Beer labels become canvas for local artist

Date: 6/12/2014

By Chris Maza

LONGMEADOW – Ask any craft beer enthusiast and they’ll tell you that brewing is an art form.

But perhaps even more unique as the concoctions within the bottles is the intricate artwork that has become the staple of the industry’s packaging.

Wilbraham native and current Longmeadow resident Nate Duval, a 32-year-old illustrator, is among those who has applied his gifts toward this unique medium, having produced a number of labels for both large and small breweries on both sides of the country and in between.

“I am a big craft beer drinker and enthusiast and totally buy into the importance of the look of a beer being very important. It’s a highly competitive business these days and if you can be unique and stand out on a shelf, you can potentially end up in someone’s cart who is there trying something new, as a lot of folks often do,” he said.

“Are there beers that I think are great but have label art that leave me wanting more? Of course, but when I find a great beer with great art, it’s always slightly more fun for me to put them in my cart or refrigerator,” he added.

Duval, who graduated from Syracuse University in 2004 with a degree in advertising design, was working with his rapidly expanding freelance business when the first opportunity to design a label arrived via California and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the second-largest craft brewery in the country behind Boston Beer Company.

Sierra Nevada offered him the opportunity to come up with a design for Hoptimum, its Imperial India Pale Ale, based off one of his previous designs that someone at the company came across and admired.

“Four years ago, the creative director at Sierra Nevada randomly reached out to me one day after seeing my concert poster work and other illustrations and prints on the web and in person,” Duval explained. “He really liked the ‘plant head’ series I was working on at the time and had an idea for a new beer they were releasing that had a huge hop flavor.

“We both thought the idea would make for a good beer label as people who loved hops also refer to themselves as ‘hop heads.’ Hoptimum was released to great review – both on taste and the look of the label – nationwide, and I still have people recognizing that label and asking me if I made it when they see other pieces in my portfolio and at art shows,” he continued.

Since then, Duval has created close to 10 labels for other companies, namely Southern Tier Brewing Company, located in Lakewood, New York, and a small operation in the Chicago, Illinois, metropolitan area called Lake Bluff Brewing Company.

“Lake Bluff Brewing was fun and challenging in the sense that I had to make a bunch of labels that stand alone yet work together, something that is much harder to do than it might appear,” he said. “The beers I designed were also their first bottled beers – they are a brewpub that has been making and selling their own beers for a few years but just started bottling and retailing them – which meant I was sort of setting the bar and look and feel for all releases going forward which is a rare and fun thing to be a part of.”

Rodd Specketer, managing partner of Lake Bluff, said he and his partner Dave Burns talked with several illustrators before bringing Duval on board, explaining that they appreciated his ability to demonstrate the fun aspect of beer drinking without creating something “cartoonish.”

“I think it speaks volumes to what we thought Nate’s talent level was,” he said. “We wanted to make it kind of fun, because drinking beer should be fun, but at the same time we didn’t want it to look like Looney Tunes on the label. It would be really easy to do it that way, but Nate’s design has seriousness to it while still being kind of fun.”

Specketer said his team and Duval had a tremendous amount of back and forth in the design and both sides were very accepting of new ideas. That relationship, he said, was very important in being comfortable with what would become the face of their product.

“You have to be very careful about what you choose because if it’s bad, people are going to think your beer is bad,” he said. “The first impression they see is that label and that’s a big deal. You have to choose wisely and I think we did with Nate.”

Duval said he found his work with Southern Tier especially gratifying because of its uniqueness. He explained that he was responsible for the development of art for a new line of Belgian-style beers – Sonnet, Tier de Garde and Grand Arbor – each of which is infused with a different ingredient.

“Southern Tier supplied me with the ingredients of each beer and a ‘storyline’ to maybe illustrate in a way I [deem] fit,” he said. “I am really happy with how they turned out and think they gave a really cool, eye catching look that again works together, but also on their own.”

He also designed the label for Goat Boy, their imperial weizenbock.

Duval said he is always open to the prospect of working with more breweries and looks forward to the next opportunity.

“I find beer label projects to be some of the most fun and challenging projects I take on over the years,” he said “With a ton of local brewers around, I would love to help take them to the next level visually.”

Duval’s label work for Southern Tier and Sierra Nevada can be found on shelves throughout Western Massachusetts, however, as a small operation, Specketer aid Lake Bluff’s distribution remains in the Chicago area for the time being.

For more on Duval’s artwork, visit his website,