How does a craft-beer company stand out in a city where it's up against 50-something others? Judging by The Lost Abbey's beer labels, the answer is: with a paintbrush.
It helps, too, if the brand tells an ongoing, blasphemous, satirical tale that "sinners and saints alike" can't help but notice—and remember—amid the deluge of new brews flooding San Diego County. But Tomme Arthur, the self-described "recovering Catholic" and director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey, didn't jump on the craft-beer bandwagon; he helped build it.
Since The Lost Abbey's inception more than six years ago, Arthur's been hell-bent on illustrating the oldest story ever told on the front and back labels of his Belgian-inspired ale bottles; the English major ascribes biblical names and whimsical tales of good versus evil to each flavor. The text accompanies dynamic illustrations by graphic artist and painter Sean Dominguez. Dominguez has been with the company since day one, and Pizza Port before that, where Arthur was lead brewer in Solana Beach before joining forces with his then-bosses, Gina and Vince Marsaglia, to create the off-shoot company Port Brewing in 1996. In 2006, the trio started, and to this day co-own, The Lost Abbey, whose most recent mantelpiece is a gold medal from last month's World Beer Cup for its Carnevale Ale.
It's Dominguez's ability to convey Arthur's twisted sense of humor in fine-art form that ultimately sets The Lost Abbey apart from neighboring bottles on store shelves.
"All told, there are three stories—the original art, the back-label story and the flavors of the beer itself," says Arthur, who also serves as art director at his brewery.
One of the creative duo's favorite labels is on Inferno Ale. Enveloped by flames, the devil, with his bulging, muscular physique, is depicted stringing humans like Christmas lights along a conveyor belt that runs straight to Hell. "It's bizarre, and dirty," Arthur says of the meat hooks from which poor souls dangle on their way down, a pile of skeletons awaiting them.
For Dominguez, this piece was one of the most challenging. "The design changed two or three times; it was harder to create because of all the details. Tomme really had a vision," Dominguez recalls, adding, "I know I went back in to make the devil more buff—he wanted him really juiced-up for this label."
So, what's the artistic process like when you've got a control-freak company visionary, brewer, art director, storyteller, writer and boss—all in one—breathing down your neck?
"Before the beer is even made, Tomme comes up with a story premise. Then, the recipe and art go back and forth. The first couple sketches are rough; there's stick figures, even," Dominguez explains. "The composition and details get more refined with each meeting with Tomme before it evolves into a mix of acrylic paint, chalk and watercolors on canvas."
The sad part for Dominguez comes when his large-scale, intricately detailed works are photographed and then shrunk down to the size of a label, losing some of the detail.
Ironically, it was the simplest label for Dominguez to paint that caused the biggest stir. In 2010, three years after Witch's Wit was released, the label was discovered by an actual witch who happened upon it while beer shopping in a Northern California liquor store.
Who knew the Wiccan community would be so upset by an image of a lady-witch burning at the stake? On CNN and Fox News, in The New York Times and the blogosphere, Wiccans declared that the label art promoted violence against women and drew comparisons to lynch mobs in the south and even the Holocaust.
"The label stirred the modern-day cauldrons of Wiccans everywhere and confirmed for us that not all art has to hang in galleries to inspire conversation," says Arthur, whose face Photoshopped on the head of a bonnet-wearing Christian woman is the cover photo on the "Boycott Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey" Facebook page.
The controversy couldn't have been timed better for the brewery; it was around Halloween that Dominguez's name and art drew national attention, thanks in no small part to the angry witches.
"At one point, Vince Marsaglia tried playing peacemaker by saying that we'd consider changing the artwork, but Tomme said no way," Dominguez says, laughing.
But of all the people and entities that could potentially stand in the way of Arthur and Dominguez's racy art concepts, it's the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) that puts up the majority of roadblocks. The bureau, whose job is to protect consumer interests by ensuring that product labels aren't misleading, recently put the kibosh on Dominguez's "Running with the Devil" painting, which is part of the brewery's Ultimate Box Set series.
The painting shows a rather spry Satan behind the wheel of a convertible Thunderbird with a license plate that reads "SOULTKR," the front end of the car decorated by a variety of road kill. The devil and his passenger are having a blast in spite of the police car in the background, with rolled cigarettes dangling from their mouths, bottled beverages held high and no seatbelts in sight. The only apparent loser in the scene is the presumably passed-out broad in the backseat, whose legs are flailing amid the vehicle's high speed, a single high-heel lost in the wind.
Raking in 13 violations from the TTB—including drinking and driving, evading the law and womanizing—the label won't be gracing a beer bottle in Arthur's rock 'n' roll-themed beer that's released as a new "track" every month of the year, culminating in December, when the entire set can be purchased, complete with Dominguez's "album art."
Songs that made the set include "Stairway to Heaven," the art for which shows an escalator moving lazy souls carrying money toward a bribable God, who's judging at the gates of Heaven while on top of a mountain formed by coins and gold. "Shout at the Devil" depicts a packed concert of crazed fans cheering on an oddly sexy devil-frontman rocker. And the track that Arthur heard one day in the car, sparking the idea for the Box Set, "Hells Bells," shows a spooky, hornedand-tailed silhouette ringing the bell of a partially burned-down church.
"When we get a new brewery, there will be a wing dedicated to our artwork," Arthur muses.
But you won't have to wait that long to shop for one of Dominguez's pieces. Twenty unannounced labels have been selected for reprint on canvas in several sizes, which will be available for purchase this summer through The Lost Abbey's web store. Amen.
Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.