Michigan-based Jolly Pumpkin got its start in 2004, back when craft beer just started its meteoric rise to bring good-tasting beer to the U.S. masses—and forced the big breweries to start the land grab of microbreweries willing to join forces with the big leagues.
Chances are Jolly Pumpkin won’t follow suit. From the start, the beers are unabashedly left-of-center, focused on the funky and sour styles that only recently came into vogue. We’re talking unfiltered, barrel-aged, unpasteurized beers that show an ample embrace of brettanomyces, open-aired fermentation, and complexities that only grow with age—all things that lead brewer Ron Jeffries loved when he first started his mad scientist routine in 1991.
The brewery footprint has since expanded, including the tasting room in its home town of Dexter, as well as Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Detroit—the latter of which boasting a prime locale right next to Jack White’s Third Man record studio and some killer pizzas. There are rumors of another spot in Grand Rapids, home to Foundry, New Holland, and a legion of other small breweries.
Since its inception, Jolly Pumpkin has widened its scope with a long list of brewery collaborations as well as a dedicated roll with the North Peak family of beers. But his dedication to artisanal ales hasn’t changed.
The beer labels, however, recently underwent a complete overall thanks to Adam Forman, an artist living in the Ann Arbor area, who designed the first label for the brewery—and every one since.
“Basically, I look at it like the whole thing like a record label,” he writes on his website.. “Jolly Pumpkin presses beautiful, big-format 12-inch vinyl, with the big gatefold and all the art. Everything is limited pressing and the lineups are usually once in a lifetime event recordings.”
We chatted via email to find out why the labels—which already received many accolades from the press the change.
Paste: When were the new labels released?
Adam Forman: Jolly Pumpkin’s new label and packaging roll out has been an evolving thing since late 2015. Ron and I had been talking and I suggested a sort of reboot for JP’s packaging. Jolly Pumpkin’s biére has been a staple in the sour weirdo scene since soon after its founding in ’04, but much of the packaging was sort of still in that earlier era, and the beer world had completely changed since then. I have been the artist behind all the labeling since day one and I really felt like JP needed a reboot packaging wise. The thought of beer drinkers who were new to our scene passing Ron’s biére up because of a dated vibe to the bottle kept me up at night, so I needed to act. So we started this long process of rebuilding JP’s packaging, and instead of doing it behind the scenes and then rolling it with a parade and marching band I just sort of got to work. The process was literally me redesigning and re-illustrating each label one at a time as they come up in production. Jolly’s legacy portfolio is robust enough but it seems right around that same time Ron flipped his lid and went into beast mode and started doing all these one-offs, launching new series concepts, and collaborating with an unbelievable amount of other brewers. So there was no real clean way to do it. Our strategy was one of just getting after it and letting it fall into place.
Seems appropriate with so many other breweries in this process that we went the opposite direction and chose to forgo any sort of polished approach to re-branding and instead we asked ourselves, “How can we make this weirder?” I think that attitude is really behind the magic of our brewery, just when we could be selling out we dig in deeper. I am sure you now this but Ron Jeffries does not have to two f*cks to give…it’s amazing.
Paste: And how many in total were done?
AF: Starting from fall of ‘15 we have redone most of the 12 Legacy Biéres, which include year-round biéres and all our seasonals. We have also done 15 series biéres and by the time this gets to you, 20 collaborations! That takes me to around two labels a month since I have been on it. Yikes! Especially considering all the graphics, merch, website rebuild, and any number of ancillary creative things that need to be done around here. Art department has been taking names and it’s been a blast.
Paste: I’d hazard to describe the former label style seen on labels like La Roja as pirates-meets-romantic landscape/portrait art. Or maybe sea chanties still shots sung by the Three Musketeers. How would you describe the style of your new labels? It feels like it takes some lead from Toulouse-Lautrec by way of Lewis Carrol…
AF: Right on! Our new design aesthetic is a weird and nerdy ecosystem rooted in classic illustration to be sure and you are spot on; the closer we get to the core legacy biéres the more Toulouse-Lautrec and Art Nouveau our world becomes. But our silly ass version of it. Since the beginning, 19th century lines and shapes have played a big part of our look. The first labels I made almost 20 years ago were literally hand painted and definitely had more of a story book vibe to them. All things were heavily influenced by pirates and all things “Yo Ho Ho.” In fact, pirates and nautical themes have been a constant back beat to this day, but have been folded in with so many other interests and creative tangents. We had to sort of redefine what kind of pirates we were and exactly what kind of strange and grotesque seas are we adrift in…but by no means are we lost.
Paste: Was there any specific points of inspiration for the direction you pursued on the new labels beyond the beer itself?
AF: I have been working as an artist in one capacity or another since my early twenties and I love looking and being influenced by everything I can. I am, however, not a particularly talented replicator and I was born with a strong and stubborn voice that I never really quite understood or could shake. So, one day I just decided to sort of go with it and use this inner compass as a road map…and here we are. Lately, I have been looking at Dave Gibbons, Watchmen-era work along with Jean Giraud AKA Moebius and other ‘70s comic artists. Really it’s much of the stuff I grew up with, so I am immersing myself back into the water from which I came. You will see some of their influence in our newest collaborations with Revelry Brewing Co, Isla Estrana, and the Jester King collaboration, Olas Espaciales. But much of my influences come from books, comics, songs, mythology, and lots of Dungeons and Dragons. For example, The Smiths song “Well I Wonder” was totally behind our beer Clementina, and the Hawkwind album “Warrior at the Edge of Time” was a huge influencer on The Forgotten Tales of the Last Gypsy Blender Series1 Vol1. There are times when I sort of try to cool it up but honestly its all the slimy nerd culture I have been into since I was a kid, just dazzled up a little.
Paste: The hand-labelled lettering is quite striking and elegant. Did that detail or an others present printing issues in terms of getting the labels onto the bottles?
AF: Hand lettering is a passion of mine. I spent a little time tattooing in the past and there is so much concentration of letter forms there I guess it gave me the bug and it sort of carried over. The difference being here I am the creator of any kind of lettering I want to do and I can trust my instincts as they come. We are almost one hundred percent hand lettered for front labeling now which is crazy to me, I hope it encourages other breweries to do the same. A sort of push back against graphic design, which I love but I feel has ran unchecked for too long. Sometimes the lettering is as much work as the illustration is and trying to find a way to integrate writing into the design and also stay within bounds of legibility is a challenge. Our recent collaboration with Holy Mountain Brewing, Smash Grabbed, and Hop Dusted, was a great adventure in legibility for sure. The lettering got pretty out there, but I love the forms and sometimes it’s hard not to get carried away.
Paste: Any one label drive you mad before you perfected it?
AF: Honestly, a great many of the labels have been done to near completion when I decided to change course at the last minute and start again. If it’s not right lyrically then it’s just not right and it will drive me mad if I just let it go. It is really more about the story the label and the biére tells and less about the final level of finish to the label. Honestly, I have had to turn these labels around in such a short amount of time that I don’t have the luxury of being perfectionist. Imperfections are going to be there but it’s about whittling a label down to the imperfections that are interesting, provocative, and honest to the intention.
Paste: Any favorites?
AF: Boy I hate to say it but I really like them all for different reasons, but La Vida Improvisación stands out to me on a personal level. I am a romantic at heart and Ron planned and designed this beer as a surprise to celebrate his and his wife Laurie’s wedding anniversary so it started off already as a sort of purpose built machine. Ron had requested an image of Laurie for the label and I was thinking a lot about the approach. Preparing for the task had me listening to a lot of early Leonard Cohen who eventually showed me the way in. I really wanted to illustrate a sort of icon, beautiful, sacred, and profane all woven together. A Joan of Arch figure stepped out of the mist and presented itself to me as a sort of Patron Saint of Sour Biére which I immediately knew was right. Laurie is an empathic, druid type so the use of agricultural elements alongside her animal familiars figured in nicely. The entirety of the image summarized to this narrative that reminded me of pagan/early Christian mythos; reaching of the Arthurian in my own way, real Joseph Campbell stuff.
Take a look at Jolly Pumpkin’s new labels in the gallery above.