Sitting in the studio of Noelle Phares, a 35-year-old artist based in Lakewood, a collection of seasonal beers from the Colfax microbrewery WestFax Brewing can be seen adorning her shelves.
Phares, who studied environmental science before becoming a full-time artist, picks up a large can of the brewery’s brut IPA, a seasonal summertime favorite, and explains the meaning behind the salmon pink sky and purple mountains depicted on its label in watercolor brushstrokes.
“This was a painting of an Alaskan landscape,” she said. “I wanted to highlight how unique the lighting is in a place that’s super snowy, especially around sunset time when you get really crazy colors and the whole landscape glows.”
It is just one of several painting by Phares that were featured on the cans of WestFax’s Summer Artist Series in 2018.
As Denver’s beer scene continues to grow, many breweries find themselves tapping local artists like Phares to compliment their products.
“There’s been a long-standing symbiotic relationship between art and craft beer,” said Jack Buffington, a research professor at the University of Denver with more than 20 years of experience in the beer industry. “(Breweries) try to emphasize that, instead of being produced in some big factory, it’s being made by hand.”
These small-scale beer makers -- usually referred to as micro or nano-breweries depending on the size of their batches and breadth of their distribution -- have found identity through local artists, helping them stand out from a sea of competition. But, more so than just boosting sales, Buffington said the art is about building community.
“There’s so many big brands that exist in the world. … Everyone likes when you support local people. I think that’s a fantastic expression of culture.”
For artists, it presents a unique opportunity for exposure.
Ken Sarafin, a Denver-based digital artist, said Colorado’s capital has always had a lively art and beer scene. But it wasn’t until smaller breweries became more abundant that Sarafin said he noticed a shift from larger design firms to local artists when it came to the art on a can.
“The breweries are offering a fantastic avenue for exposure for local artists,” he said. “That scene didn’t really exist before the craft beers.”
Sarafin partnered last year with Resolute Brewing, with locations in Centennial and Arvada, to design three cans for their new sour, lager and IPA. The cans’ labels are reminiscent of famous artists, such as the spiral sky of the IPA that evokes Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, or the Monet-style impressionism of the brewery’s lager.
“It’s really cool to be part of the culture,” he said. “(Breweries) are almost developing their own niche art scene. It’s interesting to think about the impact it could have on art history.”
And as the beer scene booms, breweries find themselves marketing to more experimental drinkers, according to Buffington.
“The marketing of beer had to be a lot more precise as opposed to a focus around (brand) loyalty,” he said, adding that compared to bigger brands, consumers see a “much more artistic presentation of the can,” from local brewers.
Stacey McMahan, who lives in downtown Denver, knows this firsthand.
McMahan, 32, began her career in the beer indusrty at Copper Kettle Brewing Company in Aurora where she ran social media and served as a photographer for the brewery.
This led her to discover her passion for design and she went on to work for Four Noses Brewery in Broomfield where she did work on more than 50 beer cans. Most recently, McMahan designed and photographed for New Image Brewing in Arvada.
Each brewery has its own style and target audience giving artists like McMahan the chance to try something new.
“New Image was a fun project because it really forced me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “They have a different sense of branding than what I’m used to, so that was fun to flex a different muscle.”
Reward is also found in seeing an artistic design move from McMahan’s computer screen, where she creates her work digitally, to being grasped in the palm’s of people’s hands as they enjoy a beer.
“You would always see (the art) in all these different situations with all these different people from different walks of life,” McMahan said. “Which is kind of the heart of beer in itself, to build community. It’s really cool to see that your label is now a part of that community.”
“People are looking for more connection from brands,” she continued. “Sometimes art is the best way to connect with people. It’s all about crafting an experience.”
Beyond just taprooms and liquor stores, McMahan said she has seen her beer designs in a host of settings, from the mountains of Colorado to the base camp of Mount Everest.
The compact nature of a beer can grants local artists a chance to see their work in places they never would have imagined, said Phares, the Lakewood artist who worked for WestFax.
“What I love about the beer can thing is people bring beers in their backpack when they go skiing, when they go hiking, they bring six-packs to their friends house,” she said. “They work their way into all these different environments that art maybe traditionally hasn’t been in. I found it really fun to see my artwork that’s of these wild places actually out in some of these places that they were inspired by, because that didn’t happen very often for me.”
As customers continue to browse the local beer section of their nearby liquor store, they’re likely to be met with a growing gallery of art. Phares said it adds a new dimension to how they will choose their next drink.
“It’s like the new phase of judging a book by its cover,” she said.
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