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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Across the Pond with Rich Norgate and Magic Rock Brewing

All Photographs by Sam Needham

This week we’re throwing it Across the Pond to one of the UK craft breweries that first opened my eyes to the impact of can design on sales, Magic Rock Brewing.

A stone’s throw from the world famous Brighton Beach on England’s South Coast is Bison Beer, the independent craft beer shop where I worked and where I truly fell in love with beer can design. Located as we were in such a tourism hot spot, our clientele was hugely varied. Alongside the craft beer fiends, traditional ale drinkers and thirsty lager lovers looking for a Stella were equal numbers of potential customers who didn’t necessarily like beer or even know what “craft beer” was. What really struck me when trying to help both groups find what they wanted was how often they would nod along to my recommendations, feigning interest as they blissfully and blatantly ignored every word I said before settling on the can/bottle they thought was prettiest. And every time it happened I just thought “fair play, that’s exactly what I would do too.” And it is exactly what I do, still.

One of the biggest winners as a result of this tendency was Magic Rock. Almost without fail, I would turn to the customer with a handpicked beer from the fridge to find them already grasping a glimmering Magic Rock can, their eyes wide, a puddle of dribble forming below. In fact, no can was more successful at converting the “I-don’t-like-beer” girlfriends who had been dragged into the shop against their will than Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss Gose. The undeniable allure of those shiny pink cans ought to be a case study in a research paper on learned gender-based consumer responses. It was truly incredible.

Photographer: Sam Needham

I absolutely love Magic Rock’s cans. Their bright colour palette and menagerie of playful circus characters just screams fun. You want to pick them up take a closer look at the friendly little guys on the can. Then you pick up another can, you spot one of the characters from the first can. You pick that can back up and it becomes a sort of Where’s Wally (Waldo for the North Americans) / Spot the Difference game. Suddenly you have three cans in your hand. Four – you’re juggling now. You’re part of the Magic Rock circus. You are bad at juggling, better drink one. It’s a vicious cycle.

Recently Magic Rock branched out and started doing more and more smaller batches of limited release beers and with that came a slight departure from their core can designs. These new cans used a similar design language, but were bolder, brighter, contrasted against black cans. They are still very Magic Rock, but this different treatment really emphasises that these beers are something different, something special.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Rich Norgate, Magic Rock’s in-house designer about the new direction and the inspiration behind the original can designs:

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham

It’s been great to watch the Magic Rock identity grow and evolve over the years. Recently the iconography seems to have moved away from the overtly circus themed to something more abstract and bold, while still retaining that playful, fairgroundy feel. Was it a deliberate choice to shed the more explicit circus references or just a natural evolution?

I’d like to say it was completely deliberate but that’s not the way I tend to work. From the start of the brand I’d always liked how the illustrative style looked on a big scale. When we first designed the wrap for our van I was really happy with the result. The characters really worked well at scale, creating more of a pattern based design. The more recent design of the 500ml big lads was created after I’d done the design for the 2016 edition of the rainbow project can; I’d again used the illustrative style on bigger scale. From a brand perspective we felt the relationship was still strong between the current style but it allowed us to have a product that would look slightly different on the shelf. These label cans are small batch one off brews so having a style to the brand to associate with these is important. 

It’s interesting because the new treatment of the style has been received well. I’ve always been interested in pattern design and geometric shapes, I enjoy the mechanical process of designing in this way, and I suppose this comes from my Graphic Design side. Whilst I’m really enjoy working in this way I worked on a new core can last month in the current design style and it was refreshing to revisit the style and treatment. 

As an in-house designer there’s a danger of getting a little too comfortable with the brand which can lead to the work looking a little aged and laboured. To keep things interesting and fresh I try to evolve as a designer with the work. You have to keep the brain active. I’d rather push the work. 

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham

Various characters pop-up across the range of beers – do any of them hold any particular significance? Have you named any of these recurring cast members? I know I would…

Some are and some aren’t. I can’t really go into too much detail but we have one called Shazza which is based on someone I met who had spent way too much time in a solvent heavy print room. Stuart our head brewer completely immersed himself in his character and was known to dress up as the bearded lady at early meet the brewer events. For the sake of the brand and people’s eyes we had to put a stop to that. 

The move to pressure-sensitive labels on black cans is genius – as if the cans weren’t recognisable enough already, they’re now even more visually striking than before. I love that it gives you the opportunity to experiment with different finishes as with the black on black bearded lady cans. Do you find it’s given you a bit more freedom?

I’ve always viewed print techniques and finishes as bells and whistles to the finished design. I’ve never been against them but due to budget constraints in previous jobs I’ve always tried to keep things simple and get the design to work in its simplest form. That’s not to say now I have an endless budget to play with but there’s more of an opportunity to look at different finishes. 

Photographer: Sam Needham

Are your Magic Rock designs inspired by anything or anyone in particular?

I’ll keep this list short. Things that have inspired me from a creative point of view: The Designers Republic - Warp Records - The Face magazine - Eley Kishimoto - William Morris - Kate Gibb - My tutor at uni John Young, I have a lot of thanks for him. 

What does your design process look like?

From a Magic Rock point of view I like to start with the name of the beer, these mainly come from our MD Rich Burhouse. I like to start here as it gives me a hook into the visual side of things. Then I’ll doodle in my sketch book before taking it into Adobe Illustrator, from there I start to work it up and things evolve. I’m in a really nice place with my design at the moment. I always used to question my work and compare to others, this is a good thing to do and can really help you develop as a designer. However sometimes this can lead to not listening to your instincts. I’m in a place now where I’ll make a decision and stick with it; I question it less and just go with it – but that's not to say I care about it any less. It’s a refreshing and peaceful way of working. 

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham

Is Magic Rock your full-time design gig these days?

It sure is. In addition to designing I help organise events and work on project based ideas. 

What are your thoughts on the ever growing connection between beer and art?

I think the important thing is the connection with the brand. Obviously the product in our case beer is the frame that holds the brand together but if this isn’t consistent and strong (not in the ABV sense) then people can quickly move away from the brand. It’s my job to create a brand that people enjoy associating with. This goes beyond the design; it’s how you communicate your tone of voice and personality. We want people to feel part of Magic Rock. 

Do you have any personal/side projects that you’d like to share?

Not from a design point of view at the moment. I try to switch off when I’m not working, I still think about design but I find it’s important to do other things. It’s all about balance. Surfing and riding bikes is a good tool for this. 

Photographer: Sam Needham
Photographer: Sam Needham