs.

“I have been into art my en­tire life so we thought that would be in­ter­est­ing to bring an artis­tic iden­tity to all our beers,” says Vil­son de Mello jnr, who co-founded the brew­ery with two friends in 2016.

In­spired by brew­eries such as Beaver­town and To Øl, they de­cided to com­mis­sion dif­fer­ent il­lus­tra­tors to de­sign their la­bels. With the help of their friend and art direc­tor, Bea Ro­driguez, they scoped out artists on so­cial me­dia and made con­tact from there. Their four sig­na­ture beers – Gra­ciosa, Sakura, Beet Juice, and Love­maker – show­case il­lus­tra­tions by ac­claimed artists from all over the world.

Each is strik­ing in its own way. Beet Juice de­picts a beet in a swim­suit while Love­maker fea­tures a mouse-like crea­ture en­joy­ing a post-coital cig­a­rette.

“We usu­ally send a brief to the artist with beer recipe and con­cept,” ex­plains de Mello jnr. “We give them com­plete au­ton­omy to de­sign the la­bel.”

More re­cently, Hop­fully Brew­ing com­mis­sioned Dublin-based il­lus­tra­tor Nathanael Ro­man of Pipe & Pal­let to de­sign the la­bel for their lat­est brew, So­cial Hops.

“I was do­ing gig posters and al­bum cov­ers for bands when the lads first ap­proached me to com­mis­sion a poster for an event they were hold­ing,” he ex­plains. “Shortly af­ter that they asked me if I’d be up for col­lab­o­rat­ing with them on a beer la­bel. At that mo­ment I was sit­ting at The Pav draw­ing on an un­re­mark­able can of cheap beer so nat­u­rally I was on board.”

Hu­man bod­ies

His la­bel for So­cial Hops is a play­fully lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the beer name – it de­picts a num­ber of hu­man bod­ies with hops sprout­ing from their necks sit­ting around a din­ner ta­ble.

For Ro­man, the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween brew­ers and de­sign­ers makes per­fect sense. Af­ter all, they have a great deal in com­mon.

“I be­lieve craft brew­ing and visual arts go hand in hand be­cause they both chase the same thing,” he says. “They are both creative pro­cesses fu­elled by pas­sion and so it only makes sense to work to­gether.”

Based in Wick­low, Whiplash be­gan life as a side project for Alex Lawes and Alan Wolfe. Both men were work­ing with Rye River Brew­ing Com­pany when they started rent­ing tanks and cook­ing up small batch re­leases. What started out as a hobby quickly de­vel­oped into some­thing more se­ri­ous.

“The con­sumer feed­back forced our hand, re­ally,” says Lawes. “We de­cided to take it full-time.”

Since launch­ing less than twelve months ago, Whiplash has ac­quired a rep­u­ta­tion for its sin­gu­lar art­work. Each can fea­tures a mixed me­dia col­lage on a white back­ground de­signed by Lawes’s part­ner, the artist So­phie De Vere. The aes­thetic was de­vel­oped in re­sponse to what Lawes saw as lazy, uni­form beer brand­ing.

“I just find it a bit con­trived,” he says of main­stream beer mar­ket­ing. “It’s gen­er­ally the same four or five pri­mary colours. I was think­ing, ‘This is kind of bor­der­ing on visual pol­lu­tion when you walk into a shop’. It was kind of like in

Blade Run­ner where there’s so much neon signs all over the street that ev­ery­thing starts to blend into one and you can’t pick any­thing out any­more.”

With Whiplash’s min­i­mal­ist pack­ag­ing, he wanted to give the con­sumer’s eye a break while also of­fer­ing a plat­form for De Vere’s work. He was also keen to avoid the sex­ist trap­pings of beer mar­ket­ing that have plagued the in­dus­try for so long in favour of do­ing some­thing “a bit more no­ble with the can space”.

When it comes to nam­ing and brand­ing Whiplash’s beers, the team will typ­i­cally go through their playlists and pick a song name to ap­ply to their lat­est con­coc­tion. “It’s just a nicer way of do­ing things,” says Lawes. They then pro­vide De Vere with the song name and let her work her magic.

For ex­am­ple, their lat­est beer is ti­tled Let For­ever Be, in­spired by The Chem­i­cal Broth­ers song of the same name. De Vere’s art­work for the beer fea­tures the same image mul­ti­plied three times in an ho­mage to the song’s sur­real, pris­matic mu­sic video, directed by Michel Gondry.

“Those things click into place quite eas­ily some­times,” says Lawes.

Lawes says the cans have struck a chord with cus­tomers to the point where they can be con­sid­ered col­lec­tors’ items.

“You see peo­ple mail­ing us, ‘Do you have any spare la­bels? Is there any­thing you can send me out?’ That’s cool.”

Strik­ing desings from Irish brew­ers Yel­low­belly, Whiplash and Hop­fully Brew­ing,

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