Stillwater, Aslin & Mike Van Hall (Part 1)

Stillwater Artisanal Can Designs by Opprobriations

Thumbs raw and screaming, eyes red and bulging… keep swiping, there’s Instagold somewhere in that there stream. Hours pass, poorly lit #icemanpour photos pile up alongside the same-same-but-different and the generally unimpressive. Suddenly, a flash of colour, a bold pattern catches the eye. Is it? It is! It’s a Stillwater Artisanal can release! INSTAGOLD! It was all worth it. We’ll be eating tonight, kids. (Ed. - Seriously, click that Stillwater Artisinal link and browse the labels for the next few hours)

In the countless hours I’ve spent wading through the Instaswamp in search of the finest can designs from around the world, certain breweries have proven themselves time and time again to be a cut above the rest. Take Aslin Beer Co. or Stillwater Artisanal for example: Nary a dud among them, these two brands consistently blow me away with their can labels… and they produce a lot of them. Both breweries are beloved by their fans for the quality of the product they sell. Their devotees know that not only are they getting phenomenal beer, they’re also picking up a limited edition collector’s item, an objet d’art.

In this two or three part series (haven’t decided yet) we talk to Mike Van Hall of the Committee on Opprobriations, the artist behind both Stillwater and Aslin’s mind-blowing label design. Mike’s story, his attitude, and his approach to design are truly inspiring to me. The time and consideration that has gone into every answer is testament to his dedication to his craft. I’m extremely grateful to Mike for having put so much thought into this and am incredibly excited to be able to share this with you all.

So, without further ado, read on for part 1:

Stillwater Artisanal Can Designs by Opprobriations

Hey Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your incredible work! Let’s start from the beginning here… You made the unusual transition from lawyer to artist rather successfully. Could you tell us a little about how that came about?

It came about because of fear. I was working in-house and our small team had just finished a decent-sized deal to sell the company. It felt like a pretty big accomplishment and a meaningful step in my legal career. But while we were working on the deal, one of the guys had a heart attack, and he was around my age. He survived but putting the two things side-by-side, for me, it just didn’t make any sense to continue on that path. The risks and rewards didn’t match up in any rational way.

In the year that followed, I helped out my friends at Unknown Union set up a food project they were creating in Cape Town. Working with a bunch of creative people on a creative project in an awesome city...I just realized that I had been ignoring my artistic nature. I grew up with a love of drawing, but left that behind during college to do something that seemed more responsible, career wise. The enjoyment and feeling of fulfillment I got out of that Cape Town project, as challenging as it was, confirmed that I should refocus myself toward art and design. And that it was possible to be successful at it.

The problem was I had to start again from nothing. I knew I had an artistic eye but that was about it - I was out of practice and didn’t know anything about the tools of the design world. So I did two things in the lead up to my last day as someone else’s employee. I sharpened my artistic eye by reading design books and watching all kinds of documentaries. Second, I spent some time each day learning and practicing how to use some design software.

My hope was that I could smoothly transition over to art without missing a paycheck. I tried to ensure everything I did made business-sense too, which seems wrong at first if the goal is creativity. But my thinking was that I could be more creative by having a solid infrastructure and plan to give me freedom. So I set everything up with all my boxes checked and introduced the committee on opprobriations. It generated zero attention.  

Stillwater Artisanal - Micro Can

I love the Committee on Opprobriations brand – Am I right in thinking that it’s just you? What made you decide to create a separate entity for your work?

That’s awesome to hear - especially because I don’t make it easy for people to figure out what is going on.

The committee on opprobriations is my anonym, which I use randomly and inconsistently in place of my name. The reasoning is all over the place, but it is partly a response to the culture of Internet celebrity, or celebrity in general.

During the inception of COO, I was resigned to the fact that, for this thing to work, I would need to participate in social media, something I never really enjoyed. To the degree it is even possible, I wanted to do that on my own terms while also protecting myself from being subjected to Silicon Valley’s schemes. The COO anonym makes me feel like I can maintain some bit of humanity and preserve an offline life that isn’t in servitude to my online life.

Just as importantly, with the anonym I have cover to morph whatever it is I do as an artist. I consider myself, broadly, to be a contemporary artist and that requires a lot of freedom to be reactive and not get mentally stuck in a certain style or medium. I made up the word “opprobriations” and so I can define what it means now and can change that in the future, if I desire.


From what I understand, the Single Hop Project was sort of your first foray into this world of craft beer design, how important was that project to you, looking back?

The Single Hop Project was defining for the current form of COO. It was actually my second attempt at getting COO going, but yeah, it was the first effort that focused on beer.

The initial version of COO did not have any context, which made it overly difficult to understand from the outside. That lack of context also made it very hard to produce satisfying art from the inside. Doing a print series seemed like an efficient way to introduce myself as an artist and then maybe I could recognize the path for COO while building out the series.

I focused on something interesting to me for the series so it would be easier to generate ideas. My whole life I have enjoyed the culture of booze and food generally, but beer specifically, so beer made sense. I had no plans of doing beer labels at all then, I was just satisfying my own curiosity and trying to build my art and design career.

Hop varietals proved to be the perfect vernacular to get things rolling for COO. At the time, calling out hop names was just starting to become important in beer marketing and people outside the industry were realizing hop varieties mattered. At the same time, I felt like there was a big gap for beer fans in that all the visuals looked frilly and botanical - generally Old World. That stuff didn’t have a great connection with the ethos of the new American breweries that were shifting the beer world back then.

In the end, it worked because the project provided an easy way for people to digest and understand the big world of hop varieties, and to celebrate their favorites as they learned more. The Modernist style gave everything an unexpected flavor and made the connection to the new beer wave stronger.

All that said, I will be ending the Single Hop Project this year. I started the project in 2013 and Modernism has run rampant in beer branding since then. It has lost some magic along the way. For all the beauty of some designs in the beer world, a lot of the breweries are missing the point of Modernism and the result is just frivolous decoration. The Single Hop Project had meaning and I hope it was important to others too. I don’t want it to be lumped in with some of the garbage that is out there now.


Your work, particularly for Stillwater, reminds me of the work Kasper Ledet is doing for To Ol over in Denmark – not necessarily aesthetically, but more in the way you treat the can as an artistic canvas. It’s interesting to me that you have two incredibly successful gypsy breweries across the ocean from each other, both with really strong artistic “branding”, for want of a better word. Do you think there’s something about the gypsy brewery that influences this? Or is it mere coincidence?

I think the commonality you see is that beer companies of Stillwater’s ilk were built on a foundation of daring and experimentation. Initially they had the freedom to be risky because their version of beer making included fewer moving parts they could immediately control - no employees, no taproom to manage, no board members to campaign. These guys are also some pretty bold individuals who understood great marketing in a time when beer was growing fast, but wasn’t nearly as moneyed and hyped as it is today. Though I am not a fan of the word “gypsy”, they all followed their own path and that translated through to the whole identity for each company. For most, it remains that way today at the core, even while some of these guys got really big. The artistic branding is just one conspicuous element of that core.

I like Kasper’s work and, though we have never met in person, he seems to value the potency of texture and restraint in the same way I do, so I feel an artistic kinship is there. “Reminds me of…” is a frustrating phrase for an artist to hear though. My work is personal and mentally exhausting. I don’t think any artist in history is thrilled to hear that their work reminds someone of another’s.

Stillwater Label Design - Insetto

A friend of mine recently called craft beer can labels “the new album art” and I’m strongly inclined to agree. Do you feel the same way?

I totally agree with the analogy in the sense that albums are a consumer product relying heavily on cover art to sell to the uninitiated. But you are usually buying the album for the music, not the cover artwork. For artists, the album cover is a venue almost as good as a gallery because a ton of people will get to see your work and it helps fuel you to produce great stuff.  

The beer label is much more participatory than album art though. Except on draft, you necessarily have to hold the art in your hand or you can’t access the product. My big awakening was when I realized I could use the beer label as a way to reflect personality too - that made it possible to create real art, not just branded decoration. I began to think about designing to reinforce a sense of place or time for the person holding the beer. Drinking is already a super sensory act so I try use design to amplify that and make it even more memorable. It is a way of planting a seed that will trigger nostalgia 10 or 20 years from now. Even though the work is disposable, the experience can be memorable. While you are holding the beer can or bottle, you are projecting something about your personality, even if you don’t mean to be doing so. You don’t necessarily hold the album cover when you are listening to an album. You can barely see it when listening digitally. Beer labels are a chance for more intimate interaction than album covers, culturally and emotionally.

When I first started doing beer labels, treating the label as an artistic canvas, not just a place for branded decoration, was still a fairly novel concept. A few breweries really focused on it - certainly early Stillwater did. But mostly the art was just a brand support tool. Creating flagship beer brands for grocery store shelves really mattered then, so it made sense in a way.

Now offering endless variety is really important and selling direct is viable, so traditional branding rules don’t have to control anymore and people are going nuts. The label art has become so important because so much of the beer world is undifferentiated in a lot of other respects. The bandwagon beer styles, keyword-filled backstories and even the physical brewery spaces all kind of blur together. Label art may be almost as important as ratings - ha!

Image from Contemporary Works by Stillwater Collection

Thanks for reading this far! Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview coming soon!


Phillips Brewing x Shawn O’Keefe

Electric Unicorn Can

The birds are singing, the streets are awash with pastel-coloured blossoms and Vancouverites everywhere are crawling out of drawn-curtained condos, squinting hard as they high five each other and punch the air in celebration. That can only mean one thing: CraftCans is finally back with another killer insight into the world of craft can design. So gather your friends around your screen, crack open that fancy bottle of Cantillon, and get ready to read your eyeballs off - there ain’t no time to waste!

This week we’ve managed to distract Shawn O’Keefe, graphic mastermind at Phillips Brewing in Victoria, BC, from the task of fitting out the incredible new Phillips tap room in favour of answering a few questions about his phenomenal designs.

The Phillips Brewing story is a thing of legend in the BC craft brewing world, but for those unfamiliar with their journey, here’s a potted history: At 27, brewer Matt Phillips decided it was time he started his own brewery. The banks, however, did not agree. Matt proceeded to max out all the credit cards he could, building his brewing empire on a solid foundation of high interest debt. He used this pile of pretend money to pay for his dual function brewery/bedroom in a windowless apartment. In a hostile 2001 beer market, he launched Phillips with an espresso stout, a raspberry wheat and a hoppy IPA. This insanely bold move paid off and the company has since launched a soda company, distillery and a maltworks because why not?

Way back when CraftCans was just a twinkle in my eye, Phillips’ Solaris sleeves were some of the first I found scattered on the warehouse floor beneath the sleever that really got me excited. That psychedelic illuminati pyramid topped with a peach was a straight win in my eyes and, interest piqued, my research then turned up such wonders as Space Goat, Electric Unicorn, Dino Sour… I was sold right there and then. The names alone would have been enough for me. Honestly, they could have had dodgy, traditional English brewery branding and I still would have found some excuse to write about them probably. But instead they had Shawn O’Keefe’s eye-blistering, technicolour magic on them. Look at Tiger Shark. TIGER SHARK! What’s not to love? Nothing. Everything is to love.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Shawn O'Keefe:

Tiger Shark 473mL Tall Can

Hey Shawn, thanks for taking the time to talk about your work, I really appreciate it. First thing’s first: you’re clearly an extremely talented artist, how long have you been in the art/design game and how did your relationship with Phillips come about?

Thanks! I’ve been freelance designing and illustrating since the late 90’s. I was working 9-5 at a small T-Shirt shop in Victoria doing their graphic design work and burning the midnight oil hustling freelance, working for a variety of board sports magazines trying to build up a client portfolio. I had been doing work for a mutual friend and client Gerry Heiter. He was one of the men behind Lighthouse Brewing Co. and creator of The Great Canadian Beer Festival. He recommended to Matt that he pay me a visit to talk about his new brewing company. Matt was super excited about his new project and his enthusiasm was contagious. Before we knew it I was designing his company logo and first run of labels. That was back in 2001 almost 17 years ago now.


Phillips’ cans have to be some of the most recognisable out there, I’ve heard nothing but praise for the Phillips brand. How did the branding develop into what it is now? Was it a collaborative effort or were you handed the creative reigns from an early point?

It’s been a really fun and organic process. I would say that in the beginning it was a lot of baby steps and there was a learning curve for both of us. I was a young designer and he hadn’t built a brewery before. My goal at the time was to just try and nail what Matt had envisioned for his brand. One of the things that made our labels unique in the beginning was our terrible spelling...a trait we still sometimes display. As time went on I became more integral to building the brands. Coming up with beer names, drawing up crazy concept art, helping to formulate copy all became part of what I would do. It’s been a long series of beer-soaked jam sessions that have continued to multiply and amplify in creative scope. It really is an amazingly collaborative effort at Phillips. I’m very thankful to be a part of the family.

Citricity Can 355 can

What does the design process look like for you? Where do you draw inspiration from?
It all begins and ends with beer. In developing the brand we start with the beer style, it’s character and perhaps some word play based on that style. We throw it around in a creative session with a small group of Phillips creative folk and mostly just try and out do each other with bad puns for the first hour. Then it begins to take shape enough to be left with me to flush out a label concept and brand. Amazingly not many “back to the drawing boards” occur and we have a pretty good track record for making fun and graphically appealing labels. Most of my inspiration comes from my love for vintage packaging, skateboard art, gig posters, graffiti and comic books. I keep busy in my local art scene as well and have a pretty sweet art studio downtown that is a bit of a creative hub and hang out.


Do you have a favourite Phillips design? Are there any designs that never made it to can?
My favorite Phillips Brewing Co. can is probably our Electric Unicorn White IPA and our new Tiger Shark Citra Pale Ale in a Tall can. Super fun graphics that came together nicely and really speak to the spirit of the beers. Not many designs get to production stage and don’t make it to a can... but I do have a small folder of designs that didn’t make it further than concept stage. Some definitely don’t need to see the light of day... but there are a couple that I may pull out in the future and try to re-shape and put through.

Cheers Shawn!

Cheers JJ, thanks so much for chatting with me and checking out the work I do with Phillips!


There we have it folks, that's how it happens. If you find yourselves on the island anytime soon make sure you find your way to Phillips' brand spankin' new tasting room, or even to the awesome Phillips Backyard Weekender if you like a good party.

I also highly recommend following Shawn on instagram @trust36 because my God can that man wield a paint can.

Thanks for reading folks!

If Shawn's rad artwork is your bag, you want to check out Bellwoods' incredible labels by Doublenaut.

After something from a little further afield? Check out Rich Norgate's work for Magic Rock Brewing in the UK!

Moody Ales x West Coast Canning Collaboration

All Photos shot by KVD Photography
All Photos shot by KVD Photography

Welcome, CraftCans Fans, to a new feature called “Blowing My Own Trumpet”. If you drink my word smoothies on the regular, you already know that this is a place for me to wax lyrical over all the beautiful cans floating around liquor stores, tap rooms and the interwebs and bring you an insight into the creative minds behind the designs. Well, this week, that mind is mine. So, sorry about that.

Over the last couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of working with the wonderful folks at Moody Ales on a pair of cans for the first of West Coast Canning’s charity collaboration projects, a share of the profits from which are donated to a charity of the brewery’s choice, in this case KidSport Tri-Cities.

The guys at Moody Ales came up with the brilliant idea to do a mixed four-pack to celebrate the winter/spring transition, that ridiculous period of time where the weather in the Pacific North West just makes no sense. As Dan says, “We see it all the time at Moody Ales, it’s a beautiful day and our patio is packed, it starts raining and no one moves, they just put their jackets on and keep drinking - only on the west coast!”.

And lo, the Mixed Forecast mixer pack was born... and I hope you’re as stoked on it as I am.

For the sake of easy reading and to appease everyone who’s told me to interview myself, that’s exactly what I’m sort of going to do. Could be fun, could be lame, COULD BE SUPER INFORMATIVE AND REALLY INTERESTING. Or, also, yeah, super lame. You decide…


Hi JJ, wow, those are some super cool cans you’ve done there. I, for one, totally dig them and I’m sure everyone else with great taste will too. What’s all this Mixed Forecast business about, eh?

Thanks, I’m flattered, really, I’m super happy with how they turned out and how they’ve been received by all the people who are obliged to tell me they like them. The Mixed Forecast idea was Moody’s idea from the start, although it didn’t have a name to begin with. Dan, Adam & Robyn had the idea of a winter/spring transition pack which quickly turned into an ISA and a Dark Lager which made me unreasonably happy because I’m pretty tired of falling into the 7% IPA trap when I'm boozing.

Obviously I went straight for the low-hanging fruit on the whole “seasons” thing, kept it simple and decided weather was the way to go. Thankfully, in my research I stumbled across a blog post written by Adam about the process of naming their brewery which gave me some solid hints as to what to avoid and what might work. “Still Raining” was a nice fit as it’s both incredibly relevant to Port Moody at this time of the year, but also pretty ubiquitous because, well, weather. “Shorts Weather” is inspired by the shared British/Canadian tendency to slip into a pair of shorts at the first glint of spring sunshine, something that really makes me feel at home here. From there, we realised we needed a name for the Mix-Pack and “Mixed Forecast” seemed like the obvious choice. They say the low-hanging fruit is the tastiest, after all!


How ‘bout them sleeves, bud?

Oh, those little things? I mean, they’re not really high concept, but I think they’re pretty and they fit nicely with Moody’s brand. As fun as it would have been, it wouldn’t make sense to pitch some OTT illustrative, shiny monstrosity for this. I wanted them to fit in, but stand out. So... Shorts weather - Sun, Still Raining - rain. Yeah.

Being around sleeves every working day for the past year I’d say I have a pretty good idea of the limitations and advantages of sleeves. Some of my favourite cans exploit the shiny can metal to some extent and I wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to do so myself. Everyone likes shiny things right? And as for the colours… They’re just pretty colours that I liked and was lucky enough that the good folks at Moody liked them too.


Did you draw inspiration from anywhere in particular?

Well, pretty much every can that’s come through West Coast Canning's shrink sleeving service over the past year and is sitting on either my desk or the can wall. But there’s definitely some Justin Longoz influence in there, because he is BC’s pattern master and to-date the most featured on this blog. Not to mention every other artist I’ve featured on this website, because if I wasn’t inspired by their work, why would I bother to write about it, ya know?

This is about as self-indulgent as it gets, and for that, I apologise. Barely.
This is about as self-indulgent as it gets, and for that, I apologise. Barely.

This isn’t really a question, you just want to say a thing and don’t know how to shoehorn it in, correct?

Absolutely! It was awesome to be involved with this every step of the way and I’m really thankful to everyone involved. Moody Ales were incredible, the best clients you could ask for and they brewed some absolutely KILLER beers; IMS, our label suppliers pulled out all the stops and contributed the sleeves so more money could go to charity; everyone at WCC absolutely nailed it, from the sleever wizards to the canning line wranglers and everyone in between. It was pretty insane to take these beers from concept to can... I don't think many designers get to be there to put the labels on, fill the cans, mix the four packs and drink the beers.


Any other projects going on?

Sure, but I’ve already blown my trumpet enough today and my colleagues are complaining about the noise. And this whole self-interview schtick is getting a bit too much, even for me.

A post shared by JJ Coates (@jjinacoat) on

Still Raining Dark Lager is a 5.5% lager with roasted malts giving it rich aromas of chocolate and coffee, but don’t let those fool you... this dark lager is smooth, crisp, and extremely crushable. With these in hand you will forget that it’s still raining.

Shorts Weather ISA is a 4.8% easy drinking India Session Ale boasting a citrus and grapefruit punch. A hoppy beer rounded out with a sweet backbone that brings it all together. Shake off your rain jacket and slip into some swim shorts with this perfectly balanced session ale.

Both beers will be available at Moody Ales' tap lounge, launching this Friday 23rd (THAT'S TOMORROW), which is where I'll be, and at Darby's Kitsilano on the 30th, with both beers on tap in both Kits and Gastown, and Mixer packs available for purchase from the Darby's Liquor store next door. These fine four packs will also be available at private liquor stores across the province, so make sure to grab yours!



Powell Brewery – Streets Ahead



Things move quickly in the world of craft beer and if you ain’t innovatin’ you ain’t … Win-o-vatin’. That’s what they say, right? With an endless stream of novel beers hitting the shelves every week, new breweries opening on every street corner and underdogs like Superflux and Boombox rapidly evolving into alpha dogs, breweries can seemingly no longer rely on even the most appealing of core beer ranges if they want to compete.

One brewery taking up the gauntlet is Powell, a Vancouver favourite with a phenomenal, multi-award winning core range, who have come out of 2018’s starting gates absolutely screaming with a series of exceptional seasonal releases. Until recently Powell Brewery’s seasonal releases generally found their way into bottles, but this year the brewery has taken a solid two-footed leap onto the Canned Wagon, producing some visually stunning, pattern heavy, pressure sensitive beer labels that are every bit as appealing as the brilliant beers within.

Lemonade Stand Berliner-web
Southern Belle Berlinerweb

It seems fitting that I get to gush about Powell’s labels at this particular point in time as it marks, almost to the day, a year of working in the world of cans. My second ever canning run was at Powell, canning their delicious Dive Bomb and Cheeky Session ale. A pair of slightly dented cans from that day still sit front and centre in my can display at home. I remember thinking how rad the cans were, particularly Dive Bomb, and being stoked to be a part of the process. But I also vividly remember spotting a can of their American Farmhouse IPA, a collaboration with Four Winds with an absolutely gorgeous label featuring a dreamy gradient and some faded geometry that evokes the phenomenal Pacific sunsets that paint the mountains pink on the regular... It ticked all the boxes for me back when I was fresh off the boat from England, and still does now.

A post shared by Powell Brewery (@powellbeer) on

Safe to say, I’m pretty gosh darn happy they’ve thrown themselves full force into the world of limited release cans again. Especially when they look this good.


I got in touch with David Bowkett, Owner/Brewer at Powell, and tried to keep my gushing to a minimum and find out a bit more. Read on for the interview!



Firstly, David, I'm a big fan of Powell's look as it is, but I'm definitely feeling the direction of these (presumably) limited release beers as I'm sure a lot of Vancouver is. What prompted you to veer so wildly from the Powell core aesthetic?

Our plan this year is to innovate and experiment a whole bunch. With this in mind we planned to release a new beer every two weeks. We’ll still have our core brands on the shelves, so deciding to choose a new aesthetic for these limited releases made sense. It gives the customer a clear visual difference between the two.

What or who inspires the patterns on your labels?

I take inspiration from a lot of sources. I’ll always try to use the beer or it’s origin to drive the label design. Our newest beer “Norwegian Sun” takes its colour and pattern from the Norwegian Flag in an abstract way. The labels for the “Lemonade Stand” and “Southern Belle” beers, being of similar style, use the fruit as the focus for the pattern.

Tropical Daydreams DH Sour - web

Do you have any thoughts on the battle for shelf space with so many different approaches to can design coming from an ever-growing number of breweries?

It’s getting competitive out there, that’s why creating eye catching beer labels is so important. It draws people in and gets them looking and reading about the beers. Design can only go so far though, the product behind the beautiful label needs to be just as great.

How big a role do you think breweries have to play in the local creative community?

I think we play a big role. Often times we’re the beverage of choice at music events, art shows, and community gatherings. We make a delicious beverage that helps as a social lubricant. And, a lot of us in the beer industry come from the local creative community in one way or another, so it’s no doubt that we feel like we’re a big part of it.

Is there anyone out there who you think is really killing it right now in terms of beer branding/can design?

A lot of breweries have their branding on point, but there are a few that stand out from the rest. The obvious ones for cans are Twin Sails and Superflux, but others like Steel & Oak, Yellow Dog, Strange Fellows, and Four Winds all have strong brands and can designs.


Thanks David!


Keep your eyes glued to the Powell Brewery Instagram and make sure you don't miss any of their new releases!

While you're waiting, why not check out some of the other beer brands that are absolutely crushing it?

Some of my favourite beer can designs of 2017, Justin Longoz' Notus Series for Four Winds

A masterclass in craft beer branding and copywriting from Strangefellows' Christine Moulson

Bench Creek – And Now for Something Completely Different.


As with every industry, craft beer has its own set of packaging conventions. Put the name and style of the beer clearly on the front, ideally with the name of your brewery just there above it, add a visual pun or pretty picture and boom, there’s your can. Easy! There are obvious reasons for doing things this way, sure, but sometimes you've just gotta do something a bit different. Enter: Bench Creek Brewing’s Villainous Series.

This bold series casts aside canning conventions, opting instead for full-sleeve illustrations of classic (and often obscure) movie villains. Lined up in a liquor store alongside your standard core brand craft beers, these eye catching cans stop you dead in your tracks, which is exactly what good packaging should do.

Depending on the depth of your movie knowledge, within seconds you find yourself with your face pressed against the cold glass of the fridge door, asking one of two questions: “Is that <<insert character name>>? I love that movie!” or “who is that odd looking man and why the hell is he on this beer can”. Either way, the can is somehow already in your hand  and you’re halfway to the checkout where you’ll inevitably ignore the cashier in favour of frantically googling the names of obscure villains.

Now i'll be the first to admit that my movie knowledge is famously atrocious - I managed to get just one right (Veruca, obviously) and guessed as wrongly as I did confidently another two - but that’s kind of why I like these cans so much. As well as having a whole bunch of exciting beers to try, you’re also gifted a list of movies to watch or re-watch as you drink them. What more could you want!?

This awesome can series was a full-on team effort from the folks at Bench Creek Brewing and below you’ll hear insights from every angle of the process. We have Andrew Kulynych, the owner of Bench Creek, Head Brewer Warren Misik, Sales & Events Manager Brett Hopper and Kalvin Lock of KLOCK Design. Read on for more!


Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to chat to me about the Villainous series! These are some pretty unique cans - what inspired you to do this series?

Andrew: The inspiration for the series, to me, started from Brett. We all have a fondness for movies (likely for the more obscure ones) and the unlikely villains featured in some of them.

Warren: As Andrew mentioned, Brett had come up with a few villains from 70s-80s campy TV and movies that we originally used for casks. We have a certain strain of yeast that we only use in fall/winter, so we decided to do a bunch of one-off production beers to keep the yeast viable. Most of the villain casks that we had made before used this same yeast, so it was a pretty natural move to name them all after villains. We had to move away from the original idea of older villains though, since we just couldn't find some to fit the beers we had in mind.

Brett: For me, the Villainous Series stems from a series we did in the Summer of 2016, called the Nevermore Series. Each week of July and August we released 100L of a new beer ( so 8 total beers). Again, the creativity of the styles of those products all came from Warren. It worked out that a 30L keg went to Calgary, another to Edmonton, and a third stayed at the brewery in Edson. That was it, the beer was gone after that. It seemed like a no brainer to name the beers after Edgar Allen Poe references, at least to me... I think that caught Andrew off guard a little bit, because he was just thinking of Never releasing the beers again.

Fast forward a little bit and Andrew had asked for help in naming some casks. The recipes that Warren was pumping out were really creative, but at the same time obscure for that time in Alberta Beer. Nobody knew what a winter warmer was but we had put one in a cask. Our flagships and seasonals all have a theme running through them, so I wanted a constant theme when it came to the casks as well, but also a naming convention that was as fun and cool as the recipes themselves. We all love these classic movies at the brewery and more often than not we talk about movies when we're together. So, I proposed that we start naming our casks after obscure movie villains.

Some of the Villainous recipes have been casks we've done, some one-off kegs, and some are new recipes, but because some of them were casks, we already had one or two names for the releases. So... why not name them all after movie villains. The power behind the names makes people go: "Oh yeah... I remember that movie." or they google it...


I’ll be the first to admit my movie knowledge falls pretty short, but some of these villains are pretty darn obscure - Are there any criteria for choosing which villains to feature?

Andrew: There are no specific criteria that qualify a villain for the beer but - and Brett and Warren can likely speak to this a little better - the villains are chosen based on some characteristic of the beer, whether it be the style or ingredient. Drexl is named that because we wanted a Jamaican Rum type flavour in our imperial stout and what’s more Jamaican than a white pimp with dreadlocks?  The recipe comes first... Then the villain.

Warren: Per above, we wanted initially to limit them to classic 70s-80s campier style villains. But as we fleshed out the recipes we wanted, we knew that couldn't work, and we just decided to fit the villain to the beer, while keeping them in movies or TV. Andrew talked about how the villains are chosen to reflect the recipe in some way, so here's some more in depth on each one:

Justice - Buford T Justice from Smokey & the Bandit, the beer is a smoked rye porter

Veruca - Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the beer is a salted brownie oatmeal stout - so many layers to this one!

Moreau - Dr. Moreau from the Island of Dr. Moreau, it's a tropical stout with tropical ingredients added

Drexl - the white Jamaican pimp from True Romance, we made this an imperial stout meant to mimic blackstrap rum flavours

Duce - Il Duce from Boondock Saints, he's an Irish baddie, the beer is an Irish Coffee milk stout

Longshanks - King Edward I himself, for us of Braveheart fame - the beer is styled after a dessert called royalty cake

Ash - the evil "British" android from Alien - the beer is an ESB with US hops added, so just like Ash, it's British on the outside, but slightly different on the inside

Brett: The villain name, or actor behind the character has something to do with either an ingredient, or the style of the beer. So, now that we have this naming convention, I do have a stock pile of names waiting for the right recipe to attach them to.  I chose Ash, for example, knowing we were working with an ESB, and the name is 90% based on Ian Holm and his British accent. Throw in the fact that you don't realize Ash is a villain until the last 5 minutes of the film, and there you go. When I'm writing copy, I try and take some memorable lines from that character and twist it so it's describing the beer and not just regurgitating movie quotes.


Do you each have a favourite can of the bunch?


Apex Predator…lol. My favourite, although I love the Villains, was our entire Nevermore Series that we did since all the art was completely from Kalvin’s noggin… however that wasn’t cans. For Villains, the best one is yet to come for the villains but if I had to choose from the 8 that are already released (art only) it would be Justice. Hopefully that doesn’t get us sued.

Warren: Can - definitely Justice, it's awesome

Beer - Longshanks absolutely will be my favourite based on the cask we built the recipe from

Brett: Moreau is memorable for me because I got to tap the cask version in Calgary, and without getting into too much detail, there are remnants of that beer perma-stained on the inside of my work hat. Also nobody knows what a tropical stout is.


Kalvin, how did you approach the artwork for this series?

Kalvin: As soon as we had the Villains pinned down, it was time for me to throw on the movies and scour google for inspiration and composition ideas. I wanted them to feel somewhere between caricatures and fine portraits without losing the feel of the scenes they were most iconic in. Some of them are really grounded in those scenes, others have a more conceptual connection to the backgrounds. Super fun to research and work on.

Thanks so much everyone! Can't wait for the next releases!


Pictures worth a thousand words? Check out Justin Longoz's art-forward designs for Four Winds

Like a more classic branding case study? Check out Strangefellows' phenomenal branding

Across the Pond – Black Iris Brewery x Kev Grey

Craft Beer label design for Black Iris Brewery by Kev Grey

Buckle up ladies and gents! It’s time to head back over the pond to that wonderful land of beer and funnies, the United Kingdom, in search of more magic from the world of beer can design. This week we’re making a water landing atop the mysterious, dark, boozy abyss that is Black Iris Brewery in Nottinghamshire.

I… don’t know much about Black Iris Brewery. I would love to, don’t get me wrong. And I’ve really tried. But I’m on the wrong side of the world and all I have is an Instagram and a twitter account to go on. Clearly though, they’re brilliant. From what I can gather they’re based in Nottingham, love music, make amazing beer and have some of the most unique label designs I’ve seen in the UK craft beer market. They also regularly hold an event named “Piss up in a Brewery”. Your honour, I rest my case.

Black Iris’ beer can artwork is truly exceptional. As we all know, beer fridges are a screaming cacophony of colours, jostling endlessly for the attention of your eyeballs. But how do you stand out from the tecnicolour background? Go dark. And when you’re going dark with your artwork, there’s only one man you want on the case: Kev Grey.

Kev has been designing since the 1990’s and has worked for some pretty big names in his time, among them: Vans, Download Festival and now Black Iris Brewery. His style is unmistakeable – bold, black and white illustrations drawing on classic tattoo themes and old school skate art, with a healthy sprinkling of humour. Kev’s beer can designs are endlessly playful and differ wildly from can to can, his inimitable aesthetic holding them all together as one cohesive collection that screams BLACK IRIS BREWERY. There is no mistaking these cans for anyone else’s, that’s for sure.

There's a lot to be said for ongoing collaborations between breweries and artists. Over this side of the pond you have folks like Doan's whose brand is now forever linked with local artist Ola Volo through her gorgeous illustrations that adorn both their beers and various walls in Vancouver. In Doan's case, they're rooted to the community and their city by her art. In the case of Black Iris, Kev Grey's art links the brewery to the various subcultures his style of art is synonymous with, from skateboarding to graffiti.

Here’s Kev to talk about his beer label designs for Black Iris, his signature style and his journey with Black Iris.

Craft Beer label design for Black Iris Brewery by Kev Grey
Craft Beer label design for Black Iris Brewery by Kev Grey

First off, you’ve been in the design game for a good while now, designing for big names like Vans and Download Festival - how did your relationship with Black Iris Brewery come about?

2018 is a bit of a milestone year for me as it marks the 20th year since the drawings I was making through the mid-1990s developed to the point where I began working in the black and white style that I still work in to this day. Over the years I’ve worked for many companies, from small independents to big brands, but my relationship with Black Iris began at the beginning of 2014 who up until that point I believe had been brewing in the back room of their local pub and began making plans to develop and expand their business. Luckily for me Alex from Black Iris was aware of my work as he lived in Sheffield when he was younger at the same time I lived and worked there, so when he and Nick began to make plans to develop Black Iris they contacted me to ask if I would design a logo and pump clips for them. Four years later the business and our working relationship has gone from strength to strength.

What does your process look like and how involved are Black Iris?

They will usually give me the name and details of an upcoming beer and let me know if the artwork needs to be designed for keg, cask or can. From there I have a lot of freedom with how I design the artwork which from an artist’s point of view is great as I feel as though they have a lot of faith in what I do and in return that helps me create some of my best work for them. Overall it feels like a collaborative process and one that works really well.

Craft Beer label design for Black Iris Brewery by Kev Grey
Craft Beer label design for Black Iris Brewery by Kev Grey

Your style is instantly recognisable – where do you draw inspiration from? There are clearly classic skate and tattoo influences, but are there any artists/musicians in particular?

My earliest sparks of inspiration that formed the roots of what I still do today were being obsessed by my grandads old naval tattoos in the early 1980s (most of which I have copied and now have tattooed on my own arms), discovering skateboarding and skateboard graphics in the late 1980s, and then reading underground comic books and beginning to paint graffiti both in the mid-1990s. All these influences and researching them throughout the 1990s, combined with the opinion that I preferred black and white comic books to colour, just naturally merged together towards the end of the 1990s and I’ve never looked back. During those formative years I took a lot of inspiration from within those specific cultures but I now try to take inspiration for my subject matter from anywhere that’s unusual and out of the ordinary in an attempt to keep my ideas fresh.

The art & brewing communities are becoming increasingly intertwined, especially over in the UK – Do you have any thoughts on “the can as a canvas”? And on the ever growing interconnectedness of the communities?

As an artist/designer it’s always exciting when an individual company or an industry as a whole sees the potential for being involved with a group of artists who already have their own voice and ideas. I think it’s important when given these opportunities to not just think about what your artwork looks like on paper or a computer screen but to equally think about the size and shape of the object you are designing it for and how it will look once printed on that object. What starts off as a 2-D image becomes a functioning 3-D object and if done correctly your design has the potential to become more than just a drawing printed on something. When I’m designing anything whether it be a beer can, skateboard, T-Shirt etc. I treat it just the same as if I was creating an original artwork that would be exhibited in a gallery.

Craft Beer label design for Black Iris Brewery by Kev Grey

Do you have any personal/side projects that you’d like to share?

I started my own publishing company back in 2008 called Gamblers Grin so I could self-publish and distribute books/zines of my own work and the work of other artists I like. This year I plan to release a new book featuring all my HEAVY RIFF graffiti and artwork I’ve been making over the past few years. I’ve also been creating a lot of original artwork on watercolour paper using black ink and spray paint that I plan to continue as much as possible throughout the year. Best place to see a selection of all my new commissions and personal work is on my instagram @kev_grey

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Gladstone Brewing Co – Killer Craft Beer Branding

Craft beer branding with Gladstone Brewing Co, BC. Incredible beer can design

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Craft beer branding – and, well, all branding really – is about storytelling. Last week I was using lots of words to tell you stories about telling stories with words. This week, I’m going to use some more words to illustrate how well-executed craft beer branding can tell you stories without words and we’re going to use Gladstone Brewing Co.’s phenomenal can designs to illustrate that.

Scroll back up and take another look at those beautiful cans. I don’t need to tell you anything about the brewery. You know their story already. It’s all there in the can design. Barkerville Brewing Co.’s can designs from last week’s post do a good job of visually implying their story, but you still have to read the copy on the can to really get the full hit, to really get sucked in. Gladstone Brewing Co.’s designs use under 20 words (and that’s including their logo, address and diagrams) to say everything they need to. I’m not saying one is better than the other here, I’m just saying… well done Gladstone.

If you’re playing along at home, please get out your felt tip pens and notepad now.

Question 1: In five lines or less, accurately describe the history of Gladstone Brewing Co. and the influence this has had on the brewery. Also, guess what the tap room might look like. (5 marks) [answers at the bottom]

Craft beer branding with Gladstone Brewing Co, BC. Incredible beer can design
Craft beer branding with Gladstone Brewing Co, BC. Incredible beer can design

You can tell that Gladstone’s design team have put in the legwork here. From the colour palette to the diagrams, the minimal design to the authentic fonts, everything here is clearly rooted in the early days of motoring. It evokes images of vintage tin cans; a classic illustrated advert of a hard-working young go-getter, his overalls covered in oil, sporting a strong moustache and possibly making a sexist remark as he clasps a wrench and sings the praises of Castrol motor oil. “If only my marriage were as frictionless as my engine” he proclaims with a sly wink. Classic.

But Gladstone’s exquisite use of mixed printing techniques brings the brand into 2018, effectively contrasting matte colour blocks against stripes of glossy black. The odometer diagrams display a little extra information about the beer and really seal the deal on the theme… “is this about cars? Oh yes, it’s definitely about cars”. This is beer branding at its finest.  They’re honestly some of my favourite cans out there.

Hopefully you’ve managed to scramble through my word forest to this point, or, rather sensibly, just hopped in your metaphorical motor car and taken the road right through it. Either way, your reward for making it this far is a much more concise, much less gushing explanation of the work that went into the Gladstone Brewing Co. branding process from Marissa Johnson, Gladstone’s marketing manager and co-designer. Enjoy!

Craft beer branding with Gladstone Brewing Co, BC. Incredible beer can design

The Gladstone Brewing Co. heritage building operated as the Seale and Thomson mechanics garage and dealership in the 1940s. With the influence of these roots, we opened the doors to our mechanic-inspired tasting room in 2015. Our hand-made tap handles are created from vintage mechanics tools, flights come on upcycled vintage license plates and the room is scattered with carefully curated 1940s oil cans, hubcaps and toolboxes. 

The inspiration of the can design was drawn from this heritage. Hence, the can design is rooted in the simple, impactful aesthetic of the time. From the items in the grocery store, to signage, to motor oil cans, the 1940s brought bold colours, and in-your-face graphics to everyday items. It was such a great time for design that seems to have endless inspiration for us.

The designs for our cans come from Alexandra Stephanson, who is the co-owner of the brewery, and we work together in-house to tweak them, with extreme focus on authenticity. (Before getting in to the brewing industry, both of us came from a visual background - she as a photojournalist and me as a graphic designer.) Rather than searching for retro fonts online, we scour old editions of Popular Mechanics. We spend hours researching, and even specifically narrow it to the year 1948 - which is when the garage originally opened. There's even a font we use that Alexandra created based on her grandfather's handwriting, which involved hours of compiling and scanning. It's a labor of love, and as a designer it's been so great to be working with such clear creative direction.

Craft beer branding with Gladstone Brewing Co, BC. Incredible beer can design

It's safe to say their efforts have paid off. Gladstone have one of the most effective, recognisable craft beer brands on the shelves right now and I can't wait to see where they take it in future. In the meantime, I'm gonna go take our beaten up Jetta to the workshop and get that poor thing painted up real nice in Gladstone Belgian Single blue and cream. If Gladstone decide to go into the Demolition Derby game, they can count on me to bring the Jetta. I'm in.


Prefer your brand stories with words? Well, alrighty, take a peek at Barkerville Brewing Co. or Strangefellows!

Less words, more pictures! How's about a look at Scott. A. Ford's amazing craft beer branding for Zero Issue Brewing in Alberta?

Story Time with Barkerville Brewing Co. x Bully Design Co.

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

Story Time with Barkerville Brewing Co.

Those of you who are regular sippers from the steaming vat of word soup that is CraftCans.Ca will know I love me a good story with my beer. To me, storytelling separates a good brand from a great brand, a local independent brewery from a conglomerate. It can help root a brewery in its community and make it more than just the place across the street that provides you the liquid that makes you feel good. Hell, there’s plenty of studies out there about brand names and flavour perception if you want to get scientific about it. So let’s talk about Barkerville shall we?

Barkerville is a gold rush town overflowing with history. Although Barkerville Brewing Co. is actually based in Quesnel (it wouldn’t have been feasible to run a successful brewery in such a remote and seasonally accessible spot as Barkerville) it gives a voice to the amazing history of this once prosperous prospecting town. Named after the original Barkerville Brewery which burnt down on more than one occasion, the current brewery takes its logo inspiration from the former brewer Nicolas Cunio who sported a damn fine lip-warmer in his time.

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

The designs of the cans themselves combine bold typography with traditional Old West flourishes and extremely effective illustrations. The restricted colour palettes are all gorgeous and oddly comforting, though I can’t explain that part. The type heavy design feels like a bit of a hint that words play a big part in the branding and that you should read every last letter on these cans. And you should, because they’re executed magnificently.

The voice is that of the barkeep in a dimly lit western saloon. Between sips of your sarsaparilla, you summoned him with a nod and he sidled over, polishing a glass with a bar towel, before leaning furtively over the bar. “Say, barkeep… who’s that old man in the corner over there?” you now ask, “he hasn’t so much as blinked since I got here”. Cautiously, after all-too-obviously checking for eavesdroppers, he regales you with any one of these stories, myths and legends... Somehow, that old man stooped in the shadows had something to do with every one of them. …“I’ll take another sarsaparilla, to go.”

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

In three to four sentences, the copy creates a sense of intrigue, history and mystery. You’re a part of the Barkerville world, just by virtue of picking up the can. You want to crack it open and taste the history.

The man behind the magic is Matt Salik of Bully Design Co in Victoria, BC. Read on to see what he had to say about the art of storytelling!

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

How did your relationship with Barkerville come about?
The owner, Russ Ovans, contacted our company years ago about branding and designing this new brewery up in Quesnel. After looking up where the hell Quesnel was we thought it would be an awesome project and a good fit. Our former account manager drafted a slick project proposal which I don’t think Russ was too receptive of so we grabbed a few beers with him to discuss. You can’t dazzle Russ with paperwork, he’s a sharp dude. After… many, many, many pitchers of Swans Coconut Porter I think he figured out we were good guys and could serve the project well.

That’s what we’ve always loved about Russ, you never have to guess what he’s thinking. Awesome, straightforward guy.

I find copy is often overlooked but you guys nail it with every beer. How important do you think storytelling is for a brand? And for Barkerville in particular?
Storytelling is key for a brand. The amount of writing we do for our clients that’s never even seen by the public is incredible. For us it’s not about tricking the customers into thinking something’s good but it’s about demonstrating to our clients that we have spent a significant amount of time trying to understand them and demonstrating that by showing our work. From there the product writing is pretty mellow. Just stick to what we know works for the client and keep things consistent.

Barkerville, in particular, was a great candidate for this approach given its insane history. Russ would come to us with the new beer and the reasoning/story behind the name, which was always based in truth, and we went from there. Much easier to write for a client when they have rad stories!

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc
Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

Barkerville’s story is clearly steeped in history – Had the brewery settled on beer names/stories to feature, or did you get to sift through them and handpick the best? If so, were there any stories you loved but didn’t feature?
This again speaks to Russ’ dedication to the brewery’s heritage and getting things right. I think he almost wanted to create beers that would intentionally go along with the stories which is really cool. I’ve never confirmed this with him but the beer and old stories always tied together really well.

There were a few we discovered on our own that never made it on to a bottle. One being (I believe) the first heavy heavyweight boxing match in BC took place in Barkerville. This could have been a fun one to connect with a really strong beer. “KO Punch IPA” or something. Another one was the first Freemason Temple in BC was also in Barkerville and it had this trick staircase which would retract up into the ceiling when they were having their secret, goat sacrificing meetings or whatever upstairs. Those woulda been fun.

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

Do you have a favourite Barkerville design?
It’s tough because we started in a very different place to where we ended up. Initially the 650ml bottles were all screen printed which meant more of a simplified design which connected to the old Barkerville. Era-appropriate type, simple illustrations, old school borders and shapes really made it feel like an old beer when you held it. I think the 52 Foot Stout was my favorite out of those.

The new labels are more appropriate for the Barkerville of today I feel. They still have a nod to the history and period although updated for more contemporary tastes. I like them both and for different reasons. Out of this new batch I really enjoyed the Bedrock Pale Ale. Adding just little touches of stone texture to the type was fun without going overboard. So easy to go overboard in beer design.

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

Could you tell us a bit about any other personal projects of yours?
Man… ummm… I work a lot. I do anything from beer labels to branding, websites to web apps, company naming to illustration and print design. Sounds a little like a “Jack of All Trades, Master of Stress” but it’s fun.

I just did a quick redesign of my own site which was great because it did not require approval by anybody but me! Weird imagery in a bite-size site. My style. Also just worked on redesigning a contact resource management system for a large insurance-related web app in the states so I’m all over. I enjoy everything.

What are your thoughts on the growing relationship between the beer industry and art/design community?
I feel in a lot of ways it’s past its peak and now things are going to start rolling back. Like the dot com boom the beer boom is in full swing although it can’t sustain its pace so the role of the designer is going to be crucial in getting those thirsty folks out there to pick up a bottle and give the beer a shot. It’s going to be the companies with great beer that stick around and of those companies the ones with the raddest branding and most appropriate labels are going to win.

Right now if you walk into a craft beer store and star at the wall of 1000 beers it almost feels like you’re attending 1000 different art shows. And while this is cool to see I don’t feel enough designers/breweries are considering the market and trying something a little different. For instance my favorite beer label in BC right now is the Steel & Oak stuff. It’s clean, it fits the name, it’s bold and you can see if from the other side of the store. To me this is smart design and not just more design.

Having said that I’m widely considered an asshole so take this all with a grain of salt!

Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc
Barkerville brewing co craft beer can design by bully design co, victoria, bc

Huge thanks to Matt Salik once again for taking the time to talk to us and give us his take on everything Barkerville. Now go get some beers and your reading glasses and get to it!


Not ready for bed yet? One more story? Alriiiight, here’s Christine Moulson of Strangefellows, another top notch storyteller.

LESS WORDS, MORE PICTURES. Why not try Scott A. Ford’s graphic novel designs for Zero Issue Brewing?  

2 Crows Brewing x Midnight Oil Design

The Dream of the Nineties is alive in…Halifax.

Despite being barely a year old, 2 Crows brewing is making waves over in the Maritimes. If their name is a mission statement – it’s inspired by the nursery rhyme “One crow sorrow, two crows joy…” – i'd say it’s mission accomplished. While I haven’t managed to get my lips around any of their drool-inducing beers as yet (we’re talking foedre aged, often-fruited, brettanomyces madness here), I have had the pleasure of staring at their cans on my instafeed for a good few months, forcing a couple of insurance claims for water damaged phones in the process, and oh what joy it’s brought me! These cans are right on the money, folks.

I was lucky enough to encounter a can of Chaos Ghost for the first time in a well-known Vancouver brewery shortly before Christmas. Clearly it had wandered across the astral plain from the Maritimes specifically to reveal itself to/haunt me. Chaos Ghost embodies virtually everything I secretly want from a label. Sure, I’ll wax lyrical about storytelling and branding, typography, and all that jazz, but really all I’m after is some pretty colours, a friendly little character and a relatively nonsensical name like Chaos Ghost. Don’t take yourselves too seriously out there, folks.


So, naturally, my curiosity was piqued and I was stoked to see the rest of 2 Crows' cans were similarly playful and vibrant, exploiting the 90’s vibe with an uncommon finesse. 2 Crows’ beer labels open the bay window wide on the particularly cobwebby cellar of Nova Scotian can design. They are a blast of fresh Maritime air to rouse the comatose grandfather of East Coast beer branding. That’s not to say there isn’t any good branding over there, but from where I’m standing on the West Coast, it looks like a lot of breweries haven’t updated their image since the British first arrived with a few barrels of beer, a couple of flags and a boatload of questionable intentions.

Designed by Alex MacAskill of Midnight Oil Print and Design House, 2 Crows’ beer can designs are a beautiful collection of upbeat, feel good designs; each unique, but held together by a consistent type framework. They feel a little like the East Coast equivalent of Twin Sails’ limited release cans and those babies sell out like crazy, so clearly they’re onto a winner here. Something about the irreverent designs makes the beers feel super accessible to me, especially in the case of Amateur Hour with its notebook doodles, complete with that “S”.

But that’s enough from me, here’s what Alex had to say about his work for 2 Crows brewing:


I'm a huge fan of your work for 2 Crows, how did your collaboration come to be?
I was approached by 2 Crows back in May about starting this project: can designs for a series of limited edition beers that would be brewed once and sold til they ran out. I believe my name was thrown out to them by one of their neighbouring businesses, Inkwell Boutique, a great lil shop of handmade goods that carries some of my printed wares. That's the great thing about Halifax, we've got a tight knit and very supportive creative community. 

How involved are the brewery? Is it a fairly collaborative process or do they give you free reign?
It's a pretty perfect work dynamic really. Sometimes they have ideas in their mind and give me some reference images or explanations to interpret my own way, sometimes they just give me notes on the flavour, ingredients and brewing style and let me go to town. We'll have email chains going back and forth with edits and tweaks to narrow it down from 3-4 concepts to one final piece. A lot of the times having an email chain with 4 or 5 people CC'ed is a designers worst nightmare but they've been a dream to work with. They have great taste and suggestions, they respect my work and my input, and ultimately I think the fact that in two months the cans will be all gone plays into it. If it's only around for a short while why not have some fun and get a little weird! 


I'm a big fan of your 90's aesthetic - I think you've implemented it a lot more successfully than most. What inspired you to go down the 90's route?
The first beer, In Theory, was based on a mural that 2 Crows has in their taproom by local graffiti artist and muralist Christian Toth. It's got that geometric 90's graphic design vibe, so they wanted to do something based off of that. To be honest it was something I had never really done before. 2 Crows folks said they were into my super illustrative and gritty looking poster work, and then asked me to do something in the complete other direction. It's always a thrill getting to try out new styles, and knowing they liked my other work and trusted me with this new task made it a lot less stressful. The first few were sticking to that 90's theme and I'm really pleased with the results. But to avoid the risk of repeating ourselves or getting people too used to it we started playing with other ideas. More contemporary geometric design like the Bonanza, simple but bold type treatments like I Love You, and weird out of left field styles like the doodle-filled looseleaf design of Amateur Hour. 

What inspires you more generally?
I'm a printer by trade, so the visual language of print itself very much informs the way I design. Textures, layering colour, playing with registration, they're things I learned to love through screen printing, letterpress, and woodblock carving, and I carry it over to my design work even when it's something digital, or offset printed. For inspiration I like to look where those qualities of print were a little more prevalent and the technology was less refined, which often is in mid-century cartoons and comics, food packaging, department store catalogs, wall paper patterns, etc. For illustration and design styles I'm really into tattoo flash, vintage graphic tees, gig posters, that kinda stuff. 


Chaos Ghost is definitely my favourite, what's the story behind the name and design?
I'm always a little embarrassed when my reasoning is this straight forward but I basically drew up a sketch that had some ghosts and looked chaotic haha. Like I mentioned earlier the folks at 2 Crows had me trying some new things and thinking about design a little differently than I normally do, so instead of one main focal point this one was more of an all-over pattern. We've tried to have some recurring elements in the can designs so even though they're all so different there's still some unity. A lot of that is the type layout, but some simple shapes have been popping up in multiple designs that reference beer or the brewing process. Carbonation bubbles, hop or grain shapes, and droplets, so liquid-y drop shaped ghosts worked quite well. The colour scheme was based on that mural in the 2 Crow taproom. 

What do you think of the ever-growing connection between the art and beer communities? And the possibilities of using a can as a canvas?

I've been wanting to design beer labels for ages, so this job has been a dream come true. Looking at the calendar I think I'll be able to fill a 12-pack of unique cans I've designed by February, which I never would have anticipated. Without sounding too cheesy brewing is an art form, and I think that like all artists, brewers appreciate other forms of art and are showing it by bringing visual artists and designers on board. A big part of my background is in designing for the music industry (album art, merch, gig posters), and in a way this is very similar. It's responding to what someone else has created, and trying to match or compliment those qualities in your own work. 

Are you working on anything else that you'd like to share?
A few new 2 Crows brews I did the design work for are being released over the next few months, that's always exciting. Most of my life lately has been dedicated to rebranding my freelance design and print work as a brick and mortar shop, Midnight Oil Print & Design House. We do graphic design, letterpress, and screen printing in-house. Everything from wedding stationary to biker bandanas, corporate logos to skateboard decks. So every day is a little different but always exciting! 

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Alex!


Stay tuned for a little update post in the next week or so featuring some of Alex's newest 2 Crows Brewery label designs!

Like a bit of print-inspired design? Check out Doublenaut's incredible label designs for Bellwoods Brewery!

"These are funky 'n' all, but I like a story. Give me stories!" - Right this way for a lesson in brand story creation with Strangefellows Brewing's Christine Moulson

Across the Pond with Rich Norgate and Magic Rock Brewing

All Photographs by Sam Needham

This week we’re throwing it Across the Pond to one of the UK craft breweries that first opened my eyes to the impact of can design on sales, Magic Rock Brewing.

A stone’s throw from the world famous Brighton Beach on England’s South Coast is Bison Beer, the independent craft beer shop where I worked and where I truly fell in love with beer can design. Located as we were in such a tourism hot spot, our clientele was hugely varied. Alongside the craft beer fiends, traditional ale drinkers and thirsty lager lovers looking for a Stella were equal numbers of potential customers who didn’t necessarily like beer or even know what “craft beer” was. What really struck me when trying to help both groups find what they wanted was how often they would nod along to my recommendations, feigning interest as they blissfully and blatantly ignored every word I said before settling on the can/bottle they thought was prettiest. And every time it happened I just thought “fair play, that’s exactly what I would do too.” And it is exactly what I do, still.

One of the biggest winners as a result of this tendency was Magic Rock. Almost without fail, I would turn to the customer with a handpicked beer from the fridge to find them already grasping a glimmering Magic Rock can, their eyes wide, a puddle of dribble forming below. In fact, no can was more successful at converting the “I-don’t-like-beer” girlfriends who had been dragged into the shop against their will than Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss Gose. The undeniable allure of those shiny pink cans ought to be a case study in a research paper on learned gender-based consumer responses. It was truly incredible.

Photographer: Sam Needham

I absolutely love Magic Rock’s cans. Their bright colour palette and menagerie of playful circus characters just screams fun. You want to pick them up take a closer look at the friendly little guys on the can. Then you pick up another can, you spot one of the characters from the first can. You pick that can back up and it becomes a sort of Where’s Wally (Waldo for the North Americans) / Spot the Difference game. Suddenly you have three cans in your hand. Four – you’re juggling now. You’re part of the Magic Rock circus. You are bad at juggling, better drink one. It’s a vicious cycle.

Recently Magic Rock branched out and started doing more and more smaller batches of limited release beers and with that came a slight departure from their core can designs. These new cans used a similar design language, but were bolder, brighter, contrasted against black cans. They are still very Magic Rock, but this different treatment really emphasises that these beers are something different, something special.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Rich Norgate, Magic Rock’s in-house designer about the new direction and the inspiration behind the original can designs:

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham

It’s been great to watch the Magic Rock identity grow and evolve over the years. Recently the iconography seems to have moved away from the overtly circus themed to something more abstract and bold, while still retaining that playful, fairgroundy feel. Was it a deliberate choice to shed the more explicit circus references or just a natural evolution?

I’d like to say it was completely deliberate but that’s not the way I tend to work. From the start of the brand I’d always liked how the illustrative style looked on a big scale. When we first designed the wrap for our van I was really happy with the result. The characters really worked well at scale, creating more of a pattern based design. The more recent design of the 500ml big lads was created after I’d done the design for the 2016 edition of the rainbow project can; I’d again used the illustrative style on bigger scale. From a brand perspective we felt the relationship was still strong between the current style but it allowed us to have a product that would look slightly different on the shelf. These label cans are small batch one off brews so having a style to the brand to associate with these is important. 

It’s interesting because the new treatment of the style has been received well. I’ve always been interested in pattern design and geometric shapes, I enjoy the mechanical process of designing in this way, and I suppose this comes from my Graphic Design side. Whilst I’m really enjoy working in this way I worked on a new core can last month in the current design style and it was refreshing to revisit the style and treatment. 

As an in-house designer there’s a danger of getting a little too comfortable with the brand which can lead to the work looking a little aged and laboured. To keep things interesting and fresh I try to evolve as a designer with the work. You have to keep the brain active. I’d rather push the work. 

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham

Various characters pop-up across the range of beers – do any of them hold any particular significance? Have you named any of these recurring cast members? I know I would…

Some are and some aren’t. I can’t really go into too much detail but we have one called Shazza which is based on someone I met who had spent way too much time in a solvent heavy print room. Stuart our head brewer completely immersed himself in his character and was known to dress up as the bearded lady at early meet the brewer events. For the sake of the brand and people’s eyes we had to put a stop to that. 

The move to pressure-sensitive labels on black cans is genius – as if the cans weren’t recognisable enough already, they’re now even more visually striking than before. I love that it gives you the opportunity to experiment with different finishes as with the black on black bearded lady cans. Do you find it’s given you a bit more freedom?

I’ve always viewed print techniques and finishes as bells and whistles to the finished design. I’ve never been against them but due to budget constraints in previous jobs I’ve always tried to keep things simple and get the design to work in its simplest form. That’s not to say now I have an endless budget to play with but there’s more of an opportunity to look at different finishes. 

Photographer: Sam Needham

Are your Magic Rock designs inspired by anything or anyone in particular?

I’ll keep this list short. Things that have inspired me from a creative point of view: The Designers Republic - Warp Records - The Face magazine - Eley Kishimoto - William Morris - Kate Gibb - My tutor at uni John Young, I have a lot of thanks for him. 

What does your design process look like?

From a Magic Rock point of view I like to start with the name of the beer, these mainly come from our MD Rich Burhouse. I like to start here as it gives me a hook into the visual side of things. Then I’ll doodle in my sketch book before taking it into Adobe Illustrator, from there I start to work it up and things evolve. I’m in a really nice place with my design at the moment. I always used to question my work and compare to others, this is a good thing to do and can really help you develop as a designer. However sometimes this can lead to not listening to your instincts. I’m in a place now where I’ll make a decision and stick with it; I question it less and just go with it – but that's not to say I care about it any less. It’s a refreshing and peaceful way of working. 

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham

Is Magic Rock your full-time design gig these days?

It sure is. In addition to designing I help organise events and work on project based ideas. 

What are your thoughts on the ever growing connection between beer and art?

I think the important thing is the connection with the brand. Obviously the product in our case beer is the frame that holds the brand together but if this isn’t consistent and strong (not in the ABV sense) then people can quickly move away from the brand. It’s my job to create a brand that people enjoy associating with. This goes beyond the design; it’s how you communicate your tone of voice and personality. We want people to feel part of Magic Rock. 

Do you have any personal/side projects that you’d like to share?

Not from a design point of view at the moment. I try to switch off when I’m not working, I still think about design but I find it’s important to do other things. It’s all about balance. Surfing and riding bikes is a good tool for this. 

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham