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