When AJ Keirans talks about the “art” of craft beer, he’s not talking about the skill that went into making a specific brew — he means it literally.
Keirans, of Shelton, is the host of The 16oz. Canvas, a podcast dedicated to championing the work of the artists who create the increasingly elaborate beer labels on popular craft beer cans.
“We always say that these are the artists and designers that bring your favorite beers and breweries to life,” Keirans says.
The podcast is hosting its first show dedicated to these artists, The Art of Craft Beer, at the Kehler Liddell Gallery in New Haven from July 14-29. The show will feature at least nine artists (more may be added after this article goes to print). Participating artists include Craig Gilbert from New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge and Lisa Sotero from Stony Creek Brewery in Branford, as well as artists working with breweries outside Connecticut including Dean McKeever from Tree House Brewing Co. in Massachusetts, Jess Graham from The Alchemist in Vermont and Kevin Cimo from Trillium Brewing Co. in Massachusetts.
Despite the shared brewing connections of the artists, the show will be far from a collection of blowups of various beer labels.
“It will be a mix between their label style, and what they would do outside of the brewery or the can,” Keirans says. “I thought it would be a little stale if we just had 8-by-12s of labels up on the wall; I didn’t want it to look like a dorm room. We’re going to have early concept sketches, some of the hand-drawn works of some of the really well-known labels. Jess Graham is going to be doing a live mural there, she’s the art director of Alchemist. Craig Gilbert at New England Brewing Co., he has an art concept called Flow that he does.”
All participating artists will be in attendance on opening night, July 14, and there will also be food from the M&M Steaks food cart. Tickets are required to attend. In case looking at the work of beer-themed art makes you thirsty, beer will be available opening night, and the show will be BYOB for its entire run.
On July 21 Dan Blakeslee, a folk musician and prominent beer artist who created the popular Heady Topper label for The Alchemist, will perform at the gallery from 6 to 8 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from the exhibit will be donated to Autism Resources & Services Connecticut, and Sundays will be family day at the gallery. Though all will be welcome, the exhibit will be more sensory compliant than typical exhibits, with dimmer lighting, softer music and other steps being taken to make it a reduced-stress environment.
The explosion of craft breweries in recent years, paired with a movement in the beer industry in favor of self-distribution and away from bottles toward cans — specifically, larger, 16-ounce cans — has given artists more opportunities to show off their creations and more “canvas” (can space) to work with. All of which has combined to create a golden age of beer art. Glance at the beer section of your local liquor store and you may see elaborate images of unicorns, robots or intricate symbols and satirical cartoons.
“I think that it’s a conscious choice that the breweries are making to have that extra level of creativity and branding,” Keirans says.
As to whether you can judge a beer by its cover, Keirans says, unfortunately, you can’t.
“You hope that the beer inside is just as good as the labels, but that isn’t always the case. I think most folks have bought a beer they thought looked good from the label, that tasted awful, or just not as good as you wanted it to be; you wouldn’t go back and buy it again.”
The Art of Craft Beer runs July 14-29 at the Kehler Liddell Gallery at 873 Whalley Ave., New Haven. Exhibit hours are Thursday and Friday, 1-6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.