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.
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.”
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!
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’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.
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.
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!
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!