Best Looking Brands in Beer Part 3: Grimm Artisanal Ales
A few years ago, we tried to hook up with some mysterious brewer-artists that were serving their beers at exhibitions at alternative galleries in Chicago. We were hosting a series of Art of Beer events and thought they were perfect for the shows—but we never managed to connect. Four years later, we find out that the cats we were looking for were Joe and Lauren Grimm, the owners of Grimm Artisanal Ales.
What inspired you to start making beer?
Twelve years ago, you’d find us fermenting ginger beer, mead, pickles, and kimchi in our apartment kitchen. It was simple: We were interested in the transformation of materials by bacteria, yeast, and time.
Once we were hooked on Orval, Fantôme, and Jolly Pumpkin, beers with significant yeast and bacteria profiles, that was all we wanted to make. We only started producing IPA when we figured out how to make yeast esters play with hop character in a meaningful way.
We’re motivated by the challenge—we’re discovering how deep the rabbit hole goes, and there seems to be no bottom. Joe and I are constantly in search of new techniques and flavors in the beers we make. Being truly great will require a lifetime of dedicated research and experimentation.
I assume you guys started as gypsy brewers instead of diving into the shit of opening your own brewery because of the cost and risk. Would you recommend going this route to others?
It’s always hard. We initially wanted to open our own production brewery with our own brewing equipment, but it was impossible without a sales record. Gypsy brewing ended up being the right move for us, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right for everyone. Now, we’re moving toward opening our own facility, specifically designed around our idiosyncratic practices.
It’s true that we didn’t have to deal with the upfront financial investment, but it’s not necessarily easier to operate the way we do. Folks often think that it’s easier than brewery ownership, but it’s just different. The risks are there, but different. The biggest risk in gypsy brewing is the power differential between the gypsy brewer and the partner brewer. They have you by the short hairs. Are you going to be able to assert yourself to get YOUR ideas into the bottle?
That’s why we’re constantly working on our relationships with our partner breweries. We have to be able to trust the people we work with day in and day out, and, in turn, they need to trust us to allow us into their breweries and give us the opportunity to experiment the way we do. Some people seem to have a fantasy of running a gypsy brewing business as, like, a hobby. If you treat it as anything less that a full time rigorous commitment you will suck at it and probably fail.
Three to four years ago it was brutal looking for space and time at breweries to contract brew beer. Has it been easier to find tank space and brewing time due to the growth in the number of breweries that have started?
It’s definitely been easier for us to find capacity more recently, but I think that it’s actually due to the relationships and reputation that we’ve built. There are more breweries around these days, but capacity still seems pretty tight. If a brewery is sitting with empty fermenters, ask yourself why. Is that somebody you really want to work with?
How do you come up with concepts for your beers?
That’s a hard question to answer. It’s an ongoing process that began way back when we were first learning about fermentation 12 years ago. As we’ve developed identities as a brewers, we’ve developed a sense of style, a beer aesthetic. Each beer is a part of the Grimm project as a whole, and our ideas about our beer are constantly in flux. Every time we brew, we make small adjustments to our technique and ingredients, tweaks based on research and experimentation.
I see a Providence school of psychedelic hallucinogenic artwork in your beer labels. What is your process for naming, designing, and creating the artwork on your packaging?
You’re not wrong about the Providence connection; Joe and I both lived there in the aftermath of the Fort Thunder-era and that visual style was influential.
We always begin the process with a beer name. We’ll go back and forth playing off of one another’s ideas. For instance, the name Tesseract started out with a general idea of crystals, which led to tessera, the small pieces of tile that make up a mosaic, tessellations, and finally Tesseract, which came from A Wrinkle in Time.
Once we’ve decided on a name, the label design begins. One of our oldest friends, artist Gretta Johnson, is an integral part of our team. The labels that originate in her drawings tend to have a hand drawn, gestural aesthetic (for example, Purple Prose and Future Perfect). The ones that I design from scratch tend to be more graphic and minimal (for example Magnetic Compass, Vacay). Because we’ve known each other for ten-plus years, our working process is pretty fluid. Most of the time, we just have a series of text messages to develop ideas for imagery.
Even though the final label is a computer file that I’ve worked through in Illustrator, the images usually begin as a drawing with pen and paper that Gretta or myself will draw. I think that’s one reason why our labels stand out so much. You can see the hand in each one, rather than just computer graphics.
Can you tell me more of about the community of artists, brewers, and distributors that helped form Grimm along with you guys?
Joe and I are the only employees of Grimm, but we depend on a lot of other people to get our beer out there. Lately, we’ve been brewing a lot of beer at Flagship, on Staten Island, and at Beltway, in Sterling, VA. There is a whole cast of talented characters at each brewery that help to make our beer possible.
We also depend on distributors throughout the U.S. to get our beers to retailers. We could have never done any of this without them. Their relationships with retailers as well as their logistical infrastructure has enabled us to focus on brewing and design.
As I mentioned before, Gretta Johnson is significant to our design, but we’re also starting to include some of our other friend’s artwork as well. We have upcoming labels contributed by Sumi Ink Club (Lucky Dragons + Sarah Rara) and Bryan Alfred.
Why do you think there so many poorly designed brands and labels out there?
Breweries with bad branding probably also have bad beer. You can often judge a book by its cover.