Christine Moulson is the creative mastermind behind Strange Fellows Brewing’s celebrated block-print labels and she hopes they’ll help you see the world a bit differently, one beer at a time.
I sat down (virtually, of course) with Christine Moulson, Brand Storyteller at Strange Fellows Brewing in Yeast Vancouver, to chat about beer, art, and SF’s band of whimsical old-world misfits. Christine’s been with the company since its launch in 2014—she’s married to brewmaster Iain Hill, one of the two original “strange fellows.” According to Christine, her carefully crafted block-print labels are meant to “celebrate the strange and extraordinary,” inviting brew lovers of all kinds to converge at the intersection of good art, beguiling stories, and great beer.
Q&A WITH CHRISTINE MOULSON
First things first: how did you get started in your role at Strange Fellows?
Iain’s wanted to start his own brewery as long as I’ve known him, and he always wanted me to do the labels. I actually studied film animation at Emily Carr University, but I learned some things about printmaking and drawing along the way, so it was just sort of this natural thing.
Have you always considered yourself a creative person?
I was always drawing as a kid and I received a lot of positive reinforcement, so I naturally leaned in that direction because it was something I was good at. I remember in grade five, I won this poster design contest for Parks Canada—it had something to do with Smokey the Bear, I think. I got a little trophy and everything. I was super shy as a kid, so that was, you know, life-affirming to win something like that. I guess that was the start!
You might have one of the coolest jobs in the world. What do you love about it?
I love that I have quite a bit of freedom for creativity. I’m lucky that everyone at the brewery trusts my design decisions because I think concepts often get worn down by too much compromise. It’s great that I’m able to have a strong vision and carry it through, both in the story and in the imagery.
Also, the beer industry itself is creative on so many different levels. Everybody’s got their own specialty, their own look and feel. It’s a very nurturing community, and everybody’s super appreciative of what other breweries are doing. It’s kind of neat. Also, I don’t think the beer industry takes itself as seriously as some other products do, so you can really have fun and be relaxed about it.
What role does storytelling play in the Strange Fellows brand?
If you’ve ever seen a Strange Fellows can or bottle, you know there’s usually a story that goes along with it. I never know if people actually read the stories or not, but I spend a lot of time agonizing over it — I try to cram as much of the message I’m trying to communicate in as few words as possible. I could use that space to talk about the hops or the flavour of the beer or the aroma, but my central focus is more about communicating a feeling about the beer or slipping a message in there about how to look at the world a little differently and be a better, more accepting person … all those fun things.
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The Charles Clarke Gallery in your space…is there a story behind that?
By law, tasting rooms have size limitations, so we had some extra space to play with when we first moved in. A friend introduced us to the Eastside Culture Crawl that happens here in East Van each year. We started realizing this area is filled with artist studios and we thought it would be cool to have a gallery space of our own where people can show their work. We also really liked the idea of art in unexpected places—you don’t come into a craft brewery expecting to find a gallery. You know, not everybody’s a gallery-type person; they might not feel comfortable or whatever the reason. We just wanted it to be very accessible.
Art should be for everybody, and I think the more you rub up against it, the more it’s natural. It doesn’t have to be this thing that you have to go to a special place to see, and you don’t have to have a particular background to appreciate it. I just think the more opportunities for artists to put their work out there and for people to experience it, the better.
Strange Fellows’ look and feel are unique. What was going through your mind when you were deciding what the brand was going to be like?
One of the tag lines for the company is “West Coast crafted, old world inspired.” We have this amazing, innovative beer culture here on the West Coast—and, similarly, across North America—but, really, a lot of the styles are from the old world, whether it’s from England, Belgium, or Germany. I knew I wanted the brand to be inspired by that, and that’s why I ended up choosing block prints. The prints have those bold, naive line and heaviness. You’re forced by the very nature of how you carve it and can’t really control exactly how it comes out. It’s never going to be perfect and I really didn’t want a perfect look. A lot of the imagery and the stories are connected, as well. They’re mostly folkloric themes or superstitions, different archetypes ..Those sorts of things.
Alright, now for the question on everyone’s minds…what comes first, the beer or the label?
When somebody at SF says, “There’s a new beer coming down the pipeline, and it’s gonna be this style of beer,” occasionally I’ll get hit with an image right away, and a story will follow or vice versa. I love it when that happens because it makes my job really easy.
Other times, I have to chew on it for a while. The ideal situation is if somebody mentions it to me and I have time to let it simmer for a while; inevitably, while I’m doing other things, something will pop up. But, I’ve been in situations before where I’ve had to design a label for tomorrow… and that’s not as easy.
What’s your best-case scenario for getting into a creative flow?
I have kids, so I have to work while they’re at school. A lot of times, if I’m having a mental block where I can’t think of something, I’ll go for a walk with the dog, or I’ll research the history of the style or region the beer was traditionally brewed in, looking for a hook or story that sparks a little flame. If I just sit down and really try to push it out, it just never comes that way, so I have to go and do something else.
Do you have a favourite beer? Label? Story behind the beer?
Bayard is probably my favourite beer. It’s a farmhouse-style saison; it’s dry and spicy, very aromatic and very Belgian in character. It’s going to be re-released sometime next month, so I’m looking forward to that. It’s the one with the image of a horse with that wild, untamed mane galloping across the front of it.
My favourite label…that’s hard to pick. I do like the Beldame one. It has a crone on the front, which is not an image you’d typically see on a beer label, right? And that’s the whole point: that you should never judge somebody by their appearance. I made her look a bit menacing like she’s glaring at you. If you encountered her, you might worry she’s a witch and will put a spell on you, but really, you don’t know who she is. And you shouldn’t discount her because she’s all these wonderful things. Really, you should look her in the eye, find out who she is and have a beer with her.
Also Moon Rabbit because I love this image and the overall simplicity of the label and the story about the benefits of random acts of kindness.
My favourite story is probably Horace, one of our foudre beers we did last year—it’s a wild sour with plum. There’s a crane on the front reaching up into a tree and picking a plum. For the story, I rewrote this old poem by a Greek poet called Horace, which talks about living for the day because we are not on this Earth for long. He was the one who first talked about the idea of carpe diem. I rewrote the poem to include eating the plums when they’re ripe, right off the tree because it was a foudre-aged beer with plums. It’s about living for the day and appreciating what you have right now because tomorrow it might not be here.
Fear not how many days remain, though prophets may not say the same.
Better to seize each day as it comes, live in the moment and eat ripe plums.
The sun will shine, the rain will fall, the fruit will spoil–can’t have it all!
Waste time no more with useless blather, best do something that you’d rather.
This day is prime–it you should pluck, tomorrow you could be out of luck!
… words of wisdom to ponder alongside a glass of this foudre-aged softly sour beer with deep fruity character.
The block print method for creating SF’s labels is unique. Can you walk us through your process?
I hadn’t done any printmaking since art school—that’s where I learned to do it—but it seemed like the right look for the company. Like I said, I really like the imperfect line you get from a block print. I use lino, which is a soft carvable material. It gives the same look as carving a woodblock image, but it’s a bit cleaner—there’s no dust and no slivers. I do a series of drawings until I find a composition I like, and then I transfer the drawing to the lino block. I have a variety of carving tools to shape the image. Basically, I’m carving away the negative space and leaving behind the positive space. The part left behind gets inked with a roller, and then I press it on the paper. I scan the print, clean it up in Photoshop, and then I do my layout in Illustrator. I really love it. It’s a lot of fun.
How do you want people to feel when they encounter the Strange Fellows brand?
The message on every Strange Fellows can is to “always look your fellows in the eye and toast to their good health.” That’s a message we think is really important. It’s definitely the motto of our tasting room. Everybody’s welcome, we’re all different, and that’s wonderful.
From a strictly visual standpoint, liquor stores now are filled with this sea of amazing colourful labels and artwork, so, of course, my hope is that my designs are impactful enough that people pause and pick up that can or bottle, read the story, take it home, and enjoy it.
Also, if you’ve been to the tasting room, you’ll know there are a bunch of paper-mache masks on the wall around the room that I made. They represent many of the characters from the beer labels. It’s fun to carry those characters and creatures through from the labels and have them present in the tasting room, too. (Iain has been badgering me forever to get more done. I intend to soon!).
Is there a beer you’ve tasted in the past that impacted you so much you wish you could create a label for it?
I did try a beer years ago—I think it was from Parallel 49—and it was a champagne-style beer that was really quite amazing. I can’t say I felt the need to create a label for it, but it was quite a surprising beer. It really stuck with me.
I’ve been binging a lot of Netflix throughout this pandemic (who isn’t?!) and find myself Googling Easter eggs and fun facts about the filming after. Any Strange Fellows Easter eggs you can leave us with?
Ha! Well, the crone I talked about earlier on the front of Beldame was originally the little old lady on the back of the Nocturnum label. She was holding up a lantern and peering into the darkness. The old-world superstition says the wolf can swallow up old ladies and even swallow the sun. People just really loved her, so I decided to focus on her. [Note: Strange Fellows sells a crone mug as well as the canvas tote pictured above through its online store.]
Otherwise, all I will say is there’s a new project we’re releasing in early May, and there are definitely going to be some fun Easter eggs there. So keep your eyes on our Instagram for updates!