Gentleman Design

Southern craft beer takes after Southern food: it’s admired far beyond the region. More and more, people are beginning to not only care about how their favorite beers taste, but look, providing valuable exposure to emerging artists and graphic designers in the South. With art ranging from absurdist and trippy to minimalist and clean, creative talents are taking an active role in defining the brews made in their home towns and states, and showcasing the fact that the South is anything but creatively monolithic.

To get an idea of what motivates modern beer bottle muralists, I spoke to a few trend-setting beer label artists for four Southern breweries -- folks responsible for designs that stand out on shelves and in hands, and who continue to create some of today’s funkiest Southern beer art.

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When Florida-based Funky Buddha Brewery needed a new look for its lineup, they hired beer-specializing design agency The Brandit, located just 90 miles up the coast from the Boca Raton brewery in Vero Beach. The Brandit hired Brazilian artist Rubens Scarelli, a.k.a. “Rusc,” who took a vivid, cartoonish approach to each beer. He drew each design by hand with pencil, and filled them in with appropriate hues based on the beers’ main ingredients.

Funky Buddha's summer seasonal Blueberry Cobbler Ale label features a lovely tattooed brunette, smirking in a red apron and offering a gooey dessert plate against a super-blue background. The Nib Smuggler winter milk porter features a Joe Camel-like character being chased by police while on a cigarette boat, zooming across chocolatey water and dropping some sweet, illicit cocoa. There’s also the blood orange IPA More Moro, featuring crazed, mask-wearing hops slicing a huge orange in half and dancing in celebration, human-sacrifice-style.

“They were crazy days with short deadlines,” Rusc told Design Ideas, “and it was great for me to learn to better manage my time. Also, I had a chance to put into practice some techniques and tools that [I] had never used. I had so much fun.”

Memphis-based Wiseacre Brewing Co. stayed closer to home when selecting an artist for their look, hiring Rachel Briggs to create designs like the spooky, cemetery-based Future Ancestors tart common lager. The grits-brewed beer, which incorporates sugar from Memphis’ Shotwell Candy Company, was made in collaboration with Chicago-based Off Color Brewing, and features their mouse logo as a ghostly character in the scene.
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Briggs said she and Wiseacre owners Davin and Kellan Bartosch collaborate on the designs. “Each brew has a name and a backstory before it even comes my way,” she says. “Once Kellan sends it to me, he usually has a story line or imagery he'd like to explore. We discuss ideas and colors, but other than that, they usually let me run with it. I think we work well together in that way. They often have wild ideas and I love the challenge of figuring out how to interpret them.”

Briggs feels that her work with beer has benefitted her overall creativity. “It's definitely stretched my boundaries as an illustrator. Before I began designing for Wiseacre, I was an art director and graphic designer mainly working within [the] print publication and music industry. Exploring a more illustrative-based design take with Wiseacre was a main part of me solidifying my own personal style as well. Branching out into packaging and branding with something as elaborate as these beer cans and bottles has been a dream."

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Bart Sasso agrees. As the founder of Atlanta-based agency GENTLEMAN, Sasso has provided design and branding work for two local beverage-makers: Wild Heaven Beer and Treehorn Cider. “It absolutely impacted my career and the trajectory of our agency,” he says. “The first couple cans we did for Wild Heaven [White Blackbird and Wise Blood] got a lot of attention online and brought us quite a bit of work. More people than ever are getting into beer -- they’re excited about discovering something new and sharing it with friends. The art on the can is an integral part of that experience, so it better be good. And when it is, people want to know who did it.”

Both Sasso and Briggs say they’re fans of the rule-breaking beer art work of Keith Shore at Danish brewery Mikkeller. They also find inspiration in everything from names to world culture. Briggs said she digs 21st Amendment Brewery and Prairie Artisan Ales illustrative styles, and thinks breweries like New York’s Montauk Brewing Co. and Buoy Brewing Co. out of Oregon do the “classic, throw-back vibe design pretty well.” Sasso said he likes to start with what inspired the brewery, including beer names.

“The name of Wild Heaven’s White Blackbird was inspired by an ancient French parable," Sasso explains. "In the story, the third son of a blind king restores his father’s sight and rectifies the wrongs of his wicked brothers by fetching a white blackbird with restorative powers from a far away kingdom. I’ve always loved the uncompromising poster art of the Atelier Populaire in late-’60’s Paris, and the bold imagery felt like the perfect aesthetic for an eye-catching beer label -- in the fable, the bird is brought to the king in a cage, and that naturally felt like a symbol you’d see in Mai 68 posters. The art is super bold and graphical -- you can see that can from across the room. On increasingly crowded shelves, that’s a good thing.”

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One brewery whose beer art made a splash recently is Straight to Ale out of Huntsville, Alabama. Their Lily Flagg Milk Stout, named in honor of a historic local cow who was the world’s top butter-producer in 1892, features a drawing of the lactating heifer orbiting a crater-faced moon, and came in at number three on USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice list for Best Beer Label in the country. Operations Manager Matthew Broadhurst handles art for Straight to Ale, and said he’s given a great amount of leeway with the designs.

“I always try and tie the image to the name, which isn’t always an easy task,” he admits. “I usually rough out three to four ideas and show them to the guys, and move forward from there. I personally have a weird sense of humor and have tried sneaking by a few things that have been controversial or slightly offensive. We’re a brewery named Straight to Ale in the South; sometimes people are going to be offended no matter what.”

All three designers say they’ll continue to produce beautifully printed art meant to hug your favorite beer bottle or can. “I’m a fan of any can art that you can look at more than once and see something new over time,” Broadhurst summarizes. Sounds like the kind of creative appreciation that any beer-sipping art connoisseur can understand.