Sunday, 15 January 2017

The labels we loved in 2016


Back in June, Highlander Brewing's Brian Wilson sent me a private
note on Twitter, saying their new beer, Ox Blood Pale Ale, had a label
which was actually a flexi-disc that could be peeled off and played on
your standard turntable. Great idea and kinda fun but who still has a
turntable? Mine has been in my Mom's crawl-space since about 1984.
Have you ever gone to the porcelain throne without your phone and found yourself reading the label of a shampoo bottle? No? Well, lemme give you the Cole's Notes' version of that read. On pretty much every shampoo bottle label, we are told to "lather (or wash), rinse and repeat." Now if you're like me, you're probably thinking, "Why would I wash my hair twice? Is this shampoo so crappy that the first time doesn't take?"

The fact is, no, once is plenty. But if you do it twice, as suggested, you will go through shampoo twice as fast. That necessitates buying more shampoo. Big Shampoo knows that and hopes you buy into their instructions. The problem is since we have all been washing our own hair since the age of, say, eight, suddenly stopping that routine and saying to yourself, "Twice? Wow, that makes much more sense!" is highly unlikely. Perhaps they shouldn't have created a product with the word "sham" built right into it. And gawd knows who came up with "poo" as the big closer but I kinda hope he got at least pistol-whipped.

Now that we are done with both the shamming and pooing of Big Shampoo's misleading labels, let's turn our attention to some craft beer labels that caught my attention in 2016. Truth to tell, I have never seen a beer label that tells me to "pour, drink, repeat." That seems somewhat akin to your doctor saying, "For the best results in staying alive, inhale, exhale, repeat." Some things you just know by instinct.
No mention of beer labels is worthy if it does not include
a Great Lakes Brewery label created by artist Garnett
Gerry and graphic designer Fabian Skidmore. And their
Octopus Wants to Fight IPA is a great label. I looked at
their Pompous Ass Pale Ale last time but this one is classic

Back in June, I got a private message on Twitter from Brian Wilson, the brewmaster of Highlander Brewing up there in the tiny cottage town of South River, Ontario. He hush-hush whispered that the brewery would soon be releasing a pale ale where the label was actually a record that could be played on a turntable. I would tell Millennials to Google what a record is, except for the past decade all I've been hearing about is vinyl making a big comeback so presumably they know. Also, talking about the previous existence of vinyl to the younger generation that taught my generation how to download (legally and illegally) music for free seems as pointless as that "repeat" instruction. They have already found their record stores at a hefty discount on the cyber-waves.

But the Highlander beer was called Ox Blood Ale, a 5.4% "summer-style" pale ale while the song, also called Ox Blood was the work of California thrash-metal band Plague Vendor. The beer was released at just six Beer Stores in Toronto so I never got my hands on one. But I have to give the South River gang props for label innovation.
I loved Shillow Brewing's (Toronto) Beer Snob Belgian
Rye Ale's label but when I Google-imaged it, I came
across this photo of a beer lover mimicking that very
label. So I had Beer Bro Stevil St Evil inset the chap
from the label, bottom right, for comparison reasons. 
As for the song? Well, I hear it's quite likely available on the internet.

Moving along, any conversation about great beer labels in Ontario could, in fact, begin and end with artist Garnett Gerry and graphic designer Fabian Skidmore, the talented duo behind the cartoon labels that adorn a good many Great Lakes Brewing's bottles and cans. Last year, I honoured their Maniacal Hopshop IPA as the best label of 2015 and said that I wish I knew who created them. Someone instantly buzzed me back on the Twitterverse, identifying Garnett and Fabian. That lead to a separate column just on their artistic collaborations a year ago. In my last column, which looked at potential changes to GLB's much-lauded Tank Ten, I included a picture of their Pompous Ass Pale Ale, which has always cracked me up. Today, I'm throwing Octopus Wants To Fight IPA in the best-label mix-tape. I could go on and on, basically repeating a column I wrote a year ago but these two guys always rise to a very specific challenge - making the can look as good as the beer that's inside it. We are truly not worthy.

Shillow Brewing out of Toronto only has a few beers out of the gate so far but already they've thrown themselves in the clever label sweepstakes.
The artwork on Flying Monkey's Deep Tracks American
Brown Ale nagged at me. I knew I was familiar with the
art styling but could not place it. It took a while - a long
while, actually - but eventually I realized that they had
created a homage to 1960s counter-culture artist Robert
Crumb's work on this comic book. That's a great label.
I had already earmarked the label for their Bitter Waitress Black IPA for inclusion here. That was until I saw their Beer Snob Belgian Rye Ale label and better yet, found an image on Google of a beer lover mimicking the fussy little character on the can as he enjoyed one. That was a true LOL moment for me because that guy nails it! Great label, great beer, great fun.

A Flying Monkeys' (Barrie) label proved to be my biggest challenge here. When I bought their Deep Tracks American Brown Ale, I was buying far more than just the best brown ale you'll have this year. Seriously, try it - at 6.2% and 45 IBU (international bitterness units), this is unlike any brown ale you've had. Toasty caramel on the nose but followed by some tasty Centennial hops on the tongue, it's the answer to the question: What would happen if you brewed a staid brown ale but added west-coast pale ale sensibilities? But there was a bigger question at hand. As I stared relentlessly at the label, I knew the comic book-style artwork looked familiar but for the life of me, I couldn't remember where I had seen it. So I searched. No dusty corner of the Internet was safe. As a comic geek, I knew it was from the distant past but I couldn't figure it out the where and when. Eventually, I struck gold. Well, stumbled ass-backwards across the answer would be more accurate.
And speaking of comic books... Every bottle that comes out
of Collective Arts Brewing had different artwork on each
label. But this bottle of Ransack The Universe Hemisphere
IPA stopped me cold with this crazy cool Spider-Man
theme. British artist Wayne Chisnell of London designed
this one that I dubbed "Picasso on Acid does Spider-Man."

Robert Crumb was a counter-culture artist back in the late-1960s. So a bit before my time as I would have been a little kid reading Spider-Man and Batman comics back then, rather than drug-oriented adult fare. But I remember a stoner buddy having a bunch of Crumb comic books in the 1980s and they were certainly... different. But I remembered the art style. What Flying Monkeys has done, as you can see above, is create a homage to a Crumb cover but added some Canadian touches. On the label, the old blues man playing the harmonica is no longer wandering down some 1930s Mississippi dirt road but up Highway 400 (the dirt road version) towards the brewery. The label is clever and artsy but mostly, it presented me with a bloody tough memory challenge.

As a general consensus over the "cool factor" between myself and former coworker Jay-Dawg, I was going to include 5 Paddles Brewing's awesome skull-centric label for their In Your Face IPA. Except the Whitby brewery out-did that label with two others.
I never got to try this beer and I'm hoping it wasn't a one-off
because I would keep this just for the label alone. Too funny
Not long after the movie, Straight Outta Compton, hit the theatres in the Summer, the boys and girls at 5 Paddles created a huge 8%, 81 IBU brew called Straight Outta Whitby IPA. While the movie poster featured the snarling faces of the five founding members of 1980s rappers NWA (which I believe stands for Nigerians With Attitude), the 5 Paddles label featured the five owners of the brewery - Spencer McCormack, Mike Bray, Ed Woods, JP Tibensky and Ian Mills. They look like pretty happy, non-threatening white suburban males, probably because that's exactly what they are. But 5 Paddles, five owners and five medals at the 2016 Ontario Brewing Awards - this brewery is clearly about mathematical symmetry. And creating funny labels that hop aboard a clever trend when they see one. As you might recall, it was the Summer of "Straight Outta..." everything memes.

The second 5 Paddles label came to my attention after my beer-video-reviewer buddy, Hago Vanayan, posted it on Twitter. I only remember which social media platform because I retweeted it as I laughed.
While this is not Hago's picture, it was his post that
first drew me to this 5 Paddles' Skull Pucker Sour
IPA. I love... love... LOVE this label. Great job, gang
Back to their skull-centric theme, the graphic designers for 5 Paddles created this hilarious one for their Skull Pucker Sour IPA, showing both the skull's reaction to the sour flavour and the brewery's flair for a clever name. When I retweeted it, I told Hago how much I loved the label and he confessed, "That was my face when I drank it." Oh, I remember my face when I tried my first sour - Nickel Brook's Berliner Weisse. And yeah, I made that "baby takes a bite of lemon for the first time" look.

The last labels I'm going to look at today are not glamourous or glitzy but rather a rebranding of a core line-up. Cameron's Brewing out of Oakville was happily selling their Lager, Cream Ale and Auburn Ale in serviceable but somewhat plain packaging during their 20-year lifespan. (Actually, this year is exactly 20 years as founder Cameron Howe created it in 1997.) But like I said, the packaging was somewhat plain. Not that I truly care because I'm all about what's in the bottle, not on the label. Still, this is a column about labels and Cameron's did a damn big revamp last February, recreating their Core Three brews into new packaging with brand new names. And the new look was a beauty that beer lovers applauded.
As well as a new Cameron's Brewing logo, the brewery
rebranded their three main beers last February for this
cool new look with brand-new names attached. Very nice
The Lager became the Captain's Log Lager, the Cream Ale became the Cosmic Cream Ale and my personal favourite, the Auburn Ale became the Ambear Red Ale. The new branding and packaging came with help from Toronto firm, Cactus Designs, and gave each beer a brand new back-story.

That's it for my look-back at the labels I loved this year but I'll probably continue to drop more clever ones in here from time to time. However, with my two Best of 2016 columns followed by the news buzz around both Nickel Brook and Great Lakes Brewing in my last one, it dawns on me that I am miles behind on my actual beer reviews so lots of those next. But remember, if you're feeling down and out, looking to just build a wall around your emotions, you go ahead. As I understand it, Mexico will pay for that wall. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...