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101 North Brewing rocks the art of selling beer

Actor Anthony Rapp, of “Rent” fame, once said, “Labels are for cans, not for people.”

Brewmaster Joel Johnson and the other founders of 101 North Brewing Co., in Petaluma, completely agree with that. As a team, the founders of 101 North have effectively defied all of the labels and expectations frequently endured by small, start-up craft beer operations in Northern California. Ironically, one of the ways Johnson and company have accomplished that is by embracing the very notion of the label — in this case the literal labels applied to their cans and bottles — as a way of creating a unique and somewhat shocking identity for their beers and ales, all of which bear names like Heroin, Stigmata, Naughty Aud, Golden Naked and the like.

“Our names definitely stand out, so we thought our labels should stand out, too,” says Johnson.

No kidding. In hiring independent rock-and-roll industry artists to design the labels, 101 North has established itself as having some of the best, coolest, most eye-catching and head-spinning products to ever grace the refrigerated beer section of a grocery store.

“We kind of all come from an appreciation of the arts,” says Johnson, who says that having unconventional label art was part of the company’s original mission statement when he founded 101 North in 2012 with his brothers Jake and Joey, along with lifelong friends John Brainin, John Lilienthal, and Anthony Turner. “John plays guitar, and we’ve all played instruments and played in bands,” says Johnson. “I’ve personally always been a fan of art, and have always been super envious of those who can draw or paint or illustrate well.”

His appreciation for art is further demonstrated by the elaborate tattooing visible on the right side of his neck. The brewery’s comfortable pub space, tucked in among various businesses in the Makers Alley area of East Petaluma, is adorned with oversized reproductions of 101 North artwork. In coming months, the space will begin hosting art shows featuring works by some of the artists who’ve designed those labels.

“From the very beginning, we knew that having really cool artwork right there on our beer was something we were going to do,” says Johnson. “We kind of see the label an opportunity to say something, maybe something that needs to be said, not necessarily in a preachy way, but to bring something to light that people may not have thought much about.”

The danger of making premature assumptions, for one thing.

101 North’s first beer, and still the one it’s most closely associated with, is called Heroin IPA, with a label designed by San Francisco-based “gig artist” Leslie Hotchkiss. It shows a powerful super-hero-like woman with bright reddish-orange wings, rising from an explosion of flames.

“That’s such a taboo word, ‘heroin,’” he says. “Why is that? Sure, it’s associated with a narcotic, but before that it was associated with being or feeling heroic, being a female hero.”

It’s true. Ironically enough, the word “Heroin” was originally coined by the Bayer pharmaceutical company in the late 1800s, and placed on labels for the then-newfangled drug, marketed widely as a pain reliever for children. Unsubstantiated rumors still persist that the name “heroin” was chosen because early users said it made them feel powerful and unstoppable. In the case of Heroin IPA, Johnson says the label artwork is as important as the product’s name.

“When you hear people say the name of the beer, it makes a different image in your head than if you see the artwork along with it,” he says. “Of course, we named it that to get people’s attention, and it worked. But it also makes you think a little about the meanings we give to things without thinking about them.”

That blending of ear-opening names and eye-catching art has continued through all of 101 North’s releases, from its Stigmata American Red Ale — bearing Molly Hills’ striking painting of outstretched arms streaked with red — to its Naughty Aud Imperial Stout — with artist Alan Forbes’ devilish image of the Krampus, all horns, tongue, tail and chains — to the less punk-rock but decidedly striking Indigo Blue Agave Pale Ale, Karen Arendell’s striking label depicting the evolution of humans, and a floating, blue being inside an enormous eye from which emanates rays of light as if from the sun.

“They talk about the ‘Indigo Children,’ whatever that is, or whoever they are,” says Johnson. “It’s all about gaining a higher way of thinking, looking around you and being open-minded to possibilities. The ale is made with blue agave nectar, so that’s the tie-in, and then I incorporated some ideas on the side of the can, talking about evolution demanding a more symbiotic relationship between humans and the environment.”

Though unable to allow advance images to be released, Johnson reveals that some upcoming beers will feature labels and titles inspired by the films of an iconic Hollywood legend.

“We found this incredible 17-year-old artist who totally understood what we are going for,” says Johnson, “so we got him to design the label for our Sancho Mexican lager, which we hope to release on draught here in the taproom sometime this year.”

What is clear about 101 North’s use of imagery and art is that they are not afraid to risk offending a few people on their way to building a committed fan-base who appreciate the brand’s edginess and willingness to take huge chances.

“We definitely are willing to raise a few eyebrows,” says Johnson. “We’ve had a little pushback on nearly every label we’ve released. Some restaurants won’t serve Heroin IPA. But that’s part of the game when you’re trying to do something truly one-of-a-kind, which we are. So, I’d have to say it’s working, and a lot of that is because of the amazing artists who’ve collaborated with us to create something really special.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)