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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The Notus Series – Four Winds Brewing Co

Four Winds Notus Series designed by Justin Longoz. Photos by Alison Page

Four Winds Brewing company have one of the most instantly recognisable brand identities in the BC Craft market. Created by Andy Dixon back in 2014, Four Winds’ packaging designs often feature bright ‘n’ bold geometric patterns tempered by an elegant, almost regal blue which has since become synonymous with the brand. A couple of years ago, the immensely talented Justin Longoz stepped in as Four Winds’ resident designer and has done a tremendous job of not just maintaining, but building on and developing the Four Winds brand. This summer, the Delta based brewery dipped a toe into the world of canning with the stunning Notus series – four incredibly drinkable summer six-packs, featuring Longoz’s stellar design work.

These cans took my breath away when they first arrived in the warehouse and I still catch myself staring vacantly into their vortex of colours on the regular. Hell, it’s become such an issue that the last one to leave at night has to do a final sweep of the warehouse to make sure I'm not still standing around drooling. In a vain bid to break the spell these cans have cast over me, I got talking to the genius behind these alluring little vessels to see what he had to say for himself:

Four Winds Notus Series designed by Justin Longoz. Photos by Alison Page

Hey Justin! The Notus series cans are absolutely stunning. Are your designs for the series inspired by anything or anyone in particular?

With the Notus series, I knew I wanted to do simple geometric shapes and bright colours on white backgrounds because I hadn’t really seen anyone in BC doing that yet and I knew that would stand out. I knew I wanted to start doing labels with no words on the front like I had seen with the works of label designers from European craft breweries. Keith Shore of Mikkeller, Karl Grandin of Omnipollo and Kasper Ledet of To Øl are the three designers that definitely come to mind right away. I like the idea of creating simple and eye-catching imagery that leaves people thinking “what the heck is this?” and invites them to pick it up.

 

Just how abstract are the designs? The Vélo design seems to reflect the contents in the colours (lemon and Himalayan salt) and is clearly round like a bike wheel - are the others similarly representative of the beer, but in a slightly more subtle way?

The designs are definitely abstract but I tried to create designs grounded in the concept, flavor, colour and/or content for each beer.

  • Vélo’s design is a representation of both a wheel and of peeling citrus fruit, pulling the eye around the can from left to right. The colours are shout-outs to the beer’s ingredients.
  • The Featherweight design is centered around its main flavor component: the hop. Here I’ve created an abstract hop that breaks apart and allows the eye to flow to the side of the can revealing the description. Sharp edges, like the bitter hops in the beer, float away revealing how light and fruity it is.
  • The Elementary Lager design is based around simple rounded triangles to reflect the idea of the name and its style. A triangle is one of the most basic shapes you can make and the rounded edges speak to the soft, light flavour of the beer. I felt I needed to echo that in the design by keeping it clean and uncomplicated.
  • La Maison’s design has an almost celestial/planetary component to it, where the colours are representative of how I perceive the flavor, colour and general feeling of the beer (summer). La Maison is also a staff favourite at the brewery so I feel the planetary aspect reflects how immensely important this beer is to everyone here at Four Winds.
Four Winds Notus Series designed by Justin Longoz. Photos by Alison Page
Four Winds Notus Series designed by Justin Longoz. Photos by Alison Page

Despite being the same design as the bottle labels, to me, the designs feel like they've been "set free" on the cans. The design elements float off around the can, they're not hemmed in by the dark glass. Do you feel there are particular advantages to designing cans over bottles?

That’s tough to answer directly because I feel like there are advantages and disadvantages of designing can vs bottle labels. The Notus series beers are the first that we’ve put into cans and we opted to get the designs printed directly onto the cans. I found that challenging. There are a lot of guidelines with things you HAVE to do and things you CAN’T do when you do direct printing. The labels that you put on bottles are essentially just stickers so you have loads of freedom to play with shapes, colours and textures. I enjoyed the challenge, but prefer sticker label designs. With that said, I like the idea of cans a lot more for the reason you stated above. The bottle itself is an odd shape and limits the canvas you have to work with. The can is a piece unto itself. You can cover all or most of it in design. When we start releasing limited release beers in tall cans we will be using the sticker labels and I’ll be able to play a lot more with the cans. I’m very excited about that!

 

What are your thoughts on the idea of "cans as a canvas"?

I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. There are so many breweries releasing an endless number of beers. It seems like the more you use the can as a canvas, the more you’re going to stand out. As the industry grows and mutates, so do the brands and ways to push them to their fullest extent. I’m trying to push the Four Winds brand as far as I can. I want people to see our labels from across the store and think “What is that? Probably Four Winds” without seeing any text or logos.

Something else to consider is that brewing is an art form. It just seems to make sense that you would wrap a work of art in more art. A great example of this is Kasper Ledet who I mentioned earlier. Look at what he is doing for To Øl in Denmark [check out his instagram here]. Every single label he designs is a piece of art with a purpose. It’s beautiful, it’s meaningful and it’s transformative. He’s probably one of the best examples of an artist who uses the can as a canvas.

Four Winds Notus Series designed by Justin Longoz. Photos by Alison Page

What were you doing before Four Winds? Do you do any design work outside of Four Winds?

I used to be an animator in Vancouver and have had many jobs working everywhere from bakeries to liquor stores. One thing that has always been constant is my design work. I’ve been a designer since I was 16. It started small with t-shirts or concert posters for friend’s bands and that sort of evolved into company branding and packaging design over time. Most of my work outside of Four Winds right now involves charity work or branding and packaging design.

 

Anything else you'd like to add?

We talked a bit about the Notus Series inspiration before but I feel like I have to mention one more person that has a broader influence on me. All of my Four Winds work is directly inspired by the work of Andy Dixon who did the initial branding and packaging for Four Winds and is an immensely talented artist. He was a huge inspiration to me growing up. It’s an honor to take over for Andy and I’m glad that I’m able to do what I love for my favourite brewery!

Four Winds Notus Series designed by Justin Longoz. Photos by Alison Page

Speaking to Justin, it became pretty clear why I was so taken with his design work. His list of inspirations is my list of inspirations. The kind of work Keith Shore, Karl Grandin and Kasper Ledet have been doing over the past few years is a large part of why this blog exists. And this won’t be the last time you read those names. Keith Shore, Karl Grandin and Kasper Ledet. See?

And it’s clearly not just me who’s been taken by his design work. A quick ‘n’ casual canvassing of local liquor store employees suggests that the Notus Series six packs have been flying off the shelves. Sat in a chiller alongside a range of busy, information dense six pack boxes, each jostling for attention, a wild look burning in their eyes as they shout “LOOK AT ME, LOVE ME”, the Notus Series cooly looks up from its phone, makes eye contact, gives you a quiet, confident nod and walks you off to the counter where it will offer to pay, but can’t because it’s just a box of beer personified in a tenuous metaphor. A large part of the liquor store game is about occupying shelf space and that’s one of the few potential downfalls of cans vs enormous branded bomber bottles. The Notus’ Series boxes, however, seem to be the ideal solution to that issue. Presented together, they turn almost an entire chiller shelf into an oasis for the eyes, a little one row art exhibit. No wonder they’re doing so well.

It’s clear that Justin Longoz has a lot more up his sleeve and I for one am extremely excited to see what will come of Four Winds’ eventual tall can releases. A huge thanks to Justin for being so forthcoming and to Alison Page for providing such phenomenal photos.

 

Have you tried the beers? Have you built yourself a funky robot costume out of empty six packs? Let us know in the comments!

Thirsty for more? Delve into the archive for more design magic.

 

Design:

Justin Longoz
insta: jstnlngz

Photography:

Alison Page
insta: alisonmpage