Hidden Symbols, Easter Eggs and the Dark World of Drekker’s Beer Art
It starts with a pencil sketch, then morphs into pen and ink in time. Each whorl, swirl and craggy skeletal socket slowly unfurls in the soft glow of the light table. Shoulders hunched into the upturned collar of his faded jean jacket, the artist confers with the brewery owners before the sketch is rendered in brilliant, black-edged color. They discuss if the newest beer label themes–dejected monsters on a school bus, a skeletal Viking, the inevitable rise of our lizard overlords–are vivid enough, then move on to some detailed tweaks that are specific to this unusual, and unusually collaborative, creative beer label art partnership; should there be more skulls? More trippy, wax-like drips? More hidden symbols for the beer geeks to find?
When they revamped their branding in late 2016, the owners of Drekker Brewing Company–brewer Darin Montplaisir, president Mark Bjornstad, engineer Mason Montplaisir and CFO/Head of Nerdery Jesse Feigum–could have chosen historic or Nordic beer label imagery to complement their new digs. The spacious and sun-drenched former locomotive repair shop in Fargo where they brew is older than the state of North Dakota. They named it Brewhalla, a riff on the name for the Old Norse hall of the gods.
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And they certainly could have had their pick of artists to design their branding. Drekker is plugged into the local art scene, welcoming creative types during seasonal indie craft markets, a bustling Christmas market featuring local makers, and monthly Creative Mornings sessions featuring TED-style talks, art projects, and networking over artisanal coffee.
Instead, they chose Punchgut, an introverted scribbler and gig poster master who prefers to let his work (a gleeful mix of the macabre and the adorable) and his eclectic resume do the talking. The artist works in a cocoon of deconstructed pop culture imagery and bad taxidermy in a Fargo garage studio. He’s been named-checked in “High Times” and “The Wall Street Journal.” His work is featured in both “The Art Of Modern Rock” and the Disney film “Sky High.”
“He’s more like the anti-gallery guy,” says Bjornstad, who is cheerful and garrulous
with a Seth Rogen-esque chuckle. “We were dreaming up this brand identity that was kind of 90s skateboard punk with pogs and some death metal influence, and a kind of pop culture, Trapper Keeper vibe. Punchgut was the only person that we thought could pull that off.”
Intense Collaboration Between Brewery and Artist
This rapid-fire volley of cultural touchpoints and vivid imagery is the way Bjornstad and Punchgut communicate…usually via text, often at 2 in the morning, but occasionally in an off-the-cuff session in the office tucked under the Brewhalla rafters. That’s where each beer starts as a recipe and collection of words and images that Feigum and Bjornstad scrawl onto a whiteboard. One of their first collaborations was on a chocolate milk stout called Milk Maiden.
“‘It’s ‘The Sound Of Music’ – but she’s dead’” says Bjornstad, recalling his instructions to Punchgut. “Use the colors of Swiss Miss.”
Punchgut obliged, creating a smiling fräulein in shades of cocoa and baby blue. She’s a skeleton, naturally.
Not every artist could follow this image-packed shorthand. But Punchgut is into it.
“My brain starts churning on this stuff,” he says. “And they knew exactly what to feed me to get me going.”
Every step is collaborative. Sometimes Feigum and Bjornstad have a concept nailed down and Punchgut just pops in the final piece of the puzzle. Sometimes Punchgut pitches an idea that spins them off into a different direction. Sometimes they hash it out together, alternating between keeping things bold and being deliberately contrary, like when they pair adorable beer names like Tickle Monster with creepy images.
“I love contrast, and I think that’s why I work great with Drekker; we do this kind of funny, wink-eye stuff that also has a lot of dark imagery in it — but also a cute side to it.” says Punchgut. He grins. “And it angers the right people.”
The entire office laughs. Just a few minutes before, Fegium looked up from his computer and read them a note from a customer who wondered if they knew that a “666” was lurking within a beer label.
They do indeed. While there are undercurrents of darkness (and teenage dudeness) present in most labels, there’s also a higher purpose at work here, both in the beer and in the branding.
“We want you to be challenged by the weird beer, we want you to be challenged by the strange artwork,” says Bjornstad. “We’re not trying to create everybody’s favorite beer. We’re trying to challenge what beer can be. We think it would be a mistake for us to put that much context into the beer and then not encourage the customer to find something weird or ugly or strange on the outside. We’re trying to create experiences.”
Punchgut routinely hides little Easter eggs –Illuminati symbols, occult references, conspiracy theories – for die-hards to find. Characters move from the background of one label to the forefront of another or pop up in gig posters, stickers or a kitschy blacklight poster. It’s all part of the sprawling beer universe they’re building together.
“They’re creative on their end with brewing and we’re creative on the labels, so it’s one of those few times where it’s a 100 percent team effort,” says Punchgut. “They’re always open for experiments.”
Punchgut’s Label Art Connects Drekker’s Beers
Each label stands alone as its own work of art. But the artwork also sorts the beer into its designed place in the Drekker Brewing Company hierarchy.
“We talk inspiration, but also where it has to fit within the brand,” explains Bjornstad. “I’m trying to envision what beers is this going to be alongside, if it’s part of a family in our portfolio.”
For example, their juicy New England-style IPA Ectocasm and double IPAs Cuddle Buddy and Freak Parade are stylistically similar beers. So the labels are similar as well, bursting with neon colors and elaborate monsters.
Ongoing beer series are stylistically similar too. The labels that grace Drekker’s sour beer series become fuller and more complex as the beers do. Brain Squeeze beers are brewed with lactose and sea salt. The artwork for these fruity, creamy smoothie sours features oozing, dripping, candy-colored brains against relatively subdued background.
“We want you to be challenged by the weird beer, we want you to be challenged by the strange artwork,” says Bjornstad.
The wild ales of the Slang du Jour series are complex and dessert-like, inspired by sfogliatella pastries, cinnamon and maple sugar-infused blueberry pancakes and brewed with graham cracker crumbs for luscious key lime, cherry and bumbleberry pie flavors. The central figure is enveloped by swirling lines and whipped cream airiness.
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For Chonk, a rich sundae sour, Bjornstad envisioned equally decadent artwork — “a drippy, stretchy, oozing river of syrup all over the place.” An appropriately rotund cat surveys the scene.
Sometimes the art even revives a beer. Bjornstad penned the recipe for Pizza Toots, a New England-style IPA, as a groan-inducing “sacrificial beer” to test the new Brewhalla brewing system. It made the grand opening line-up as a one-off, but Punchgut wasn’t too impressed with the artwork that the owners tossed up on the menu board in a pinch. So for Christmas, he sent them a present – a new label.
“I sent it out to everyone like, ‘Guess what we’re gonna re-brew!’” Bjornstad recalls, sotto voce. “And it’s just one of the most fun, lighthearted, cute labels we’ve ever done. We get comments about that beer all the time. I’ll be at a coffee shop and the label will be cut out and stuck on the back of a laptop.”
Punchgut’s Beer Art Attracts Attention
The DIY stickers and Punchgut’s connections introduce a new audience to the Drekker brand, and to craft beer in general. Many make a pilgrimage to Brewhalla to find the source of the intriguing beer label artwork.
“New customers come in and express awe and excitement when they see the menu boards behind the bar,” says Ali Belfiore, a Drekker beer slinger and graphic designer. “Our repeat customers are always looking forward to what Punchgut will create next.”
Drekker ships beer to the 35 U.S. states that allow it, so beer fans that can’t make it to Brewhalla check the full line-up via social media. Many now follow the artist on Instagram for a sneak peak at new beer labels.
“I like to see Punchgut along his creative process,” says Kat Verley of New Town, North Dakota. “He will post his label art in succession, so you can see how he works from start to finish.”
Other than the occasional complaint about 666 depictions, few people seem to mind the dark imagery. Which is good, because it’s an integral part of the brewery’s brand. The owners of Drekker Brewing Company had Punchgut paint a giant grim reaper mural in the event space at Brewhalla for the same reason that they feature similar imagery in their beer labels.
“Some places put, like, a culture quote on the wall. We paint a reaper mural,” says Bjornstad, chuckling. “It has a very simple meaning for us. We’re just trying to live this amazing life with experiences that build us up and bind us together, trying to live faster than the reaper. It’s coming for all of us, so live the life you want to live now.”