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Fine Art in Craft Beer: A New Outlet for Artists

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Episode One: Flying Dog & Ralph Steadman

The craft beer industry has been exploding over the last few years as larger scale breweries are expanding their portfolios and smaller scale breweries are popping up seemingly every day. The craft beer industry and its expansion is built upon experimentation, taking beer tradition and trying exciting new things, and this doesn’t just limit it to the beer itself. New styles or twists on beers is exciting but a lot of people are safe in their ways and need to have their eye drawn to something in the hopes that they’ll try it. What’s the best way to draw people to anything? Exciting imagery! Brewers and artists are now collaborating to make labels that excite and draw in the viewer; new label styles for new beer styles. I encourage everyone to go into their local beer distributor and just take a look at some of these labels, just the sheer badassery going on with some of these labels is insane! Suddenly there is this new outlet for fine artists to create ambitious work. It’s not just breweries reaching out to big time, established artists either, it’s open to all because these small scale breweries creating new age, experimental beer are open for anything and they just want kick ass art to go with their products, wherever it comes from. That’s one of the most exciting parts, as an artist, because it doesn’t feel like this corporate, unbreakable ceiling where only a few artists get to do this, it’s open to anyone and there’s real opportunity in it.

As both an art and craft beer enthusiast, I want to start a segment about craft beer and the awesome new art going on in it. Whenever I find a sweet can or label, I’m going to try and hunt down the artist or as much information as I can on them and showcase their exciting material that’s circulating the marketplace and might get overlooked. Sometimes what’s on the can is just as exciting as what’s in it and the goal of this segment is to expose the artists making that work. So, I’m going to start by talking about the Flying Dog Brewery and artist Ralph Steadman. This is a pretty popular brewery now and Steadman is a fairly well known artist but it’s what they’ve done for the freedom of craft brewing and labeling that’s lesser known but is an integral part of how the culture has grown.

Ralph Steadman is a Welsh illustrator whose style is defined is by splattered color, scratchy lines and obscure, often obscene, imagery. Best known for being a long time collaborator with American journalist Hunter S. Thompson, illustrating for many of his articles and books. Perhaps the most popular piece that Steadman worked on in this partnership was for the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, further popularized by the movie adaptation featuring Johnny Depp. Steadman has also created illustrations for editions of Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Fahrenheit 451, and many more. He’s also done album artwork for artists like The Who, Frank Zappa, Ambrosia, and most recently Travis Scott and Quavo on their joint project Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho. But, even though that’s already an impressive resume, we’re here to talk about his collaborative work with the Flying Dog Brewery.

Steadman’s work with Flying Dog began in 1995 as he contributed a logo, beer labels, and even their initial motto, “Good Beer, No Shit.” The partnership was off to a flying start, beers were well taken and the labels were exciting and fresh in somewhat of a bland industry time. That’s when the controversy began, a complaint of obscenity was filed against the brewery and the Colorado State Liquor Board pulled all of their products due to the previously mentioned motto and Steadman’s controversial label art for the Road Dog Porter and Doggie Style Ale. The Road Dog Porter label features a grimacing dog in sunglasses and what appears to be a prison uniform in Steadman’s trademark sketchy and wild style next to the “Good Beer, No Shit,” moniker. The Doggie Style Ale portrays a vomiting dog flying with wings, The wings of the Flying Dog logo, strapped to its back. These images are definitely a little shocking at first since the industry wasn’t as free and crazy as it is now but this response was certainly over the top and they needed to fight back. So Flying Dog and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Colorado and prompted the new motto, “Good Beer, No Censorship.” Not surprisingly, in 2001 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in the breweries favor based on their rights expressed in the American First Amendment.

So, that was that, a bump in the road for sure but the brewery and the art came out on top, but this wasn’t the last of the controversy they’d face over label art. The Brewery’s site reported at one point the state of Ohio banned their Cardinal Zin Wine due to the obscene representation of a catholic cardinal on the label, but the article has since been deleted. That brings us to the big one, in 2009 the Michigan Liquor Control Commission banned Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch IPA over its name and label art. Raging Bitch is one of the brewery’s most popular beers and really helped propel them into the national eye, so an entire state banning it over its name or label would really hurt the business and their continued hopes for expansion. The label art features a screaming dog with clear breasts and genitals exposed, a rather obscene image, but they’ve been through this before, they can label their beers however they want! This began a long legal battle and protest as the brewery tried to get their beer back on the shelves and stop the censorship. It was hard and it was discouraging for the beer industry because their art was being censored. Art has had a long standing battle with government censorship but usually takes the upper hand, yet since beer is a commercialized product some branches of the government thought they could really step in and control this industry. But in 2015, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals repealed the ban, again, on the ground of the first amendment and they recommended that the brewery seek civil damages from the state of Michigan. This was huge, it was over, no more censorship in craft beer art because it was art!

This continued relationship between Steadman and Flying Dog where the brewery allows Steadman to do whatever he wants in his illustration has been pivotal for the industry. For so long we’ve idolized artists who’ve battled government censorship and that’s what Flying Dog and Ralph Steadman have been for the craft beer community and I don’t think they get enough praise for it. They fought the system on multiple occasions and won! Every time! Art is art, afterall, and it shouldn’t be censored no matter where it ends up and Steadman has never been one to back down when someone tries to censor him. Flying Dog honored their label artist for his continued loyalty and overall coolness as an artist and person in 2017 with their St. EADman Porter. Steadman’s made and continues to make awesome artwork, even at 82, and he’s never let anyone tell him what to do and it’s been huge for the craft beer industry. I encourage all to check out his work on Flying Dog labels everywhere, my personal favorite being The Truth. As we move forward and look at more and more labels, I think we should remember that this artist and brewery have been crucial in allowing others to produce without fear of censorship. Label work is a huge opportunity and rising industry for artists so it’s amazing to see where some people can take it and what they’ll do to protect their art.

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