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BC Craft Beer and the Power of Design

Chantal Weill | October 28, 2017
BC Craft Beer and the Power of Design
BC Craft Beer and the Power of Design
Doans was a big winner at the British Columbia Beer Awards this year.
Recently the British Columbia Beer Awards bestowed the hardware and accolades on the best in the biz. There were plenty of categories, from the best Kolsch to Saison to Mixed Fermentation, but the one that got my inner designer tingling was Best Creative. They just added it this year, and that is testament to the increasingly powerful role that good design is taking in the craft beer world (it wasn’t that long ago that bold yet hella amateur packaging made a micro seem legit on shelves dominated by sleekly packaged bottles). So let’s jump in, the BCBA has creative awards for Best Can Design, Label Design, Tap Handle and Box/Carrier and here are the winners.

BC Craft Beer and the Power of Design Doans (Best Can Design) | Steamworks (Best Tap Handle) | Steamworks (Best Label) | Doans (Best Carrier)
Do you see a theme? I sure do, a little playful, some zany Victoriana, maybe psychedelic – what's up with that? And I don't mean just that they are similar (a given in our trend-chasing commercial culture), rather what's interesting is exactly what it is that they share. I think this vibe is worth exploring, given its newly-minted esteem by the industry, because perhaps it's how the BC craft beer world would like to be viewed: as radical tinkerers and craftspeople.

When you think of local brewers, the notions of "craft" and "artisanal" jump immediately to mind, however, these terms are increasingly used as sales pitches for anything from Subway sandwiches to Tostitos. As corporations aim to cash in on the popularity that craft industries have generated (and taken from them), they co-opt their essence and peddle it as their own. So with these terms almost all but neutered I can see why craft brewers are turning to design (and such labouriously beautifully executed design) to evoke these values. What is most interesting about this design is that it's a revival of pretty much the last design movement that was itself a rebel. The craft beer industry has seemingly recognized this oppositional form of design as a sartorial hi-five, a sister in the fight against sterile mass production and marketing of lifestyle consumables. So, let's take at look at the last bad boys of design.

The Heady Days of Modernism

Design-wise, what we’re looking at is a set of related styles all which have historically celebrated the values of playfulness, whimsy and DIY over the mass produced industrial. There’s the Push Pin meets Polish Poster style evoked in the Doans projects (carrier and can), and a related Terry Gilliamesque kooky-Victoriana aesthetic that extends into the steampunk look of the Steamworks label and tap handle.

Edelmann's Yellow Submarine Heinz Edelmann's Yellow Submarine.
Lets start with the playful Doans illustration on their cans and carriers. To me it evokes the bulbous free-flowing, outline-heavy vibe of the famous Yellow Submarine animated movie, a look that came to be defined as "psych" after it was picked up by American advertising agencies (and Peter Max specifically), but was in fact likely born in the Eastern European post-war art and design scene, most epitomized by the Polish "Cyrk" posters (which started the international poster craze), and brought to us via Heinz Edelman's Yellow Submarine graphics. Influenced by the in-your-face expressionists (dudes like Grosz, Heartfield, the Cabaret Voltaire) they too aimed to smash the oppressive social realism (of Nazism and Stalinism) from which Europe was emerging. And much like the Arts & Crafts movement before them, they idealized the handmade and idiosyncratic: touched by humans, not institutions, y'know?

Cyrk - Polish Poster School Cyrk - Polish Poster School.

And then The Backwash of Modernism

Similarly over in North America, and hugely influenced by these Euro illustrators and designers (especially Edelmann), the Push Pin Studio, made up of design legends Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser among others, rebelled against the cool sterility of the reigning Swiss (International) Style of corporate design. They plundered past styles drawing willy nilly from historical sources that were heavily expressive and whimsical: huge flared serifs, art from far flung countries and really random shit that brightened life with expressive pictorial form. They dug the unexpected juxtaposition of diverse elements and it became fun, cheeky and appealing as hell. This line that cuts through corporate uniformity with zany exuberance extends right through to Terry Gilliam and his delightful Monty Python animations.

Heinz Edelmann's Yellow Submarine (left) | Milton Glaser's credits for Mad Men's final season (center) | Seymour Chwast
Seymour Chwast (left two) | Terry Gilliam (top right) | Gilliam (below left) | Milton Glaser

A new Brew

Again the distorted and intentionally fanciful, absurd and playful, laughs in the face of propriety and mass produced culture. Gilliam too, was hugely influenced by Edelmann and we can see in all these styles a return to the natural shapely forms, and fun-loving decorative elements – expression over realism and all that flies in the face of rationality, order and mass production.

Seymour Chwast (left) | Milton Glaser (center) | Seymour Chwast

Steampunk Throws one back

Gilliam and his brothers in arms' aesthetic, with its salvaging of historical ornamentation is not unlike that of steampunk, and he could certainly be considered a huge popularizer of the form. In films like Brazil and Jabberwocky we see the celebration (or at least the struggle) of the self-reliant, the tinkerer, the do-it-yourselfer reusing technologies in retro-futuristic fashion. The Steamworks' tap handle epitomizes the steampunk aesthetic, one which pulls from the Victorian Steam Age when technology, products and artifacts incorporated detailed decoration into form and function, where industrial production was in itself an art, and not, as steampunks see it, an act of bland repetition in a sedate cold machine age. Again, a backlash against the sameness of present commercial design.

Anonymous steampunk illustration (left) | Arts et Métiers metro station in Paris
Still from Terry Gilliam's never made film, 1884 Yesterday's Future (left) | Anonymous steampunk illustration.

Style as Substance?

So as steampunk creates it’s own world, reusing and romanticizing the Victorian past, today’s design (and art in general) does the same. The revivals we are seeing here with the BC Beer Award-winners are not rebelling against anything in the design world like their predecessors were (style is now just a closet to steal conceits from), but I believe they are grokking the ethos of when it was oppositional – and perhaps through this choice it slightly still is.

This is a good sign, at least until giant beverage monopolies like AB In Bev start doing it as well as they do, and by the looks of things that might not be too far behind. You just need to look at the Goose Island Brewery's (AB In Bev) massive new beer complex in Toronto – they've teamed up with a big national chain, Cara Foods' Biermarkt; or noticed the slide in quality of previously indie, now AB In Bev brews like Creemore, Mill St. or Unibroue, to feel the pressure of corporate encroachment. It's big business man. Kelowna will soon see the opening of Craft Beer Market downtown. While a Canadian company, alongside it's many new locations across Canada, it has partnered up with First Growth Holdings, a group that services the Chinese beverage industry, to open a location in Shanghai. With rapid expansion, and global palettes in their plans, how long will they be able to afford to keep their attention on great local microbrews? Hopefully forever, but maybe not, right?

It’s great that the BCBA acknowledges the need to recognize good design – to make it competitive and keep raising that bar to create craft beer design that's truly expressive and handmade. I guess you could say that meticulous, devoted creativity and craftsmanship cannot be so easily appropriated by the forces of bottom-line mass-market assembly line production. You can say the same about craft beer. Let's keep it crafty!

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