Talking Beer Labels with Joe Barsin
It’s been a little quiet around these parts, hasn’t it?
A little too quiet, and for that I apologize. Yes, I know it may sound strange to say, “I’m sorry,” like I’m talking to a person. But writing these columns has always felt like sitting down and writing a letter to a good friend. A good friend who is probably too polite or too tired to tell me what a bore I’m being, but hey. That’s what a good friend does, right?
In the past month or so, a lot has been going on in my world. Aside from recovering from three back-to-back beer conferences - I know, woe is me - we’re frantically preparing to move out of our first-ever apartment in Annapolis in less than two weeks! (Don’t worry, we’re staying in town.) It’s a bittersweet milestone since this is the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place. But the lazy jerk in me is so looking forward to not having to schlep up and down four floors every time I want to walk our dogs.
With all of this going on, I haven’t had a ton of time for fun - and many of my actual friends probably think I hate them. (I don’t, you’re all wonderful.) But thankfully I’ve enjoyed a few brief bouts of relief and relaxation in the form of two people - Joe and Eva Barsin of Citizen Pride.
Even before I met this fantastic husband-and-wife dream team of designers, I was a huge fan of their work - and you probably are, too. From flags and doormats to canvas art and magnets, their bold and iconic Maryland-themed designs - the red crab, the terrapin, the raven - have become synonymous with our local culture. Heck, even Mother’s Peninsula Grille in Arnold features a massive, bright Citizen Pride mural over their bar. And don’t get me started on my love for “Captain Crab,” Joe’s fantastically audacious, but so utterly perfect naval officer with a crab mustache, for this year’s Annapolis Film Festival.
In our apartment alone, we have a flag, a canvas print and seven - yes, seven - of their magnets. Then, of course, there are Maryland Bay Plates that adorn both of our cars - also designed by Joe Barsin. But what you may not know is that, in addition to his ability to craft bold iconography and stunning designs, Joe is also a devout beer guy.
“When I was around 12, my dad had a best friend,” Joe shared. “His name was Bob Anderson. He totally looked like a Bob. He was a Marine during WWII. He lied about his age and fought in the war when he was 17-years-old. He would always show up at our house, and while everyone else was trying Blatz and Budweiser, he would always come with what I called the "elephant beer" from Belgium. It was this glass bottle. It was long. It had aluminum foil on the top - white foil. It had a little elephant on it. It was so cool, and it just stuck with me.”
Other opportunities over time cemented this love affair with beer as he grew older - a trip to Italy, which was then followed by the rumblings of better being made back stateside. For example, when Hugh Sisson of Heavy Seas fame opened Maryland’s first brewpub in 1995.
It was the sum of hundreds of experiences and moments that led him to share this story with me around a dinner table - alongside his wife, Eva, and my husband, Patrick - while holding a bottle of beer from Lucky Owl Brewing in Ohio (not available in Maryland), for which he developed all of the artwork. As usual, the work pops. It’s clean, striking and memorable, with subtle nuances. For example, he showed me that the breast of the owl was a hop - I don’t know how I didn’t catch that - and owl eyes were scattered throughout the typography.
“This is my dream job,” he said. “Making anything to do with beer, period.”
What I learned, however, is that his first foray into designing for beer happened long before Lucky Owl - and it was right in our own backyard at Ram’s Head on West Street.
“Eva and I were in our early twenties,” Joe remembered. “Now [Ram’s Head] is giant, but at the time, they were not - they were just this one tavern. We presented our design to Bill [Muehlhauser, founder of Rams Head Group] and his board. It was a ram - very old style, 17th-century woodcut - and it’s doing a dance with a beer in its hand.”
They ended up going with a different design and a bigger company, which Eva and Joe both concede was the right move. But in a zippy twist of fate, the design was not thrown in the trash. About a year ago, Eva spotted it in a glass cabinet next to the hostess stand inside the West Street tavern location, being displayed as a part of Ram’s Head history.
Next to their dining room table is Joe’s nod to beer history - a collection of local cans and bottles that feature some of his favorite label artwork. He picks one up Stillwater Artisinal, the brainchild of DJ-turned-Baltimore-based-gypsy-brewer Brian Strumke.
“It’s funny, I bought this beer years ago, because the label just blew my mind,” he recalled with a touch of reverence in his tone. “I love this design, because it’s so crazy. It’s very operatic, very 18th century, very over the top. And then when I saw his Brewmore Baltimore interview… this label is so him. It’s an example of pure identity. It’s also very complex, from a design standpoint.”
Other favorites of his include Van Dammit from Jailbreak Brewing Company and the old Ozzy can from The Brewer’s Art.
I probably spend much more time than I should perusing beer aisles at stores. In fact, one of my favorite pastimes is staring at the wall of large formats at Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits, crippled under the weight of my own indecision. And while I consider myself someone who loves art and design, it wasn’t until Joe took me on a "walk" down his memory lane that I realized how much thought goes into the design of a beer label - or at least how much should go into it.
Even looking back at the iconography he created for Lucky Owl, it took me a moment to realize that the decision to keep the label art singularly focused on the owl logo across multiple styles of beer - with some variation - was a smart, strategic choice. The Lucky Owl brand is in its infancy; now is the time to make the statement of their identity clear and memorable in the eye of the consumer. And for Joe, to be coming in on the ground floor like that is a dream, for a designer.
“When you walk into Dawson’s [Liquors in Severna Park], there are like 10,000 labels. The sheer volume is overwhelming, but remember - every single one of them has been touched by a designer,” Joe pointed out. “Every single one of them has a story behind them.”
Liz Murphy lives in Annapolis with her husband, Patrick, and their two lazy dogs, Horatio and Nugget. Liz also runs her own Annapolis-based beer blog, Naptown Pint. You can usually find her kicking back a pint (or four) at 1747 Pub off Church Circle. Or you can just set a scotch ale out on your porch, and she'll be there in five minutes. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.