Alibi V.28 No.48 • Nov 28-Dec 4, 2019 

Arts Profile

Beer Can Art

What makes a great Albuquerque can?

La Cumbre’s Gilded Age Porter
La Cumbre’s Gilded Age Porter
Photo by Clarke Condé

From his vantage point behind the cash register at Jubilation Wine and Spirits, Karl LaVine can see people scan the cooler for just the right beer. Some know what they want walking into the store and make a beeline for their favorite, and some are searching. They are looking at the art on the cans and LaVine believes they are trying to match the beer with their mood. He pictures them thinking, their friend likes low riders so I’ll get Marble when they go over to his house, or they are going up to a cabin with snow so they choose Celebration. It is the art on the can or bottle that helps drives sales in New Mexico’s booming beer industry and it can be the deciding factor when consumers are standing at the cooler. But what makes great beer can art here in Albuquerque?

Tractor Brewing’s Milk Mustachio Stout
Tractor Brewing’s Milk Mustachio Stout
Photo by Clarke Condé

“We like to tell stories,” says Donna Romano. She and her husband Len run Ripe Inc., the branding company behind Marble Brewery’s cans. When they began the can designs for Marble, their approach was to set the art apart from the other breweries on the shelf. Len Romano says everyone’s can art was dark. “Nobody was doing primary colors at the time. We needed to do the opposite.” Ripe set out to blend Albuquerque street, desert and Bosque images with bright cans that stood out on the self. The idea was to celebrate Albuquerque while creating a can that “immediately grabs your attention,” as Len Romano puts it.

One question that immediately comes to mind when starting to create the artwork for a beer can is should the can reflect the contents within or the context in which it was created? Ripe’s designs go for balance and clarity of brand. It’s what Len Romano calls, “Funk and flavor.” His philosophy is that once the identity is clearly established, they can go further into the artwork without losing the brand.

Marble Brewing’s Cholo Stout
Marble Brewing’s Cholo Stout
Photo by Clarke Condé

Cory Campbell, Creative Director at La Cumbre Brewing, says it is all about what looks cool. La Cumbre’s tallboys offer the opportunity to design on a larger canvas than the 12 oz. variety of most other breweries. Campbell says he is trying to catch the consumer’s eye with this work. After they have settled on a name for a new beer, the question becomes, “What makes it stand out on the shelf?” Campbell says that because La Cumbre brews three tiers of beer (year-round, seasonal and rarities) he is free to take three different approaches. “I try to keep it fun,” he says. His approach to La Cumbre’s “Gilded Age Porter” is emblematic of his process. “I wanted to capture the era,” says Campbell, but goes on to say that it came down to two versions of the same design. In the end La Cumbre went with the more distressed interpretation, not necessarily to reflect the tarnished underbelly of the time defined by the great Mark Twain, but simply because it looked cooler. It is an approach that has served La Cumbre well.

beer shopper
A contemplative shopper eyes the beer cans at Jubilation Wine and Spirits.
Photo by Clarke Condé

David Santiago is the painter behind Tractor Brewing Company’s distinctive cans with women’s faces on them. “It’s my most intoxicating work,” he jokes. It has been a boon to his career having his artwork on beer cans around town, Santiago says. People recognize his style, often opening doors to artistic opportunities that would otherwise require an introduction.

His approach to beer can art is holistic. He starts by finding a color palate that reflects a vision of the beer. Santiago says, “It is a little less about content.” The cans are instantly recognizable and have helped to define the aesthetic of Tractor. Each holds an elegance beyond the beer itself. It is not unusual for Santiago to hear people comment on his work, can in hand. “I should be that [the Tractor can] for Halloween,” one woman told him.

Without even mentioning the myriad other local breweries charting a similar path, it should be clear that there is a diverse aesthetic that has developed in plain sight here, creating a genre of art that reflects one of the growing fields for artistic expression in Albuquerque. In a city that has always thrived on the high/low approach to art, it is no wonder that inexpensive, accessible work of this caliber is now available in a cooler near you.