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