Alec Doherty is the prolific illustrator behind what we at the Evening Brews think are some of the best beer labels in the UK. His artwork for London-based Partizan Brewing (owned by his long-term friend Andy Smith) are elaborate, ever-evolving pieces that reflect Partizan’s constantly changing lineup of beers. Continuing our series of interviews with some of the best label designers around, we caught up with Alec to chat about his creative process and his ongoing relationship with one of London’s best new breweries.

Alec Doherty

Like most successful partnerships, Alec had been good friends with Andy for a long time before their working relationship began. Andy approached Alec to do some design work when the brewery was getting off the ground, but the direction quickly changed course from the more traditional graphic design route. Alec explains, ”We worked on loads and loads of design routes and he said “I don’t like any of this, I’d like your illustration stuff on the labels.” We ended up going with the illustrations, sacking off all the design work I toiled away at and just doing my silly drawings.”

This decision might have seemed surprising at the time, but it worked massively in favour of supporting the attitude of the brewery and giving it a unique personality from the start. As Alec puts it, “In terms of their identity, their attitude is “Fuck it… let’s have some fun and make some good beer.” In retrospect he sees how the stale design work could’ve made the whole brewery a bit more formulaic. As Andy had been given Kernel’s old brewing kit, he was conscious not to mimic what they were doing, particularly in their minimal, handspun approach to branding and labelling. Using Alec’s distinctive illustrations as the branding itself felt like a brave step towards securing their own identity in a closely competitive market.

Partizan Porter
The first label Alec produced for Partizan

The ideas of the main characters on the labels came out of conversations the pair had about the beers Andy wanted to brew. “Originally when we started to talk about the project, Andy always used to talk about how his beers had character, waxing poetically about the beers he was making and I interpreted it as literal characters. So the Porter label has all porters, and the Stout has big, muscly geezers.”. The characters also serve the more subtle but practical task of spelling out the style of the beer, although deciphering the contorted figures into letterforms can sometimes take a little effort.

Explaining his key influences on how his illustrative style developed, Alec cites both his love for printing techniques like risograph and screen printing, as well as his perceived inability to draw that well. “Because they are fairly naive drawings I think the ideas are quite important in the work. So I take some time sketching things out – figuring out if it’s letterforms, how they will be formed.” As a member of London illustration collective Puck, he divides his time between Partizan work, personal projects, client work and teaching at Camberwell College of Arts.

Some of the initial label sketches

Alec and Andy took the bold decision of making a brand new label for every new Partizan beer early on in the process. This spontaneous approach means they can reflect and celebrate the uniqueness of each brew rather than making them fit into a generic template. Each illustration incorporates a multitude of ideas, in-jokes and personal references – from the music playing when the beer was mashed, to riffing on the hop names.

The labels have featured a wide range of references already, from subjects as diverse as British astronaut Nicholas Patrick (featured on the ‘Galaxy Pale Ale’) to an albatross on the barley wine (representing a particularly difficult brew), and even a Beyoncé-inspired label for their ‘Single’. Alec also incorporated a New Orleans theme to the Pale Ale as both he and Andy share a love for the city.

Partizan Quad

On how they arrive at these references, Alec explains, “Now and again they will tell me something like, “We’ve just mashed to Joy Division, can you put in a Joy Division reference?” or “This was Adina’s (the brewery cat’s) first brew so can you have a cat in there somewhere?”. At the end of the day it’s a label, and the reason for the label is to distinguish every brew is different. The common brief is, “we’ve done something new, now you do something new”.

Recently, he even creatively ‘censored’ one of his more risqué labels after a blogger took offense to the amount of naked ladies in his pieces.  “There was a blogger who was really outraged by all the boobies and wrote a hilarious blog entry about it. So for his own sake we censored some. They picked up on all the girls and said I was quite sexist, but didn’t pick up all the muscly, topless blokes! It’s meant to be a bit of fun though, I thought it was nice someone was taking an interest.”

With all this intricate detailing, the labels have become tiny treasure troves for the casual drinker to explore. This is a conscious effort on Alec’s part. “I like the idea of cryptic record sleeves, where people spend hours getting stoned and finding meanings in them. In a subtle way, I like the letterforms, messages and little things people can enjoy and have ownership when they have figured it out in our labels”. Beyond just identifying and selling the beer, enjoyment and delight are the main aims for the whole project. He hopes people pick up on how much fun both he and Andy are having with Partizan, and that it reflects in the finished product.

Partizan Labels

As a medium, Alec is positive about the possibilities of beer labels for both himself and other illustrators. “Growing up, we wanted to design record sleeves, but the dream of doing a gatefold double album sleeve is just not possible any more. But the beer labels are great because it gives you the same tactile aesthetic print work that you don’t get to do anymore. And it’s kind of a cult thing.“

As beer increasingly becomes a creative product in its own right, it seems natural that the breweries would want to collaborate with similarly innovative artists and illustrators. And with people such as Keith Shore (of whom Alec is a huge fan) at the helm of Mikkeller’s visual identity, it seems like it’s something we will continue to see more of. Alec adds, “It’s two artisans wanting the same things. Putting creative energy into a product, which is a lot more genuine than someone going “Well we want a Belgian feel to our brand and add some heritage to that”, and employing someone to create some magical bullshit to represent these core values.” There is an honesty and straightforwardness to creating a brand around a mutually respectful creative partnership rather than a panel of marketers in an ad agency, and consumers are appreciating it.

The partizan labels

From chatting with Alec, it seems that the future is bright for his partnership with Partizan. He’s quickly approaching his 90th label for the brewery (you can see all of them here). They’re even planning a party/exhibition to commemorate the 100th next year, with no stopping in sight. He has even started to think of special ideas for the landmark 100th brew, such hand-painting selected bottles and sending them out randomly amongst the printed ones.

The idea of an original artwork being potentially thrown away or recycled is part of what really tickles Alec about working with the beer label medium: “I really like the throwaway nature of it all. What makes it really easy for me is that they [consumers] will drink it and put it in the bin. It’s not an art piece. It gets me through it, the whole thing frees you up because you can go “I can do that because I like to do it” and you don’t have to worry about people being precious about it“.

Partizan brewing bottles

With such an intensive and ever-changing project, Alec remains flexible on what happens next. “The fact is this project is ever-evolving, not stuck with one piece of branding forever. Andy could turn around tomorrow and go “We’ve had enough of all these boobies and smoking guys”, though I’d continue doing this forever in my current mindset. I really enjoy it and hope they do really, really well”.

With such an obviously successful partnership, I do hope they keep cranking out great beers and labels together for many years to come.

Credits:

Thank you to Alec for chatting to us, all the art you see is copyrighted to him. You can buy some of the awesome labels as prints here

Photos by Katie Marcus & Josh Smith