The ‘Berta Beer Boom is on! Provincial brewing restrictions were eased back in 2013 leading to a 100% increase in the number of craft breweries in Alberta between 2014 and 2016 and the craft bug is clearly catching - another 20 Albertan brewpubs or breweries are slated to be opening in 2017 alone. And for all those playing along at home: what do new breweries mean? PRI- … NEW CANS!
But today we ain’t talkin’ bout no new brewery but an old(er – at least in craft beer terms) brewery that opened up in Edmonton in 2010. Everyone in Edmonton has heard of Yellowhead Brewery and, by extension, their flagship Yellowhead lager. For years they existed as a one-beer brewery designed specifically to cater to a pre-craft-boom beer scene so when the seas changed (or whatever the North Saskatchewan river equivalent is) and demand rose for “not-lager” beers, they found themselves severely limited by the turnover time of lagers and their limited tank space. They literally couldn’t brew any different beers, no matter how much they wanted to. Thankfully, they found the money for some extra tanks and gave their brand image one hell of a refresh and are currently crushing it.
Now, having only sampled their Pale ale somewhere deep into Canada 150 celebrations, I don’t really feel adequately placed to talk about the quality of the beer, though I remember it being tasty. But those cans – oh, those cans are a thing of beauty. If memory serves, I first encountered Remlar (the Sturgeon King) gazing deep into the viscous, hazy waters of a mostly melted ice bucket. Sharp lime green shimmered from the depths, inviting me in. Submerging my hand into the alcoholic’s plunge pool I swat away icy cold, now-desperate Heinekens and cans of Coors, hunting for the elusive source of the piercing green. Fingers wrapped tightly around the prize I tear it from the arctic abyss to be greeted by Remlar’s grumpy little sturgeon face. It’s a gorgeous can. That vivid lime explodes off a murky teal highlighting the features of an artfully designed swamp creature. Yellowhead’s new look lager shows a similar mastery of colour selection. A semi-transparent electric yellow hijacks the aluminium shine of the can and starkly contrasts the rich matte black linework of a half-wolf-half-hawk. And they're both pretty metal.
It’s a far cry from their old branding and a welcome change of direction for the brewery. Needless to say, I wanted to find out more. So I did! Pete Nguyen is an Edmonton based illustrator and art director and here’s what he had to say about his work with Yellowhead:
Hi Pete, I’m a huge fan of these illustrations! What inspired you to go down the 'mythological' route?
Thank you! The mythological approach was a concept that we came up with as a team (Yellowhead guys and me). We wanted to showcase a mascot for the brand, but everything came up a little dull so we decided to make up our own or riff off of Alberta myths. The Premium Lager showcases an Albertan take on a griffin, the Remlar Pale Ale is a movie monster version of the infamous sturgeon king of the north Saskatchewan river, and the Saison Tete Jaune is a take on the myth that your hair still grows when you’re dead, in this case, the dead is alive and the hair is monstrously long…and blonde.
How involved were Yellowhead? Did they have a solid idea of what they wanted or were you given free reign?
The team at Yellowhead were great. They wanted to do something different, and were extremely open and helpful in brainstorming ideas. We worked together creatively, and once we got the initial concept everything else came quickly.
Do you think there's an Alberta Aesthetic? We find we can usually guess a 'Berta brewery from the style of artwork on the can.
There’s a very ‘no fuss’ way about Alberta. Previously, there was no reason to have forward pushing design/art on beer, it’s all about the taste and the price, but it’s changing. There are some amazing local breweries and distilleries that are really putting resources into their labels to stand out more and people are noticing.
As an art director you're presumably kept pretty busy - do you have any personal projects outside of all this that you're excited about?
As an Art Director, I usually source illustrators to get the job done, but I started off as an illustrator so I try to do as much illustration as I can on my free time to keep my skills up. I've done a few more things for Yellowhead for their tasting room and merchandise. I also got to do a huge mural of a samurai and noodle dragon at an Edmonton Ramen shop last summer, and I continually work with bands doing merchandise and album artwork.
What are your thoughts on the idea of the "can as a canvas" // the growing interconnectedness of craft beer and the art/design world?
I think it’s great! Sometimes art only reaches people who seek it out, but put some creative work on a can and you have people who never thought twice about art get really excited about it. The craft beer community understands that really well. They go through sort of the same obstacles to get noticed and be considered above the larger brewers. Also in Edmonton they get the scene, they want to support art, music and each other and it really shows in how they approach marketing their beers.
It only takes a brief scroll of their YellowHead Certified Programm page to see that Yellowhead really do put in the leg work when it comes to supporting the arts. It’s another example of the growing power of breweries to be an integral part of the local community and an amplifier for local creatives looking for support and exposure. It’s a topic that we’ll definitely be delving into a little deeper in the future and there’s plenty to chew on... so for now, kick your feet up, crack open a can of Remlar and have a little peruse of Pete Nguyen’s other work.
And while you're at it why not check out some of our previous articles like last week's look at Brassneck's new cans or our interview with Justin Longoz of Four Winds Brewing! Or y'know... just head to our archive for the full list of features. The choice is yours! "oooooo!"