As you sit at the bar on a Saturday night, or barbecue with friends in the backyard, it's easy to take for granted the label on your local beer of choice. It's the one you nervously pick off the bottle of Big Sky IPA or Bayern Oktoberfest while flirting with the person next to you. It's the gleaming design you crush under thumb when you empty the last drop from that can of Eddy Out. But the fact is, what you've got in your hand, dear beer lover, is a piece of art. In our quest to pay tribute to all things beer this week, we introduce you to two artists who make your beer pretty.
Rick Sherman used to walk down to Sundance Natural Foods, the local health food store in Eugene, Ore., with his toddler daughter and let her pick out his evening beers according to which labels she liked best.
"She would really take the time to examine the pictures before she would decide," he says. "I ended up with this great collection of really beautiful art piece labels."
It was the late 1980s, when microbrews were starting to pop up all over Oregon, and Sherman, who was taking graphic design classes at Lane Community College at the time, began to daydream about walking down to the store and seeing an array of his own art on those sixers stacked in the cooler.
"The whole concept of illustrated labels started really coming in with the microbrew industry," he says. "That became a kind of identifying part of a small brewery was their labels. And it became one of my professional goals."
After moving back to his native Montana and splitting time between outdoor labor and graphic design as the art director at The Shirt Shop, he started winning art bids. Walk into almost any grocery or convenience store in and around Missoula and you can see Sherman has realized his dream. Every Cold Smoke, Double Haul and Eddy Out from the Kettlehouse Brewery is his design.
Sherman says beer label art takes a particular eye. He'll stand in front of beer coolers for long periods of time to study all the colors and textures he has to compete against in order to figure out how to best make his beer labels stand out on the shelves. One of his requirements as a commissioned artist is to give the cans a basic, uniform style so that people can immediately identify them as a Kettlehouse beer. And, at the same time, he's given each type of beer an associated color so people can quickly pick out the IPA from the Scotch Ale, for instance. He went for solid colors: a black-to-red fade for Cold Smoke, sky blue for Double Haul and caramel brown for Eddy Out.
Images of skiers, kayakers and fly-fishers complete the look of the beer cans to evoke Montana outdoor recreation. But it's the simplicity of the images that matters.
"You don't have to recognize that there's a skier there," says Sherman about the Cold Smoke label. "The simplicity of the image itself on the red background has a tendency to stand out on the shelves as opposed to something busy."
Sherman works with Kettlehouse owner Tim O'Leary to come up with design concepts. For Double Haul (named after a type of fly-fishing cast) Sherman took photos of O'Leary casting on the Bitterroot River to create the design. For Eddy Out, he shot over 1,000 photos of Kettlehouse bartender Cheyenne Rogers kayaking on Brennan's Wave.
"The Kettlehouse is like a family," says Sherman. "They pull themselves into the artistic process, so it's fun to work with them."
What do you get when you cross Monte Dolack with a Doppel Bock? You get a beer label overflowing with snowy peaks and majestic mountain goats. The prominent local painter has worked with Bayern Brewery since its inception in 1987 (though he's not the only artist they use) to create labels for several of their beers, including their Doppel Bock, Pilsener, Dancing Trout, Maibock and Oktoberfest.
Bayern owner Jürgen Knö¨ller originally commissioned Dolack because he was already a fan of the artist's work. So, rather than being asked to produce a particular design, Dolack's free to stick with his own style of painting—though he still has to keep in mind the idea of marketing a Montana-made beer.
"I like to work with themes of culture and music or conservation and the environment," says Dolack. "But the beer is a little bit different. I started making posters in the mid-'70s for small independent groups, doing things for concerts and events and it kind of reminds me of doing that."
Dolack mostly has to think about the image and not so much the logistical aspect of creating a beer label. He paints a picture that distinguishes each beer (a prairie with a windmill signifies the amber, for instance) and Knö¨ller works with designer Eileen Chantos to make that painting into a label.
"I try to keep a nice consistent format so they're usually the same size and laid out in a similar way," says Dolack. "But the way that the painting is employed in the design of the label is usually a little different because it's in an oval form or it has lettering across it. And I don't do that part."
Dolack has, however, had a hand in helping to define Bayern's values. He was part of the infamous name change that switched Bayern's Trout Slayer (a brand Big Sky brewery now uses) to Dancing Trout in order to portray a more conservation-minded label. His painting of a fisherman hugging an over-sized fish created some controversy among beer drinkers who expressed dismay with the over-romanticizing of catch-and-release fishing, but it made a statement for Bayern, nonetheless.
Currently, Dolack is working on a commissioned piece to commemorate the Great Burn of 1910. But he says he's eager to work again on art projects as popular as a beer label.
"It is fun to be part of the culture," says Dolack. "And the beer labels are things in pop culture usage that connect with what we do. Artists like to have things in museums too, but it's nice to make things that are used by people."