How a Hamilton brewery created a 'global art gallery' using craft beer

The relationship between craft beer and art isn't new, but a Hamilton-based craft brewery re-imagined the partnership by creating a global community of artists. Each of Collective Arts Brewing's colourful cans and bottles are adorned with original artwork from over 600 international artists.

Collective Arts Brewing features over 600 international artists on its labels from 40 countries

Collective Arts Brewing features over 600 international artists on its labels. Now on their eighth "call for art," the brewery has received over 13,000 submissions from artists in 40 countries. (Collective Arts Brewing)

Collective Arts Brewing isn't all about the craft beer. Its colourful cans and bottles serve as the brewery's palette, each craft beer adorned with original artwork, the operation's design is touted the first of its kind in Canada. 

"We've created the world's most refreshing gallery," said Bob Russell, co-founder of Collective Arts Brewing. 

The relationship between craft beer and art isn't new, but the Hamilton-based craft brewery re-imagined the partnership by creating a global community of artists — composed of visual artists, musicians and filmmakers. 

'World's most refreshing gallery'

Collective Arts Brewing's co-founder, Bob Russell says the idea to connect art and craft beer started before he and business partner, Matt Johnston brewed their first cask. (Collective Arts Brewing)

With over 600 international artists featured on their labels since Russell and business partner, Matt Johnston began brewing beer three years ago, the company has received over 13,000 submissions from artists in 40 countries. 

The artists are featured on a rotating basis, with a new call for submissions every six months. "It's become a global art gallery," Russell said.

Each new selection of artists is decided by a rotating contingent of around eight volunteer jurors, who represent different facets of the art community.

"We truly let the street decide what art they want to see on the labels," he told CBC Hamilton. 

Brewery creates opportunity, artist says

“It never gets old when you walk into the store and you’re like, ‘oh that’s me,’” says Hamilton-based illustrator, Michael Byers. (Michael Byers)

Michael Byers' illustration, Gathering Up My Life, was featured on Collective Arts Brewing's CAN series, which showcased larger format prints on tall-cans, selected from all six "calls for art" conducted over the past three years. 

"They create an opportunity where you don't need to be some popular, well-known artist to get your label on there," said Byers. 

The Hamilton-based illustrator typically has his work featured in American publications, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and Oprah Magazine for the last 10 years. 

He says being featured on the label gave him "more recognition locally." 

"It was nice to do something that would be seen around here and would make an impact because I don't have a local name for myself." 

'Getting yourself out there'

Toronto-based illustrator, Oleg Portnoy said his involvement with Collective Arts Brewing gave his art "a bit of a boost." (Oleg Portnoy)

Another artist, Oleg Portnoy, is an up-and-coming Toronto-based illustrator. He has had two pieces of work showcased by Collective Arts Brewing and says his involvement enabled him to connect with different artists he otherwise wouldn't.

"You kind of get to know some of the other artists featured and it creates a little community around it," Portnoy said. "It's great to have these opportunities to interact with that community because there's so many talented people out there who you don't normally have the chance to meet."

They create an opportunity where you don't need to be some popular, well-known artist to get your label on there.- Michael Byers

Portnoy's illustration, Faces, was featured on Series Three in fall 2014. He says this exposure enabled him to secure more commissioned editorial work.

With each new series, Collective Arts Brewing hosts a series launch to promote the artists. In 2014, this was held at C'est What, a bar in Toronto's St. Lawrence district, where Portnoy explains a local magazine saw his work displayed and reached out to him. 

"Even if it's not monetary, you're getting yourself out there — more artists are aware of the stuff you're doing which gives your art a bit of a boost," he added. 

And Byers agrees. He says "It never gets old when you walk into the store and you see your beer, you're like, 'oh that's me.'"

'Beer that helps artists make their mark'

Collective Arts Brewing pays artists a stipend of $260 for their contributions and the artists retain ownership of their work. Russell says the brewery has spent around $165,000 so far. 

"It's become known as that beer that helps artists make their mark," Portnoy said. "It has a lot of respect in the arts community."

Three years later since Collective Arts Brewing opened, Russell says he never could have imagined it would have such a wide-reaching impact. 

"It's been quite overwhelming how we've been embraced by the creative community," he said. 

'A company that has global aspirations'

Last fall, the brewery launched its U.S. operations in Vermont and began distributing its craft beer in Italy and Spain. 

But Hamilton remains its home base, which Russell says is significant for "a company that has global aspirations." 

"What's happening with Hamilton and the renaissance with the art and music community, kind of parallels how we feel about our business," he said. "We really feel we're a steward for creativity, which all comes home to Hamilton." 

Collective Arts Brewing rebuilt the old Lakeport Brewery on Burlington Street East in Hamilton, where co-founders, Russell and Johnston grew up, after the brewery got its start in Toronto. (Collective Arts Brewing)


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