Pittsburgh breweries team up with well-known local artists to create metal masterpieces

Whoever coined the phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” probably wasn’t referring to beer cans, but I am. Modern breweries don’t just stick a generic sticker on a can and call it a day; their labels are miniature masterpieces. And the trend continues thanks to three Pittsburgh foam makers collaborating with local artists.

I have a row of cans lining the top of my fridge like participation trophies for drinking. Because there is little space in my apartment, I have to recycle most of these aluminum artworks, but I spend a lot of time taking pictures of cans and posting them on Instagram. Now it looks like I’ll be doing this for a while.

Photo courtesy of Necromancer Brewing Co.

Necromancer Brewing Co.

Don’t worry, Necromancer Brewing has some incredibly spooky artwork. What do you expect from a brewery that specializes in resurrecting old styles of beer from the dead?

In 2021, the Ross Township company released 52 unique beers, including 12 in its Resurrection series. Historic drinks, which range from Kentucky Common ale to Zwert beer, feature enigmatic imagery, mostly in the form of beer skeletons. Witches, black cats, mummies, snakes, zombies, and a knife-wielding turkey also make appearances.

These gruesome mascots were dreamed up by Top Hat, a design company run by Necromancer owners Ben Butler and Aaron Easler. Over the years, they’ve created hundreds of unique label designs for breweries from Alaska to Florida and even helped revitalize Pittsburgh’s iconic Iron City Beer.

“We start with a conceptual discussion about the spirit of beer,” Butler says of the design process. “We try to imagine what it will smell and taste like. Whether it is a traditional, international or resurrection style, we often assess the historical and regional significance of the beer. This all leads us to naming, and then we let Ian (George), our illustrator, go wild over his interpretation of that name.

Although the label’s monsters are unnamed, like characters in Quentin Tarantino’s films, they exist in the same universe and, according to Butler, may one day end up in a comic book.

Deaths definitely keep sales alive and healthy.

Brewmaster Lauren Hughes runs the tanks three to four times a week, producing 500 barrels a year, and the Necromancer still can’t keep up with demand. Most of the deals unveiled on Thirsty Thursday disappeared within a week.

So the next time you pick up a four-pack, take a moment or two to take a closer look at the box. Most designs include imaginative details that aren’t immediately apparent. Other times the reference is in your face.

“Probably the most egregious Easter egg we’ve cooked up so far is a beer called Top Hat, which is a resurrection of Swankey from Pennsylvania coming out in the next few weeks,” Butler says. “It features a well-dressed skeleton on a stage.”

Photo courtesy of Acclamation Brewing.

cheer brew

Verona’s Acclamation Brewing relies on the expertise of a local artist for its latest beer tour.

Award-winning cartoonist Joe Wos illustrates a limited number of brewery labels, which will be released until May.

The Cryptid Catchers series will feature renderings of mythical creatures, from the Chupacabra to the Mothman. For the first beer, Wos and the Cheer crew pay homage to the Squonk of Pennsylvania, a wart-covered beast that is said to wander the desert…crying.

According to the 1910 tome “Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods” by William T. Cox, “the animal cries constantly. When cornered and escape seems impossible, or when startled and frightened, it may even burst into tears.

And you can drown your sorrows in The Squonk double IPA.

This is the first brewery collaboration for Wos, whose original artwork will be on display and available for purchase in the Dining Room at 555 Wildwood Ave. On February 18 at 5 p.m., Acclamation will host a monstrous family party to celebrate the libation.

Wos, who runs Central Catholic High School’s cartoon program (the only one of its kind in the country), will be signing adult cans and handing out encrypted coloring pages for kids at the event. Guests can also take part in cryptozoology trivia games and enjoy pizza from a food truck.

“Beer cans are more than just containers for liquid happiness,” says Wos, “they are collectible works of art.”

Photo courtesy of Dancing Gnome.

Dancing dwarf

Dancing Gnome is known for making artistic statements with its beers (and newly opened HQ). Unsurprisingly, he kicks off 2022 in style.

On January 26, the Sharpsburg Brewery launched a year-long project highlighting the work of a different local artist each month.

Matthew Buchholz, creator of Alternate Histories, and Ashley Devine of design studio YEAHYELHSA curate the series, in which artists design labels for existing seasonal beer styles.

“It’s exciting to be able to showcase such a variety of local artists in what feels like a pretty natural collaboration between two thriving Pittsburgh communities,” Devine said.

Lustra, the company’s flagship American pale ale, gets a makeover from Atiya Jones, who also left his mark on Trace Brewing’s Coolship Room last year. She designed four variations of the label, which are available in a limited-edition four-pack at the brewery (1025 Main St.) or online for shipping statewide in Pennsylvania.

Upcoming artists in the series include illustrator Morgan Whitlow for the brewery’s Spy Dolphin Double IPA in February and painter Wavy Wednesday (Kamara Townes) for the Jam IPA in March. Additional artists will be announced as the series progresses.

Dancing Gnome has previously produced a monthly beer series with different nonprofits that features work by local artists, including a Tree Pittsburgh-themed beer series. The brewery is working on an upcoming collaboration with Grow Pittsburgh.

This new series marks the first time the brewery has used artwork as a central part of the project, rather than an element.

“Sharpsburg has seen a wonderful influx of artists and art appreciation, with several studios and galleries opening over the past few years,” says Andrew Witchey, owner of Dancing Gnome. “It’s exciting to work with local Pittsburgh artists to showcase their work in a different way and to be part of the local Pittsburgh art scene and the hyperlocal Sharpsburg scene.”

The NEXT Beer is a column highlighting different breweries, breweries and events in and around Pittsburgh. If you have a beer-related topical tip, email me. Cheers!

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