Used to be that what's on the inside is what counted, but in a rapidly changing craft-beer landscape overflowing with a variety of hoppy concoctions, it now seems that what's on the outside is what matters most. Store shelves are no longer a place to merely display product; they've become de-facto art installations, and the products are no longer merely alcoholic beverages; they've become works of art. For modern-day microbrew artists, the canvas of choice: a can.
The artist handling the graphic design work for HenHouse Brewing Company is the "one-man art department" of Josh Staples, who worked with the owners at a warehouse facility prior to the brewery's taproom opening in 2016. Unlike other local breweries, HenHouse has a particularly noticeable mascot taking center stage on its cans: the hen. "Animal logos are iconic," says Staples, "and people can relate to that and the love of nature."
HenHouse's founding members hold a strong connection to chickens, hailing from Petaluma. Staples grew up on a farm and chose a "Petaluma-style hen" as inspiration for the HenHouse mascot. "I had a few renditions of the hen, and it went from being ornate to a little more realistic," he says. "I tried using a wood-cut print at first, then combined hand-drawn elements. You can't have a brand called HenHouse and not have a hen. We want people to know it's a HenHouse beer when they see it."
HenHouse's recognizable lineup of beers catapulted the brewery into something of a ruler of the roost for the North Bay craft-beer scene. The brewery developed a hardcore following of hop-heads, eagerly anticipating releases of their "conspiracy theory" line of India pale ales, like the Chemtrails IPA, throughout the year.
As the brewery's tap list has expanded, so have the designs. The hen has found herself standing atop a mound of cash outside a bank vault for the Inside Job IPA, directing airplanes as an air traffic controller on the Denver Airport IPA, and going where no chicken has gone before, standing on the lunar surface in the Hollow Moon IPA.
"As a kid who grew up interested in conspiracies, it's fun to play with them in my art now," Staples says. "But it's also tricky because you want to make it light and relatable, and when putting the hen in there, I try to make her safe.
"In the beginning," he adds, "she was stoic and always on her own, but when we started putting her in outer space and driving tractors, I wanted to make sure she still looked dignified."
Staples' favorite design outside of the conspiracy theory line is a brut IPA called Joy Delivery System. The design is a fantasia of frightful fun, featuring a hop-juggling, unicycle-riding beer can, a giant clown face, hot-air balloons and, of course, rainbows. The Joy Delivery System artwork serves as a delightful tapestry of amusement, conveying the euphoric sensation one might feel after imbibing the brut IPA.
"It's really colorful and wacky, and reminded me of an '80s cartoon puzzle. We actually ended up releasing a jigsaw puzzle based off that label," he says.
Although Staples and HenHouse continue to push the look of their cans to new frontiers, Staples prefers to rely upon an old-school aesthetic.
"The creativity and the hand-drawn elements are most important to me," he says. "I still draw on paper. We have several binders full of hand-drawn designs at the brewery."
Flying the Coop
While there aren't binders full of hand-drawn designs at Cooperage Brewing Company, the taproom features an eclectic array of artwork from local artists on its walls to accompany the eclectic spectrum of suds on tap. The hop-forward hub serves up its flavorful style in spades with a frequently rotating list of IPAs. Owner and head brewer Tyler Smith estimates that Cooperage has brewed 140 different beers in just three-and-a-half years, deviating from the brewery's initial intentions to focus on barrel-aged, sour beers.
Bay Area-themed ales such as Steph Curty and McCurty Cove, to name a few, are reaching cult-like status among a dedicated fan base of North Bay beer buffs.
Cooperage recently unveiled its inaugural beers to go in the can: fan-favorite Kegslayer IPA and the Smeltron 3030 DIPA. Local designer and HenHenouse brewery shift supervisor Nicky London-Sorgman was tapped for the designs.
"We can literally go anywhere with these cans because of their crazy beer names," London-Sorgman says. "Sometimes I have to ask what the names of the beers mean so I get the inside joke."
The Kegslayer IPA design of a heavy metal heroine, slaying her way through a mound of Cooperage kegs with a sword, was created as a surprise tribute to one of the brewery's original tasting rooms members, Rachael Ingram. The design, created by an artist who designs for Cellarmaker Brewing in San Francisco, was initially intended for T-shirts; however, the beer and corresponding shirt's popularity made it an easy choice to can. With the existing image in place, London-Sorgman provided the final touches, adding a few more destroyed kegs and a post-apocalyptic wasteland to the backdrop.
For the Smeltron 3030 can, a riff off Oakland-based rapper Del the Funky Homosapien's collaboration with S.F.-born producer Dan the Automator, London-Sorgman decided to take a giant leap in the future by visiting the past.
"I knew I wanted to do a space scene, so I dove into the world of imagery with Deltron. They have a '50s noir, futuristic-space thing going on, and that's what I used as a reference. Then I came up with the idea of having hops as aliens attacking people, like
Mars Attacks meets The Simpsons aliens," he says.
The resulting image is a whimsically wonderful, pulp-art space odyssey—which could also serve as tasting notes to describe a few of Cooperage's beers.