The World of Strangefellows with Christine Moulson

Strange Fellows are one of those rare craft breweries that are universally respected on the Canadian craft beer scene. Nearing its 3rd birthday, this is one Vancouver brewery that truly understands the art of storytelling. If you’ve been out in Vancouver at any point in the last year, you’d be hard pushed not to have sunk at least one can of their gorgeous Talisman, a West Coast Pale ale which essentially acts as their flagship.

But if you’ve only seen these beer cans in the dark light of a club or at the tail end of a crawl around East Vancouver’s breweries, here’s what your next steps should be immediately after you’ve finished reading this post: Get yourself down to Strange Fellows or your closest private liquor store and buy yourself one of each can (if you have to buy them each as four packs, do it, you’ll want to drink them all anyway); go home and light a fire (whether woodburning, electric, toaster oven, youtube, or otherwise) and put on your slippers; sit yourself down in a nice armchair, perhaps snuggled under a blanket or in your favourite smoking jacket; crack open the beer of your choice; then – finally - burn all the books you own. You don’t need them anymore. The Strange Fellows stories are all you’ll ever need. Plus the extra fuel should keep you warm as you power through those 24 beers you just bought.

Vancouver Brewery, Strange Fellows, Beer can design by Christine Moulson

The Strange Fellows brand is artfully conceived. Their beer cans, bottles, website and communications strategy enriches and brings to life a world of curious myths, fables and folklore from cultures far and wide. The can designs are subtle and feature medieval looking block prints that illustrate snippets of exceptionally well written copy, teasers designed to draw you into the Strangefellows world, a world that is strange and extraordinary. They transport you to a different time, hinting at old traditions, traditions you can experience at each of their monthly Strange Days, held at the Vancouver brewery. As soon as you enter the Strange Fellows world you know exactly what to expect from the beers which are brewed using techniques inspired by traditional methods but infused with more than a jolt of creativity.

Good copy is something you don’t really notice is missing from most beers until you encounter the brands that actually put some thought in to it. Strange Fellows’ story telling gets you invested in the brand on a much more emotional level than some off-the-shelf tasting notes. It’s about world building. And they build an enticing world. Go into any liquor store and count how many times you read the words “aromas of citrus” or “herbal, piney flavours”. Now read the tale accompanying Strangefellows’ Blackmail Milk Stout:

Vancouver Brewery, Strange Fellows, Beer can design by Christine Moulson

Fuck your citrus notes; I want to drink Norse secrets, damnit!

And on that note, it’s time to hear from the lady behind the stories, Christine Moulson, Strange Fellows’ in-house designer and general word wizard. Here’s what she had to say about creating the world of Strange Fellows:

 

Strange Fellows definitely seems to be one of the best known and most well respected Vancouver breweries. Obviously that’s in part down to the exceptional quality of the product but I’d certainly argue, and I believe Iain agrees, that it’s also largely down to the strength of the brand. You manage to do what a lot of brands fail to do, and that’s telling a cohesive, engaging and intriguing story. How important do you think storytelling is for a brand? And for Strange Fellows in particular?

I am a big fan of storytelling. We learn so much about others by listening to their stories, and can find some common ground that we might assume at the outset does not exist. Strange Fellows is all about finding that common ground - no matter where you come from or what your beliefs, we all share some fundamental truths, and we hope our stories highlight those truths. We can sit down and have a beer together and enjoy some common ground.

Vancouver Brewery, Strange Fellows, Beer can design by Christine Moulson

All of your communications are exceptionally well worded. Copy is often overlooked on beer cans, but clearly a lot of thought has gone into the copy on each can and each brand evokes a new curious piece of folklore. Does your writing take cues from any author/genre in particular?

Western folklore and superstition in general I guess. There are so many examples of the same concepts being told in different tales in different cultures, but they often all boil down to the same essential message. Similarly, the same archetypes appear in different folklores who serve to illustrate the same message. I find the fact that we still follow so many traditions based in superstition without questioning the reason also very interesting and related. I take the nugget of a truth or a superstition and start from there, or sometimes it is the beer that starts the story. Like a vain peacock to the sour beer that is Popinjay. When I tasted the beer, the image of a peacock came to mind and the story followed from there. I have no idea if people actually read the stories but I hope they do.

 

Do you have a favourite folkloric tale?

I enjoy all of Aesop's tales for their utter simplicity and truth.

Visually, the brand really stands out from the crowd. You don’t see many block prints on… well anything these days. What inspired you to take that route? Is it something you have a lot of past experience with?

I decided to use block prints for the brand imagery for several reasons. I was inspired by the awkwardness of Medieval woodcuts, a visual look I feel suits the stories. I wanted a bold image that would stand out in a sea of so many colours. I like the forced imperfection of carved images, and I think the hand-crafted images reflect the craft nature of the product.  The good thing about going to art school is that you learn many different techniques, so while I had not done block printing for many years, I was able to create the look I was after.

 

You curate the Charles Clark gallery at the Brewery – What are your thoughts on the ever growing connection between the art and craft beer communities?

I am so happy that we were able to carve out a little piece of the brewery building for the art gallery, albeit with forklifts driving through it. I love it when I encounter art in an unexpected or unplanned way, so being able to provide a space where folks can experience an artist's vision in an un-intimidating way is very satisfying. I have recently passed on the Charles Clark Curator badge to someone else at Strange Fellows, and am excited to see what the future brings.

Vancouver Brewery, Strange Fellows, Beer can design by Christine Moulson

I see you’ve also designed identities for Dames wines, which are gorgeous. Do you have any ongoing or personal projects you’d like to tell us more about?

Thanks! Dames Wines will be releasing a new wine in the new year, and I will do the next label in the series. Soon, very soon, I hope to be able to devote some time to making more masks for Strange Fellows, as well as explore some sculptural work of my own.  My on-going goal is to make more time for my own artistic expression, but it is so hard to find time given the demands of a young business and a young family.

 

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for reading the stories on the cans!

And thank YOU for reading my stories about the stories on cans.

Like beers you can read? Then you need to see Scott A. Ford's beautiful packaging design work for Zero Issue brewing.

Reckon literature belongs in a library and not on a beer can? Check out Steve Kitchen's awesome low-brow, skate inspired character design for Parallel 49!

Parallel 49 – Steve Kitchen

Steve Kitchen craft can design for Parallel 49 Brewing, Vancouver

If you live in Western Canada and you’ve even so much as looked at a beer list or visited a liquor store in the past year or so, I’d be willing to wager you’ve come across Parallel 49 Brewing. After 5 years in business, the BC craft beer behemoths are one of the few breweries to have reached a scale that allows them to distribute their beer far and wide and, at the same time, keep both government and private liquor stores across BC and Alberta stocked up around the clock. No matter where they're stocked, if they're there you can't miss them.

Bold Branding, Killer Character Design

Parallel 49 beers are hard to ignore. I mean they are bold. They are bright. They’re obnoxious even. But that’s what makes them so bloody brilliant. Bawdy characters scream at you from the shelves, daring you to pick them up. Or don't, whatever, they couldn’t care less. There’s something vulgar about them, something totally shameless and unabashed. It’s that 90’s skate / gross-out B-Movie / metal aesthetic back with a vengeance.

But it’s more than an aesthetic, it implies a certain attitude. With names like Wobblypop, Jerkface 9000 and Trash Panda, they clearly don’t take themselves seriously; they’re just doing their own thing. It shouts “we don’t pander to trends”. They are the branding equivalent of the skater kids who catch a tonne of heat from everyone for being anti-social and weirdly dressed, when really everyone wishes they had the confidence to be themselves. It's that effortless, carefree confidence that polarises people, particularly those whose identity shifts with the changing trends.

Although all my instincts are telling me to take that school yard clique/brewery identity metaphor and run with it as far as it will go, I’m not here to ruffle any feathers. If you must know who’s who in this pretend school yard of drunken children, you’ll have to track me down and get me drunk. (Think you know who's who? Answers on a postcard to jj [at] craftcans.ca)

Steve Kitchen Jerkface9000 craft can design for Parallel 49 Brewing, Vancouver

Iconic Characters

The mastermind behind Parallel 49’s inimitable branding and the creator of this ever growing family of characters that adorn their cans and bottles is Steve Kitchen of Combination 13. Steve’s branding and his range of can and label designs are without a shadow of a doubt a huge part of Parallel 49’s success as a brand and those I’ve spoken to at the brewery seem to emphatically agree. His artwork puts the brewery in a class of its own and, whether you’re into his work or not, you have to agree that it is one of the most recognisable, most unique brands available on the Canadian craft beer market.

Steve Kitchen Wobblypop craft can design for Parallel 49 Brewing, Vancouver
Steve Kitchen Ruby Tears craft can design for Parallel 49 Brewing, Vancouver

Hey Steve! You’ve managed to develop one of the boldest brands in craft beer with your work for P49. How did your relationship with P49 come to fruition?

Prior to the inception of the brewery in 2012, my gig poster artwork was well known here on the streets and poster poles of East Vancouver - The vision for the owners of Parallel 49 was to see that kind of random creativity adorning their beer bottles & cans. Upon meeting with the guys, we drank some early batches and kicked around some design ideas - I then produced a set of six initial designs and the rest is drunk history.

 

What does your character design process look like? How closely do you work with the brewery throughout this process?

It’s mostly sketch work in an attempt to find a character design that is fitting, I tend to throw ideas at the wall until something sticks with the owners - Often I’ll be given a beer name to work with or I’ll present my own artwork and name combinations. How closely I work with the brewery on each label varies each time, they are pretty good at offering feedback and don’t take the process too seriously. I like that they let me do my thing independent of any solid design constraints and are open to taking chances on bold concepts.

Steve Kitchen Cowboy Crusher craft can design for Parallel 49 Brewing, Vancouver

You clearly have a strong aesthetic. I get an old school Marc McKee skate graphic vibe from a lot of your work... who inspires you and has inspired you the most would you say?

Thanks JJ! My inspirations are somewhat of a mish- mash which straddle gig posters, surf / skate graphics, old school americana, candy wrappers, pinball tables and weird advertising - I tend to be drawn to disposable artwork mostly, always something that serves a purpose but in an attractive way. I've always loved the low brow aesthetic of Vince Ray’s artwork, instantly recognizable with a strict colour palette, Jim Phillips and Jimbo Phillips are natural inspirations too, as are Coop & David Vicente - The artist who has inspired me most however, is Reg Mombassa - Reg’s Mambo era artwork I've always found curiously appealing and eternally original, with their slightly twisted humour & unique stylings - Although our art styles are worlds apart from one another, it was Reg that taught me art doesn’t need to take itself too seriously, and that a good design can also provoke and amuse in equal measures.

A post shared by Combination13 (@combi13) on

Do you have a favourite character you've designed?

That’s a tough one! Lost Souls (above - yes I know it's not a can) comes to mind as it’s really in your face and quite creepy - I’m always looking to have these characters almost jump out of the label at the consumer, and in the case of Lost Souls, I think we got it right. Filthy Dirty is another favourite; he gives off a troublesome air of sneaky mischief & punky attitude. We also have a brand new major IPA – Trash Panda - that’s just been released featuring a nasty Racoon character - I’ve used a nice vintage looking halftone in the print and implemented the aluminium shine of the can as highlights in the artwork - We fully expect him to ruffle some feathers in the Craft Beer world very soon!

Steve Kitchen Trash Panda craft can design for Parallel 49 Brewing, Vancouver

What are your thoughts on the ever growing connection between beer and art? (the idea of the can as canvas)

As an artist myself I think it’s great! There’s so much creativity & diversity in craft brewing, it seems only right to couple that with equally creative & diverse artwork - There are no rules to speak of in this relatively new industry and brilliantly, the majority of breweries approaches the task uniquely. You only have to visit your local liquor store to see the array of art styles on offer. For me, craft beer and craft art makes for a perfect marriage I’m grateful to be a part of.

 

Thanks Steve!

 

Steve Kitchen Filthy Dirty craft can design for Parallel 49 Brewing, Vancouver

If you haven’t already done so, I recommend checking out Parallel 49’s website and scrolling through their Instagram so you can browse their back catalogue of beers and check out all the gnarly characters that Steve has designed over the years. It’s an extended family of bold, silly characters with ridiculous names, the newest addition to which is Trash Panda, a hazy IPA with a tonne of dry hops and part of Parallel 49’s core range. Just look at the rabid little fella! Not a huge amount of breweries would pick a garbage dwelling rodent brandishing a fish skeleton - the traditional cartoon signifier of bad smells – as their mascot. But shit, I mean, why not. Why not? That’s just the beauty of the brand. They do what they want with their labels, which implies the same for their beer. And people love that. People wish they had the courage to do exactly what they wanted. Maybe if you drink their beer you’ll gain the necessary courage to do so as well. Only one way to find out, eh?

 

Not a fan? Prefer something less in your face? Something a bit more refined? Check out Sami Christianson’s designs for Steel & Oak or Justin Longoz’ work for Four Winds’ Notus Series.

Like it bold? Check out ‘Berta’s finest with Pete Nguyen’s craft can designs for Yellowhead Brewery.

Zero Issue Brewing – Scott A. Ford

Zero-Issue-Brewery-Illustration-PURPLE

A good brand tells a story. That story makes your product more than just a commodity, it gives it personality, allows consumers to identify with it, to invest in your brand emotionally. And that story can be anything – whether it’s “we like trucks”, “we are an exclusive club with exceptional taste” or simply “we make great beer and also we’re right next door to you so come and drink it”.

Few brands, however, take this advice quite as literally as the MacDonald brothers at Zero Issue brewery in Calgary. Mark and Kirk MacDonald are unabashed sci-fi fans and comic book lovers and their brewery is a celebration of their passions. In fact, “Zero Issue” is actually the term for special comic book releases that generally detail a character’s origin story. So perhaps it’s no surprise that these brothers jumped at the opportunity to really tell a story through their brand by harnessing the canvas that is the craft beer can and turning their product into what is essentially a graphic novel, enlisting Winnipeg based graphic artist Scott A. Ford to design their brand and can artwork.

zeroissue-4

These can labels are truly outstanding. The way I see it, the illustrations essentially act as the front cover of another issue of the comic book – Ford has a phenomenal knack for capturing what feels like the pivotal moment in each imaginary issue, suggesting vast worlds with minimal details and bold colour palettes. Each can provides a tantalising hint at a thrilling story and the longer I stare at the artwork the more I want to find out about the backstory. I want to read this beer. It’s one thing to pick up a beer with a great brand story and think “oh yeah, this is cool, I can get on board with this” and that happens fairly often in Vancouver, but to pick up a beer and go “oh man, I NEED TO KNOW MORE – WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!?” … that’s a pretty unique feeling. If I could find any Zero Issue here in Van, I could definitely see myself drinking a lot of them purely in the hopes of gaining some kind of miraculous insight, as if the story is there swimming in the boozy ether of oblivion.

Alas, it’s not, so the second best option seemed to be to reach out to the artist himself in a bid to find out more:

Hi Scott, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. 

The folks at Zero Issue clearly like their sci-fi and comic books, but to what extent did they hand you the reigns? How involved were they in the process?

Honestly, Zero Issue has been one of the best clients I have ever worked with. They came to me with an overall aesthetic, and the names and visual themes behind each of their beer varieties. So right from the start I had a really great foundation to work off of, but beyond that they were happy to let me do my own thing. It was my choice to go with flat 2d perspective on all the cans, the consistent central character, and the simple bold colour schemes for each illustration. But they still had really helpful feedback throughout the entire process. I definitely felt like we were always on the same page when talking about the art and branding of Zero Issue.

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Does the Zero Issue character have a storyline sketched out somewhere? is there a Zero Issue for Zero Issue?

Actually, funny you mention that, when I started these separate illustrations, I never thought of the central figure as the same person, but by the end, I was starting to come up with a story in my head of how these vignettes were perhaps connected by a single narrative.

So, unbeknownst to Kirk or Mark, I took it upon myself to string these illustrations together into a single (although fairly abstract) sci-fi story, and made it into this little, almost collage-style, comic book. It was really just a personal passion project that was born out of this commission. I printed it and sent it to Kirk and Mark as a surprise and they really liked it. And they even ended up paying me for the extra work I put into that comic, even though they didn't actually commission me to do it in the first place. So now they technically own the rights to that comic and, as far as I know, they haven't released it to the public yet. 
So, maybe to answer your question a bit more concisely: yes, there is a "Zero Issue" for Zero Issue, but it might not be ready for the public yet. 
Dystopia-FLAT-notext-web

Do you think there's an Alberta Aesthetic? We find we can usually guess a 'Berta brewery from the style of artwork on the can. This definitely isn't your typical Alberta can though. Were you conscious of that when designing?

I live in Winnipeg, so to be honest, I wasn't aware of any Alberta brewery trends. However, it was a conscious decision to do something different from most modern can designs, so I'm glad that you feel it stands out. I've seen a lot of can designs that try to put too much detail on such a small product, so from the start I knew I wanted to do something really bold and simple. I wanted to make something that would stand out from a distance, something that would be clear and eye-catching from all the way across the liquor store. So, yes, I was conscious of general beer art trends, but not specifically Alberta beer trends. 

What are your thoughts on the idea of the "can as a canvas" // the growing inter-connectedness of craft beer and the art/design world?

Beer can art is definitely a growing trend, and something that I wanted to contribute to with Zero Issue's can designs. My girlfriend and have actually started collecting cans and bottles that we think are particularly nice. Obviously I love packaging and graphic design, but I think some people still see graphic design and branding as very "corporate" and not artistic. I try to treat every project like a work of art, no matter its application. I think if you design a product that simply "looks nice", like a standalone piece of art, then the product sells itself and it feels less like just an advertisement on a bottle.

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Do you have anything else you'd like to add about these labels?

Funny story, since I've been working out of Winnipeg, and Zero Issue beers are currently only available in Alberta, so I hadn't had the opportunity to try their beer for myself. So naturally the tension was building and I was keeping my fingers crossed that it was good beer. And then out of the blue, my friend came back from a trip to Calgary and surprised me with some Zero Issue cans. I was super excited to finally be holding my can art with my own hands, but the cherry on top was when I finally cracked them open and they tasted super good! 

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Finally, do you have any personal projects outside of all this that you're excited about?

I am currently working on my first full-length graphic novel, Ark Land! It is also my first ever professionally published book, by ChiZine Publications out of Toronto. In short, Ark Land is a colourful and whimsical sci-fi adventure story about a humble fantasy world turned on its head by the arrival of mysterious alien arks. Basically it's The Legend of Zelda meets District 9. It's a project I've been dreaming of and working on for a long time, and it's easily my most passion-filled project to date. Needless to say, I am extremely excited to finish up this book and get it into the hands of the public!

When I first saw these cans before I knew anything about the brewery I was really excited to see such a different approach to a beer label. I loved the colours, the energy of the illustrations – everything about them. Since I’ve spoken to Scott, learnt more about the story behind Zero Issue and stared at the artwork for hours on end, though, I’ve realised how invested I am in the story being told here. The descriptions of each beer are beautifully crafted to pique your curiosity. Alongside the artwork they hint at more; a rich sci-fi adventure that’s unfolding somewhere, secretly just out of reach. I want to know more. I am emotionally invested in the brand. It works. The trick works!

 

Check out the 'Berta competition - read our interview with Pete Nguyen about his designs for Yellowhead Brewery.

Prefer something a little more abstract? Take a look at Four Winds' Notus Series, designed by Justin Longoz.

Superflux Beer Company

They say write about what you know, so we’re keeping it local again with Vancouver based gypsy brewers Superflux Beer Company. Superflux are something of a local legend around these parts. Founded at Callister Brewing’s incubator as Machine Ales, Superflux are one of those breweries whose beer has historically sold out as soon as it has hit the shop floors. Ironic, given the name. To stumble upon a four pack of their bright, bold and beautiful cans of magic is to strike liquor store liquid gold.

Superflux Beer Company are walking proof of the concept of creative limitation. Despite being of no fixed brew space and, presumably, working to pretty tight margins Superflux have consistently pushed out a range of complex, delicious beers that have had lucky lips a smackin’ tongues a talkin’ across the city and their success is starting to show through in their branding.

Their early 355ml can designs had a definite brewed-in-my-backyard romance to them with their thin stick-on labels, each one of which was painstakingly applied one by one post-canning run, something that almost certainly played to their favour in a community primed and ready to root for the underdog.

Now brewing out of Strathcona Beer Company's brewhouse, Superflux have both more room to brew and, having moved to tall cans, more surface area to play with. The designs have finally been given room to breathe and are all the more eye-catching and exciting for it. There’s no skipping over these on the shelf.

We reached out to Matt Kohlen, one half of the Superflux duo and the man responsible for the can design as well as, alongside his brewing partner Adam Henderson, virtually everything else to do with the bootstraps operation that is Superflux Beer Company to find out a bit more about the process behind the design of both the can art and the beer:

“My process varies from beer to beer but is generally pretty simple. Design the type of beer first and then move to the visual stuff. I think the colour palette is by far the most important aspect; so I start with that.

I’m normally inspired by things I see day to day. The most recent label, “Pretty Much Yeah”, was copied from a cool backpack I saw someone carrying a few weeks ago. Then I play with different shape/pattern combos which is the tough part. There are only so many colours and shapes, so making each label unique can be a challenge.

A few words to describe what we go for aesthetically are: Bold, minimal, clean, approachable, colourful. My partner, Adam, comes up with the names. It’s all a cool process, and kind of neat that we have the ability to tell the Superflux story ourselves.”

And it’s a story Vancouver’s beer scene is keen to keep reading. Head down to Strathcona on a can release day and you’ll find yourself part of a line-up that’s just a few wands and cloaks away from rivalling a Harry Potter book release.

Stay tuned for more from Superflux in future, I have a feeling there’s a lot more to come.

 

Thirsty for more? Head to the Archive to read more

Coast Mountain Brewing

coast-mountain-transition

Coast Mountain Brewing is the archetypal craft brewery: small, independent, and run by passionate locals with both feet firmly in the community. Having opened in Summer 2016 this young craft brewery has already made a strong impression on the Whistler, BC scene. And, really, how could it not? Their beer is delicious and their branding – breath-taking. As someone who spends a large amount of the working week buried in cans from all over Canada, Coast Mountain’s definitely deserve to be some of the first to be celebrated. Designed by Hired Guns (who can seemingly do no wrong) their packaging design and logo perfectly encapsulate everything the brewery represents. Here’s what they had to say:

For Coast Mountain, a new craft brewery in Whistler, BC looking to celebrate the great outdoors, we were tasked with creating a brand that feels bold, adventurous, and dynamic. We decided to design a brand mark using hand-drawn letterforms with thick, textural strokes, rising to a rocky peak with the central “A.

For the cans, custom illustration and typography in the close foreground give each beer their unique personality, while the strong diagonal silhouette of a mountain range in the background serves as a unifying brand element and creates a sense of depth and dynamics, with a shot of the can’s silver showing through for the final shimmer.

Expect to see more from Hired Guns on this blog – a cursory glance at their portfolio turns up some incredible design work for a number of breweries that I can’t not feature. If you find yourself in or