Mike Van Hall was at work one morning when his phone buzzed with an incoming text.
“Extra Dry,” the message read.
That was it. Two words. Extra Dry.
The pair of adjectives had been sent through the ether by Brian Strumke, the founder, brewer, and sole employee of Stillwater Artisanal Ales. It’s hard to say where exactly Strumke and his phone were at that particular moment in time because they’re rarely in one place for long. Stillwater is a “gypsy brewery,” which means that instead owning and operating a production facility, it rents excess capacity and fermentation space from other breweries across the country – and, sometimes, outside of it. As a result, Strumke is often on the road. And even when he’s not brewing, he’s an untethered balloon, adrift with eyes open for the unlikeliest of inspirations.
Wherever that text came from, and however little context it provided, Van Hall understood what it meant. For over a year, he had been collaborating with Strumke to produce art and designs for Stillwater’s can and bottle labels, and this sort of cryptic message was usually the beginning of his creative involvement. That’s how Van Hall knew Extra Dry was an idea for a new beer.
“Generally, Brian will text me a name without any other information,” shares the 36-year-old DC resident. “Then, we’ll kind of go back and forth over what kind of beer it could be. Eventually, the style comes out. Even though Brian has probably already developed the recipe in his head, he doesn’t tell me initially.”
Why the cloak and dagger? Van Hall isn’t sure, but he has a theory.
“I think Brian does it so that I don’t presume what the design is going to be based on the style of the beer,” he says. “But once I do get the style, I’ll sit down and think about what comes to me. Then I just put stuff on the page, and try it and try it, and see what works, and get rid of stuff, until it finally comes together for me.”
After that, the concept gets sent over to Strumke, who gives it either a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If it’s the latter, Van Hall goes back to the drawing board.
“I’ve usually been getting the thumbs up, lately,” Van Hall says with a chuckle. “There was one label that I did 36 different designs for, though. It was a nightmare. I don’t present anything to Brian that’s not a good idea. We just weren’t connecting on that particular one. When we got to the end it was like, ‘We’re happy with the final results, but we just killed ourselves trying to get it done.”
Strumke and Van Hall have a complicated relationship. The root of it lies in the fact that while someone on the outside might see a brewer engaging the services of a graphic designer, the two identify first and foremost as collaborating artists. The image on a can or a bottle, the typography, the colors, the smell and the taste of the liquid contained within, the inspiration for the recipe: This is all part of one unified statement. No element is disconnected from the other. Each beer is, in toto, an artistic statement. And in Van Hall, Strumke has found a like-minded collaborator – someone who wants nothing more than to provoke a reaction in his audience.
“We like to challenge people,” Van Hall shares. “We’re not trying to be confrontational, but we want to engage them in something interesting and creative. On Brian’s side, that can mean weird flavors that don’t seem to make sense or hybrid styles that you wouldn’t expect. From the visual side, given the canvas that I work on is the store and people see my work by accident, I have a broad audience, and I try to challenge them.”
It doesn’t always come easy.
“Both of us are trying to imbue a ton of meaning into each and every one of these beers,” Van Hall says. “A beer means something to him, and it means something to me, and when we find where those things meet, that’s usually where the label is.”
Of course, it doesn’t have to be difficult. When Strumke told Van Hall that Extra Dry was a saison inspired by the Japanese rice wine sake, the designer dropped what he was doing to draft a concept.
“As soon as I had that in my head, I was like, ‘I’ll have this label to you in five minutes,’” Van Hall says. “There wasn’t a ton of tweaking after that. We were just right there with each other.”
The label for the 16-ounce can is mostly light blue and white. The Japanese word for “dry” pops in bold black typography, and under it, in smaller print, sits an approximate translation for Stillwater. A notch below is the name of the brewery and then the beer, both in English. Looming above is the red disc from the Japanese flag. Everything else – the ingredients, the size and alcohol content, the government warning, the bar code – is contained inside a narrow panel that runs alongside the can’s back. It’s meant mimic the labels affixed to Japanese import CDs.
“Extra Dry is an abstract can, but it’s transportive for people,” Van Hall says. “It looks like it tastes. And it’s very unusual on the shelf. That’s the sweet point to telling a story: Giving someone something that’s unexpected but still understandable.”
The minimalism, evocative references, and flat-out peculiarity of the design are hallmarks of Van Hall’s work for Stillwater. But there are ways that it diverges from much of his quickly expanding cannon. For starters, it has a clear product front. And then there’s the classic feel of its design. It isn’t subtly laced with puns, commentary, or a deeper meaning.
“Sometimes, I want to present a beautiful thing,” Van Hall tells me. “Sometimes, there is no joke.”
Like his designs, Van Hall’s own story is a little unusual.
Mike Van Hall grew up on the western edge of Michigan. As a teenager, he made chairs for Herman Miller, the iconic innovator of mid-century modern furniture design. He didn’t know it at the time, but the exposure of his “first real job” would stick with him.
When Van Hall embarked on his own creative endeavors, he would draw on that experience. His familiarity with those designs would be an entry point into the language of design. In fact, one of his first works for Stillwater, Stereo, would be an homage to George Nelson and his textile designer Alexander Girard.
It would be a while before he got there. As of five years ago, Van Hall was practicing law as an in-house attorney for an area tech company. He didn’t go to art school. He had never worked for a graphic design firm. His undergraduate degree was in Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt’s history and culture.
But Van Hall had been fostering an interest in art and design. He’d watch documentaries like Gary Hustwit’s Design Trilogy, and chase down the books cited in them. A “random and nebulous” interest in art and design began to coalesce into something more tangible. It even began to bleed into his legal work, like the time he used a color-coded choose-your-own-adventure graphic to explain the stages of green card and visa applications to his company.
Then Van Hall came to the fork in road.
“I decided I’d rather have fun than be working in the law,” he says.
Van Hall dove into modernism and typography. He learned the rules and guidelines of Massimo Vignelli, the legendary Italian designer perhaps most famous for creating the New York City subway map. He read as much Josef Albers as he could, trying to teach himself the fundamentals of color theory within the context of modernism.
This is what helped the untrained artist find his voice. Then Van Hall began to apply it to the two things he loved most: food and beer. His interest in the latter stretched back his Midwest roots.
“West Michigan is replete with awesome beer,” Van Hall observes. “I just always grew up around good beer, and I paid attention to it. And then my interest escalated a couple of times, and I started to dive deeper and deeper into it.”
A few beers were pivotal in this development. There was Allagash’s decadent bourbon barrel-aged tripel Curieux. There were Mikkeller’s Single Hop IPAs and its Yeast Series, which made it easier to understand ingredients in plain and simple terms. And there were the early beers of Stillwater.
Van Hall remembers the first time he tried a version of Stillwater’s Stateside Saison that had been aged in Chardonnay oak barrels. “I had never had anything like that before,” he says. “It made me rethink how I was approaching the beer world.”
Overwhelmed with all that he was learning about beer, Van Hall was inspired to launch the Single Hop Project in 2013.
“I was trying to wrap my head around all of the different hop varietals, and that’s when it dawned on me: If I’m having trouble keeping all of this straight and I’m a beer nerd, what can I do artistically to help people who don’t know anything about beer?” he remembers.
The Single Hop Project presented graphics – or a broader “visual pneumonic” – for over 115 hop varietals. Some were puns. Some reflected what the hop smelled or tasted like to Van Hall. All were bold, stark, and modern. They were intended to make the stew of information on a beer label approachable.
Rolled out in groups of six to a dozen, the visuals were Van Hall’s introduction to the beer world. But he was reluctant to put his own name on the project.
“I wanted an anonym so if it didn’t work out, I could go back to being a lawyer and no one would notice,” he admits.
It was about more than risk minimization, though. If he used his own name, it would breed familiarity and create certain expectations from his audience. But if his work emerged billed to some mysterious collective, who would be able to say what artist was responsible for a given piece?
“I wanted it to be a broader umbrella,” Van Hall says.
He settled on The Committee on Opprobriations.
The first half of the name was a nod to Van Hall’s homebase of DC, as well as the suggestion of a more inclusive group. “Opprobriations,” meanwhile, was a portmanteau he made up.
“I wanted a unique word that was difficult to wrap your head around and pronounce, so that when you did finally get through it, it kind of stuck with you,” he explains. “But, also, I wanted to encapsulate what I was doing. On one hand, there was opprobrium – I wanted a reaction out of people. And the other thing was appropriation, because I am reflecting culture back on itself.”
Van Hall pauses for a moment.
“I think that aptly describes the Stillwater labels, too,” he continues. “They’re something that piss people off. They always draw a reaction. And they’re cultural commentary.”
On a summer day in 2013, Brian Strumke’s manager handed him a cardboard mailing tube. The package had arrived a few months earlier, only to be thrown unceremoniously in a closet at Strumke’s Baltimore gastropub, Of Love and Regret, and subsequently forgotten. Contained inside were some Single Hop Project prints, some stickers, and a note.
Van Hall had sent parcels like this to the people and breweries that had influenced the new direction his life was taking. Strumke was at the top of the list.
“I was like, ‘Thanks for the beer. I didn’t start thinking about beer in this way until I had yours. So, here’s a poster,’” Van Hall says. “I didn’t expect anything to happen from it.”
But the Stillwater founder was intrigued.
“It was kind of a cryptic letter,” Strumke recalls. “From an artistic standpoint, I knew there was something going on. There was a lot of attention to detail. And the way he approached me is similar to how I approach the audience at Stillwater: I want to grab people’s attention but not necessarily spell everything out for them.”
He sent Van Hall an e-mail suggesting they talk some time. The two would go on to trade electronic communications for a few more months until meeting each other at Pizza Paradiso for the release of a Stillwater collaboration with DC Brau.
“It kind of snowballed from there,” Van Hall remembers. “We figured out that we were on the same page with how we approach our work and treat it artistically. So, he asked me to work on some labels.”
The Committee on Opprobriations’ first assignment for Stillwater was a pair of beers that Strumke had brewed with England’s Siren Craft Brew in 2014: a black gose called When the Light Gose Out, and a wild, dry-hopped Lichtenhainer dubbed Smoke Signals. Strumke gave Van Hall no direction on either, and what he produced would mark a stark departure from the brand’s well-established visual identity.
Since Stillwater began producing beer in 2010, its bottles and keg collars came stamped with the art of Lee Verzosa. A tattoo artist and childhood friend of Strumke, Verzosa gave Stillwater an instantly recognizable look that incorporated elements of finely detailed illustration, digital collage, and photography. Cryptic and sinister, his work looked like illustrations from 19th century folkore collections dipped in LSD. They dubbed it “old world psychedelic.”
“Lee is a master with the pen,” Van Hall observes. “Compared to my stuff, Lee is a real artist.”
By virtue of boasting anything other than Verzosa’s work, When the Light Gose Out and Smoke Signals would have raised eyebrows amongst Stillwater’s fans. In a way, though, the label for the former would serve as a bridge between the two artists’ approaches.
“I wanted to continue the dark imagery Stillwater was known for but introduce my minimalism to it,” Van Hall explains. “When the Light Gose Out was the perfect opportunity because I knew we could create an eerie natural theme just by focusing on the beer.”
Across an almost entirely black label intended to mirror the hue of the gose, Van Hall placed a small moon that’s waning towards darkness. What little is visible of the crescent – along with the typography – was colored to reflect the volcano salt and hibiscus used to make the beer. Taken together, it was an ominous motif. “I always like the idea of nature threatening us,” Van Hall explains. “With this one, I was thinking, ‘If the moon goes out, what happens?’”
While the name Smoke Signals might suggest more eerie imagery, Van Hall went in a different direction. Along the left and right sides of the white label, silky streams of what looks like smoke float towards the top. Instead of making those fumes grey or sooty, though, he colored them a seductive mélange of pink, purple, and orange. “I wanted to introduce the bright colors that Stillwater had not really had to that point,” Van Hall says of the scheme.
Those colors, benign as they may seem now, were a sharp rebuke to the prevailing winds in craft beer label design.
“Everything was very dark and bro and heavy metal, and I wanted the opposite of that,” Van Hall explains. “Not only do I like the bright colors, but I thought they could bring in new people who might have been turned off by the dark clubbiness of beer.”
The duality of these two labels – darkly suggestive on one hand, playfully bright on the other – would reappear again and again across Van Hall’s work for Stillwater. But the symbiosis between the art on the outside and the beer on the inside had yet to fully develop.
“At first, it was just like, ‘Oh, here’s a cool place to try and put some art out,'” Van Hall shares. “It only later dawned on me that I should be treating each label as an album cover.”
The image on the front of an LP can be an evocative thing. You see an old cover and you’re transported to the moment in time when you first – or perhaps most often – listened to that record. Likewise, if you hear one of its songs on the radio or at a bar, the image unconsciously drifts into head. This sort of association is what Van Hall wanted to bring to beer labels. While most breweries repeat the same design from style to style, tweaking only the color scheme or maybe a few details, he wants to design something unique for each Stillwater beer.
“With an album cover, you want to make the visuals and the sounds go together in a way that makes each more memorable,” he says. “For a beer, I’m trying to capture what I think it tastes like in how it looks.”
If Van Hall had flirted with these ideas designing the art for Stillwater’s Siren Craft Brew collaborations, he would cement it with the brewery’s Contemporary Works series, and in doing so, help change the trajectory of the entire enterprise.
Van Hall’s path intersected with Strumke at an interesting point in the Stillwater progenitor’s life. If he wasn’t in the midst of a crisis, he at least found himself at a crossroads.
Approaching Stillwater’s fifth anniversary, there was no question that the brewery had enjoyed a great deal of success – something it had attained quickly, too. Early beers like Stateside Saison, Cellar Door, and Of Love and Regret established Strumke as an innovative brewer who was deft at bridging traditional European styles and Belgian yeast strains with American hops, new world techniques, and often unlikely ingredients.
“From the get-go, the beers were well received, and Stillwater started to build its own scene,” Strumke recalls. “A good portion of it had to do with timing: Craft beer was really starting to takeoff in 2010, but it wasn’t quite to the insanity that it is now.”
Even in a landscape that was beginning to populate with more and more American breweries, Stillwater stood out – not just for what it made, but for what it didn’t. There was no Stillwater IPA or lager or dry stout or amber ale. In other words, there was next to nothing that might scan as conventional to the typical American craft brewer’s portfolio.
“More often than not, Stillwater was compared to Belgian breweries, but at the same time, the concept and the approach was extremely American to me,” says Strumke. “I always joke that Stillwater is a completely American brand because it’s based around bastardizing tradition, and that’s the true American way.”
After almost five years, though, Strumke felt the itch to bastardize something else: The identity that Stillwater had spent a half decade building.
“I had always prided Stillwater on making new and innovative products and concepts, but I found that the entire beer scene was starting to lump most of my work into farmhouse ales or saison and a certain aesthetic,” he shares. “I was constantly trying to break out of the box, and in doing so, I created a new box for myself.”
Strumke felt pigeonholed. And in his mind, the most radical thing Stillwater could do to break out of this new box was to produce the very styles of beers it had steadfastly avoided – or versions of them, at least.
“With the five-year anniversary of Stillwater coming up, I thought, ‘What better time to release a whole line of beers that nobody would ever except from me, with a whole different image? It’s almost like starting over,’” the brewer recalls. “That was the shift I wanted to make with Stillwater as a brand.”
The shift would begin with three beers released in early 2015: Mono, Stereo, and Surround. The names were callbacks to Strumke’s previous career as a DJ and music producer, but in interviews, the brewer invoked comparisons to artists like Picasso and Dali who were “at some point challenged by the art world, so the response was to deliver works of realism to quiet the critics and strengthen themselves.”
Strumke’s own works of realism were, respectively, a dry-hopped Pilsner, an IPA, and an imperial oak smoked wheat stout. Cumulatively, they marked the start of Stillwater’s Contemporary Works series. But the liquid was only part of the equation. The aforementioned “whole different image” – a clean break from what Lee Verzosa had been and still was producing – would need to come from elsewhere.
Fresh off their previous collaboration, Van Hall was a natural fit.
“Contemporary Works was the perfect venue for the minimal style and the modernism that I prefer,” the artist explains.
For Stereo, he revisited the mid-century modern look of Alexander Girard’s textiles. Honoring the beer’s theme, the geometric pattern recalled the shape of early speaker covers. Similarly, the label for Surround was a nod to the strip of tape often used by an early analog computer in multi-track music production back during the 1960s. Neither had a traditional product front – the kind of focal point a bottle shop would know to turn outward on a shelf or a consumer could fit neatly in the frame of an iPhone picture.
“We got rid of that stuff,” says Van Hall. “At first, we were a little freaked out to do it because we didn’t know how people would react. It’s a little bit jarring, but maybe you’ll look at it more and wonder why it’s not centered. It sticks with you.”
Perhaps out of an abundance of caution, Stillwater took the unusual step of spelling out these labels on its website with notes about their patterns, design, and topography.
“We wanted to engage our fans more directly and get a conversation going” Van Hall remembers. “We said, ‘Here are some reasons that we did this and why.’ We wanted to show that Contemporary Works was thoughtful, even though it was modernism. Modernism can be very simple, but it’s not thoughtless simplicity. Mono is a very important, thoughtful label, even though there’s not much to it visually.”
Across an orange backdrop, Mono’s minimalist label broke its four-letter name into two big, hyphenated white pieces – a visual joke from Van Hall. The particular shade of orange was chosen as an homage to Massimo Vignelli, but the use of the color altogether came from a very particular place: Like many of Stillwater’s labels, it’s a reflection of how the beer tastes to Strumke.
“Most of my recipes are color-coded in my head,” Strumke shares. “A beer might be yellow, but in my head, it’s blue and gold.”
This is the neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated.”
Almost all of Stillwater’s labels are guided by synesthesia to some degree.
“The aesthetic is always meant to match the liquid in the bottle,” Strumke continues. “I’m always relaying that to Mike, like, ‘Oh, you need to change the color of the label.’ If it doesn’t match, it fucks with my head, even if no one else would get it.”
There would be other entries in Contemporary Works soon enough. A pair of beers, Projector and Vacuum, formed a subset of the series called Readymade, which riffed on Alfred Stieglitz’s photo of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” with slightly askew, off-color images of their titular objects.
“That was a good point for us to show that we were going to start messing around and doing off-the-wall labels,” Van Hall recalls. “It sent the message that we were going to start deconstructing things; we were going to be absurd in the way that we approach the art.”
This visual direction went hand in hand with Strumke’s approach to Stillwater’s beer. In a sense, it even egged the brewer on.
“My look allowed Brian a bit more freedom to start messing around with beer styles,” Van Hall observes.
“As you can see with what Stillwater has done over the past two years, it’s grown out of control in all kinds of directions,” adds Strumke. “As an artist, it’s been the most freeing thing. We’re not stuck in any one particular style. With Mike being versatile and more of a digital and modern artist, we can incorporate and change things all the time. He doesn’t have one particular style of drawing that’s going to translate through everything. It’s like a whole new palate of concepts and ideas that we can pull from now.”
Van Hall’s versatility can make his work hard to pin down. He assuredly loves this. Still, look closely at his two years of collaboration with Stillwater and certain themes emerge.
“I think advertising should be like poison gas,” venerated advertising pioneer George Lois once said. “It should grip you by the throat, it should bowl you over, it should knock you on your ass.”
This is a quote that’s stuck with Van Hall. In many instances, it’s guided him.
“When I have the opportunity to make a label a poison gas, I really enjoy it because I want the reaction out of people,” he shares. “That takes it from just being a label to being art for me.”
The most notorious example of Van Hall’s poison gas ethos was on display with a Stillwater- Nómada collaboration called Selfie Shtick. A chocolate covered strawberry ale, the beer was conceived by Strumke as “the liquid equivalent of internet culture – both indulgent and self-involved.”
Van Hall’s original label featured a faceless person with an arm stretch outwards. On the wrist of that arm is a handcuff that’s being manipulated from above by strings and a floating hand, like a marionette. The subject is holding a selfie stick, but on the end of it is a handgun pointing back at them.
If that image sounds confrontational – flagrant, even – it was supposed to be. It was a commentary on American’s obsession with guns. It was a commentary on why we catalog out lives with social media, and who harvests that data. But more than anything else, it was Van Hall’s reaction to beer labels in the marketplace that he perceived as significantly more offensive.
“I can’t stand labels that sexualize or belittle, or are masochistic or just generally offensive,” he shares. “I don’t mean offensive in the sense that they’re shocking; I mean mean-spirited offensive. You know in your gut that they’re trying coming from a bad place. The fact that some of these labels were getting approved by what I consider government censors – the regulatory people – was bugging me. So, I wanted to push the regulators, just to see what the limit was. If it was rejected, I wanted to talk about the fact that it was rejected when others weren’t. And if it was approved, it would show people that the metric by which these things are judged is slapdash and a little arbitrary.”
It was not approved. A version of the label with the gun covered by a circular circles reading “Censored” was cleared eventually, but Stillwater still decided not to release the bottles. Instead, it just posted the images online and made its point.
“I’m so thankful that Brian let me do this one because it was very risky, but we were trying to make a big point,” Van Hall tells me. “I had people I know well who were upset by the label, but I would sit down with them and say, ‘Try to get past your first reaction and look at it again.’ All of our labels are like that. If you look at it a couple of times, you’ll see more meaning.”
In other words, there’s a little poison gas under almost every Stillwater label from Van Hall. Sometimes, it’s obvious. Other times, it’s not.
For a recent collaboration with Tampa’s Cigar City, 21st Century Means, Van Hall pulled inspiration from To Save Everything, Click Here, a book that pokes holes in the promises of Silicon Valley and technology solutionism. His label marries new age imagery with all-caps sloganeering like “Better Decisions and a More Profitable Life” and “Secret Knowledge Will Make You Success.”
“When Brian said 21st Century Means, I immediately thought, ‘21st Century Means of improving your life,’” Van Hall shares. “I was like, ‘What would that look like if I were to pull it apart and bring in some commentary that’s meaningful to me, which is the lie that technology will make everything better and give you a bunch of success?’”
21st Century Means is the first in a planned series that will continue to explore these themes down the line, in a way that Van Hall likens to the Readymade series. A more contained one-off was this year’s On Fleek, a massive 13% stout brewed with Hill Farmstead’s Ryan Witter-Merithew.
“Brian told me this was his contribution to the big, overhyped stout trend,” Van Hall explains. “I thought, ‘How can I capture being hyped up in the design?’”
His solution was an audaciously colorful can with pink and blue splashes of oversized confetti against a lime green backdrop, topped with bright blue and black zebra stripes. “It’s a fun label, and so I think people grab this beer that would otherwise never grab a stout,” the artist says.
At the same time, Van Hall is mischievously trying to goad the staid and macho enclaves of the craft community with On Fleek.
“I was trying to think about who would normally order this beer,” he shares. “I was thinking of the guys at ChurchKey who are going down the beer list and saying, ‘Oh! Thirteen percent! Let me order this because it’s so high in alcohol.’ Maybe they’re trying to prove something, you know? I wanted to have this can brought to them and make them wonder, ‘What did I just get? I have to hold and drink this ridiculous thing now?’ It’s a bit of a joke, it’s a bit of a challenge.”
There’s that poison gas again.
Some people love the can, going so far as to paint their fingernails in its likeness, then posting the images on social media. Some are less enamored.
“I definitely read about people who said they covered the can up with tin foil so nobody would see what they were drinking, but that they still loved it,” he continues. “The fact that they like the beer but hate the can is funny to me and Brian. Ultimately, that’s why we do it.”
The liberty that Van Hall has to provoke his audience is not lost on him.
“With Stillwater, I have the room to be risky,” he tells me. “It’s an art project; it’s not necessarily business. Where the branding comes in is when I want people focused on the message with no distractions. And the rules of branding allow me to set the bookends where I can keep the message as the focus.”
Sometimes, though, Van Hall just wants to present a beautiful thing.
If Van Hall has done his job right, you should hesitate before disposing of a Stillwater bottle or can. He wants a ripple of guilt to pass through you en route to the recycle bin.
“This is one that I feel like people want to keep around,” Van Halls says of Nu-Tropic, a canned IPA brewed with mango and passionfruit. “And it also just looks cool when you’re holding it. That’s why I push all of the mandatory text to one spot: so that whenever you’re looking at the beer, there’s always an angle where you see just a design – nothing more than that.”
Released this spring, Nu Tropic is a recent entry in the Contemporary Works series. The beer presented Van Hall with the opportunity to apply his pattern work to an aluminum can for the first time.
“A can is a totally different beast as far as the basic set up of the label,” he explains. “There are a ton of limitations in terms of how they’re printed. At the same time, having those limitations pushes me to do something in this context. There are a million great beer cans out there. How do I distinguish it and not have it be all muddled?”
For Nu Tropic, he sought to channel the feel and taste of the beer.
“Those colors, the squiggles – it’s a little bit like the tropical flavors dancing on your tongue,” Van Hall says. “I always wonder what people see with this one. I know how I built the design, and I look at it in that context, but I don’t whether people see a bunch of yellow squiggly lines or if they see the individual pieces of the purple.”
His design for Stillwater’s dry-hopped session lager, Yacht, another Contemporary Works entry, is less overtly playful, but it’s still intentionally approachable. Packaged in 16-ounce cans, the beer is flanked on its sides by long stripes of nautical blue and yellow. There’s an economy of space that makes the container look deceptively larger than it is.
“While we’re going to screw around and we’re going to challenge you, we also want to make classics, and this is a classic,” Van Hall states. “I wanted to make this beer look like its name and what it tastes like. I want to grab people that wouldn’t necessarily go for those skull beers – maybe get some of the wine crowd. Or if I’m a rich guy with a yacht, what going to look good on my boat?”
It was an unexpected beer from Stillwater in an unexpected package, but the overall product is striking. Unsurprisingly, it was also divisive among certain enclaves of the Internet. In fact, the label for a subsequent collaboration with Against the Grain, Give-Away, pictures Strumke and Van Hall debating the Yacht design, which is about as far as you can go under the laws of modern physics to troll haters.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard not to view the beer as anything other than a logical extension of Van Hall’s aesthetic.
“This label shows what you can do with modern design,” he shares. “It’s just a bunch of lines, but the way we structure them on the can evokes a yacht. When you look at it, you think, ‘That’s a boat beer.’”
When you look at the can, one thing you won’t find is Stillwater’s logo.
“There’s not really a Stillwater logo anymore,” Strumke says. “As soon you brand something with a particular logo, you’re stuck to a certain aesthetic or idea, and people come to expect certain things. So, we’re attempting this anti-marketing marketing plan by removing all of logos. It’s kind of a social experiment. In this industry, people are always wanting new, new, new, so I kind of half-jokingly thought, ‘What if we made everything look like a unique product to the point where if you have a whole shelf of Stillwater beers, it’ll just look like a bunch of random beers?'”
Removal of the Stillwater logo wasn’t the result of a calculated plan or an actionable bullet point after a staff meeting – nothing at Stillwater is. It was a decision that was made when it dawned on Van Hall and Strumke that they were already pretty much doing it.
“We only had an explicit conversation about it after we realized how far we had gone down this road,” Van Hall says. “Looking back, I think it confirmed that we’re doing Stillwater as an art project and not beer branding. The fact that including a logo was never a check box is an important conformation to me.”
In a time when brand recognition feels paramount, the exclusion of the Stillwater logo is quietly radical. The operation has even gone as far as to tell collaborating breweries that it won’t include their logos on Stillwater’s labels, either.
“Brian and I do think about whether we’re getting lost on the shelf,” Van Hall admits. “But I’m confident that the people who like Stillwater know by now what we look like. I also love the notion of someone picking up a bottle and thinking it’s us with no other indication, and then turning the bottle over, like , ‘Yep, it is Stillwater.’ It makes you feel like you’re being treated as a person and not just a customer.”
I ask Strumke if he’s received pushback on this decision from those with a vested interest in selling Stillwater’s beer.
“Stillwater only has one true boss, and that’s me,” Strumke says with a laugh. “I’d done plenty of things over the years that have made it more difficult to grow the brand, but at the same, those are the things that make the brand what it is. There are plenty of times my distributors have said, ‘Brian, why don’t you spell it out more? Put the name on the front and blah blah blah.’ But that’s what everyone else is doing. With a growing market that’s starting to flood out, there’s no sense in blending in. Maybe you’re taking a risk by sticking out and being unique, but the pros outweigh the cons. In this day and age, anyway that you can stick out is a good thing.”
In April, Stillwater released a four-pack of cans the trendy color of rose gold. Printed on the outside of each, looking like a knitted design on a children’s sweater, was the silhouette of a bunny. Underneath it were the following words: “Stillwater is nothing. Big Bunny is everything.”
Big Bunny was the imperial chocolate milk stout contained inside the can, a collaboration with Arizona Wilderness Brewing. And as the text would have you believe, that’s all that matters.
“We want to make people understand that Stillwater is not a beer company,” Van Hall says. “It goes right to the idea that this is an art collective. And it pokes fun at ourselves and the people that might say, ‘They don’t have a brewery, so Stillwater is nothing.’”
Spend time in conversation with Van Hall and Strumke, and two ideas surface again and again: The concept of Stillwater as an art collective, and the existence of diehard following that they refer to imply as “the cult.”
“We call it an art project because we don’t sit down and have business meetings,” Van Hall explains. “There’s not a lot out there telling us that we can or can’t do things. That’s why we both enjoy doing this. If any given thing doesn’t make either of us money, it doesn’t matter. It’s not what we’re doing it for. It’s to get stuff out there. If an idea comes in and we like it, then we run with it.”
Along those lines, Stumke has often referred to Stillwater as an elaborate excuse to make beer with friends and the people he admires. The scattershot mix of one-offs, core beers, and collaborations produced by the gypsy brewery certainly bears this out. In a way, so does his relationship with Van Hall.
“I’m working with Mike because I want to collaborate with a visual artist – not a graphic designer,” Strumke tells me. “I could hire a firm and tell them what I want. I have my ideas at times, and I’ll come to Mike and be like, ‘For this label, I actually have a visual concept.’ And then he’ll give me his interpretation, and we’ll bounce it back and forth. It’s a collaboration.”
After two years of working with Stillwater, Van Hall is just as excited as he first was.
“We have zero limits on what we can put out under the Stillwater name at this point,” the artist shares. “That freedom is just awesome. I don’t think anybody is doing branding like we are. We’re almost like an unbrand.”
At this point, there are certainly other breweries that take unconventional approaches to this business – breweries that produce what they want, when they want to, with packaging that doesn’t hold consumers by the hand. What’s most remarkable about Stillwater is the scale that it accomplishes this on. Most breweries with a similar model sell the majority of their beer on-premise. Stillwater’s beer is available in 40 states and more than a dozen countries.
That’s because, according to Strumke, Stillwater doesn’t make beer for everyone. It makes it for the cult.
“I’ve always spread Stillwater’s beer around the world, because I knew when you’re trying to do something that’s edgy and radical, you can’t rely on one local base market,” he explains. “It’s going to be a niche thing. There are going to be pockets of people all over the place that will get it, and collectively that’s your audience. That’s how it ends up being a cult audience.”
Stillwater aren’t just conscious of this following – Van Hall and Strumke play to it.
“We definitely treat the people that like us as a cult,” Van Halls shares. “We give them information, we engage them on terms we think they understand. We’re lucky in that the people who do like Stillwater understand that we’re telling a story a lot of times and that there’s nuance, and if you work a little bit, the full story will be revealed. If people on the outside don’t get it, it’s not a big deal to us. We’d rather take care of the people that are paying attention to us and like us.”
At the same time, Stillwater is obviously not opposed to reaching new audiences. That’s where designs like Yacht or Extra Dry or Nu Tropic come in. Or the eye-catching pink and blue lighting bolts on Rockstar Farmer’s label. Or the parodies of ubiquitous album art for the #popculture series. Or the equally striking and cheeky lonely beach postcards from the Gose Gone Wild World Tour.
“We want to reach people that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily pick up any kind of beer,” Van Hall continues. “I’d like to think they would at least come over and look at the Extra Dry can. It’s pretty. And if we can bring them into the cult of Stillwater, even better.”
The label of Oude Bae, a late summer release from Stillwater, features the image of a half-dressed woman with her hair wrapped in a towel. There’s a lit cigarette in one of her hands and a cell phone in the other. She’s staring at the latter object with a look of… well, that’s for you to decide. But the rest of her story is clearly defined in Van Hall’s mind.
“This label is trying to capture that 2:00 a.m. ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ call from old flame,” Van Hall explains. “This woman clearly does not want to go out, but then she gets a call from some guy. I really wanted to make sure that she looked pissed because she doesn’t want this call. At the same time, there’s always that familiarity, and it’s magnetic. Maybe she does catch up with him. I like to leave open the interpretation.”
The oak-aged sour ale is Strumke’s homage to Baltimore. When he isn’t travelling, the brewer has resided in Brooklyn for the past few years, but the Maryland city will always be his hometown.
“That’s his Oude Bae,” Van Hall says. “He goes back to Baltimore every once in a while and has a good time. That girl in the picture is supposed to be a representation of that.”
Like many of us with our hometowns, Strumke’s relationship with Baltimore isn’t cut and dry.
“It’s kind of tough with Baltimore, because it’s a place that shaped me a lot, and Stillwater is a lot of what it is based on my Baltimore upbringing,” he admits. “But I’ve always been in some kind of creative field, and Baltimore wasn’t always the most nurturing environment for progressive concepts. As an artist, there were plenty of times when it was a little frustrating to be told that I couldn’t do something because people weren’t used to it.”
This knotty dynamic is the reason he named his Baltimore gastropub Of Love and Regret.
“With any place you’ve grown up, you’re going to have your history and your building blocks, as well as some frustration,” he continues. “But I’m always pushing for worldly ideas. I think that’s why I’m always running around the world – it’s because I want to gather up all of this inspiration. And as an artist, I’ve always been out to change the world – not just the community around me. I always think big, and I just can’t sit still.”
The art collective construct allows Strumke to let the Stillwater take him wherever it will.
“Stillwater has always been something that I’ve treated as a living organism,” he shares. “I allow it to evolve and grow based on the world around it. I think it’s a terrible thing to try force a square peg into a round hole.”
For the last two years, Strumke had been content to let the dual aesthetics of Stillwater coexist. Lee Verzosa continued producing his ornate drawings, typically for the brewery’s Belgian-leaning beers, while Van Hall covered whatever fell outside that territory. Recently, though, Strumke decided to commit more thoroughly to the latter style. From now on, Van Hall is the de facto art director of Stillwater. Strumke has even gone so far to ask him to design new cans for old school offerings like Stateside Saison and Cellar Door.
“I found that the brand was becoming a little schizophrenic,” the founder says. “It was almost like two brands, and it was starting to throw me off. I kept feeling a weird disconnect. I’m trying to bring the whole brand back together.”
The decision also reflects the evolution of Van Hall and Strumke’s connection.
“Our relationship has gone deeper than just the visual aesthetics,” Strumke observes. “I’m now bouncing full concepts off of him. Before, I’d have the concept worked out, and I’d bring it to him, and I’d say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s the name. This is what it’s about. Go!’ Now, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea for a concept. What do you think of this?’ And he’ll be like, ‘I think that’s cool, but you might want to change this.’”
Van Hall says he and Strumke are always thinking about Stillwater. He struggles to quantify the amount of his time spent on its projects. But Stillwater doesn’t represent the entirety of his only involvement in the DMV beer scene. The Committee on Opprobriations was behind the design work for the Lucketts farm brewery Vanish. It’s currently working on the first bottles for Herndon’s Aslin Beer Co. It’s designed cans and posters for DC Brau. And these are just the things he’s credited with. Talk to enough craft breweries around town and you’ll begin to realize that Van Hall has a lot of people’s ears.
“When I’m doing another project, I get in another mindset, and I approach it specific to whoever I’m working with,” he explains. “The beauty of working in beer brands is that every one has unique characters to it. If the Brau guys come to me with a project, then I have a Brau mentality for them. I love the Aslin guys, and I’ll do stuff with them that I could never do with Stillwater, just because it’s not the character of the brand or the character of the people involved.”
“Mike’s aesthetic is very different from the way most people design for labeling,” DC Brau co-founder Brandon Skall says. “He makes labels that are more centered on the art than the information they present. He’s very good at capturing the essence of a project.”
Here again, Van Hall credits the influence of George Lois.
“The Lois theory that I focus on is ‘The Big Idea,’” Van Halls shares. “With any given thing that you’re trying to present or say, what’s the big idea behind it? Get to the core of what you’re trying to say, and then make it punchy.”
So, what’s the big idea behind Stillwater?
I’m reminded of something Van Hall told me in our discussion of On Fleek.
“At the same time that we’re serious, we’re trying to be absurd, and we’re trying to confuse people,” he said. “We want to make it more fun than just buying beer in the store.”