Flying Dog brewery is responsible for some of the most inventive and controversial brews in the craft beer industry, thanks in part to the company’s distinctive label art, which is penned by the renowned artist Ralph Steadman. Steadman, who is best known for the illustrations he made for journalist and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author Hunter S. Thompson, brought something entirely new to the craft beer scene when he teamed up with Flying Dog—leaving the brand with a cult following, a smattering of legal trouble, and some unforgettable label art.

Flying Dog’s CEO Jim Caruso talked with RestaurantBev about working with Steadman and changing the aesthetic of craft beer.

How did Flying Dog’s labels really signal a change in the beer world?

“If you think back to 1995, the craft beer industry was pretty standard with its art—it wasn’t really outrageous. And when our art hit the scene, we actually had one of our fellow breweries file a complaint against the Road Dog label that it was obscenity, and we had to pull it for a bit. They were worried that we were going to bring the wrath of the ATF down on craft beer.

“Looking back, in a very real way, we opened the door for creative expression on beer labels.”

Ralph has an extremely iconic, disitnctive style. How do you think his art represents what you’re about at Flying Dog?

“We had always believed that artisanal beer—craft beer—was liquid art. And we wanted original art on the label as well. There are other great labels out there, but in terms of original, edgy art that was as edgy as the craft beer industry and some of the styles coming out, we certainly owe that to our beloved artist Ralph Steadman, and it was distinctively different. And I think it really opened the door to let people know they didn’t have to do labels like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors does.”

Obviously, the style can be a little controversial—what interplay do you think there is between free expression and making good beer?

“In spite of his art, which is pretty outrageous, Ralph is the dearest, sweetest person. He’s like your favorite uncle. And there’s always a story behind the names, and it connects to some reality in the brewery—we don’t just go out there and say let’s think of a provocative sentence. For each of our labels, there’s something behind it.

“This first amendment stuff is real for us. We’re a very diverse group. So the first thing I always check with is people at the brewery: is this offensive to anybody or do you think it’s funny? With Raging Bitch for example, I went to all the ladies at Flying Dog, because the last thing I would want to do—because I’m not a powerful woman like the ladies here—is to offend people I respect because I don’t have the appropriate background.”

What overall impact do you think your labels have on how people see your brand?

“The market for somebody or something to believe in is infinite. You see a company, you like their products, you see what they do, you want to believe in them, but then you get behind the scenes or scratch the surface and it’s kind of phony. With Ralph, the more I’ve got to know him, the more I view him as essentially the one true artist in the world. And to a lesser extent, but in the same vein, the more people that come to Flying Dog and get behind the scenes and get to know us and see where this stuff comes from, they believe in us, that it’s true for us. We do things because it relates to something true to us—not just some goofy marketing trick—and we don’t deviate from that.”

In early summer, Flying Dog won a years-long legal battle to allow its Raging Bitch IPA to be sold on Michigan shelves. The brewery used the money it received in damages from the state to fund the educational First Amendment Society, and the Belgian-style IPA continues to be the brand’s No. 1 best seller.
Beverage, Feature