Imagine you’re going out to drink this weekend with a couple of friends. It’s not going to be a big production: there’s nobody to impress here. You just want to catch up, have a nice time, and unwind for a bit. You’re now picturing the ideal bar to visit. What kind of a place do you see?
You have the archetypal bar (with roots back in the old country, we suppose): dark wood, worn-in stools, the warm glow of low-wattage lightbulbs recalling beeswax candles and oil lamps of yore. Maybe there’s a vaguely European slant; maybe there’s a dinner special named with a bawdy double entendre. Maybe Ted Danson is leaning rakishly against a dated brass fixture, L.A. Gear sweatshirt provocatively askew. Whatever the trappings: this is the place that comes to mind when casual social drinking is in order.
The advent of craft beer has affected a sea change in the bar/pub aesthetic. And it’s all gotten fussier, hasn’t it? We’ve gotta have our reclaimed wood. We’ve gotta have our Edison bulbs popping out everywhere like little steampunk gophers. And just uh, build something out of old shipping pallets, I guess, because the Blue Collar look is au currant, I guess. At this point, someone is going to have to say the word “hipster,” accompanied with a self-indulgent guffaw, because hey, why wouldn’t they? Hipsters. Haha, oh man.
Point is, for the sake of this argument, there’s a defined, ubiquitous look to the spaces that we visit when we want to drink craft beer. You might call it baggage. But this baggage means that craft beer consumers arrive pre-loaded with a set of expectations regarding their drinking habits, and by extension, the places where they plan to do their drinking. For the sake of people who are passionate about this industry, there’s a tremendous opportunity in understanding, dissecting, and responding to customer expectations with an increasingly nit-picky resolution. More on that ahead.
There’s a lot of talk about a “Craft Beer Bubble”: AKA, the notion that the craft beer industry will become so overcrowded with competition that breweries will inevitably fail by virtue of sheer market saturation. But all this talk of a bubble makes a crucial mistake in viewing craft beer as a commodity… like crude oil, or tonnage of raw steel, or Edison bulbs. This reductive viewpoint doesn’t leave us with much room to articulate what is actually happening as new breweries pop up all over the country. Right under our noses, breweries are developing into highly individualized lifestyle centers that defy the overly-simple thinking of commodity economics. Presenting craft beer as a commodity is a short-sell. By reinforcing this idea, we don’t allow ourselves to invest much thought into the elements that make a craft brewery. The granular stuff, the details, the component pieces, the nit-picky stuff, the culture. And incidentally, it’s these things that matter the most to many beer drinkers who often have dozens of places they can visit for good beer within minutes of their home.
To put it another way: we’ve taken the idea of how a brewery (and by extension a craft beer bar) is supposed to look—reclaimed wood, a dim, rustic atmosphere, beards and flannel everywhere—and packaged it, inseparably, with craft beer itself. We’ve stereotyped these ideas to the point that they’ve become an easy target for competitive lampooning. We assume that they’re essential; that they’re just another checkbox on the list of How To Pass As Craft Beer. And we’ve done this under the auspice that craft beer is a commodity. But craft beer isn’t a commodity (not yet, anyway). And these ideas are not essential to a brewery’s success. Culturally, we’re guilty of an unfortunate oversimplification—albeit an oversimplification that heralds an incredible opportunity. If we know how we’re expected to look, then we know how to defy that expectation. By extension, we know exactly how to stand out. And amidst the burgeoning craft beer marketplace, knowing how to stand out is pretty damn important.
In the case of Big Lug Canteen, and often without even realizing the magnitude of the task at hand, we wound up wrangling with some pretty high-level questions. Such as:
How can another craft brewery stand out in an energetic, fiercely competitive market?
How might you delight a customer by playfully defying their expectations?
Or to put it more plainly: What if we didn’t encrust every inch of the tasting room with black pipe, dark wood and too-cool-for-school glowering Edison bulbs?
Enter Eddie Sahm and Scott Ellis. Eddie hails from the Sahm restaurant empire, a multi-generational old-time Indianapolis holdover with about a dozen locations and counting. Scott is an accomplished brewer with past gigs at The Ram in downtown Indy, Oaken Barrel in Greenwood, and Thr3e Wisemen in Broad Ripple.
We first met these guys in March of 2014. It was cold out, and we gathered in one of those dim, archetypal taverns to discuss their idea for a new brewpub. A brewpub that would stand out in a sea of idealized, hyper-masculine wooden beer dungeons. A brewpub slated to open in Nora, Indiana—one of Indianapolis’ older suburban communities.
The idea was to create a two story production brewery (10bbl system) overlooking a restaurant that features ever-so-slightly-elevated-yet-not-intimidating bar food. The beer itself would be supremely balanced, leaning toward milder and more approachable British styles. The place would be called “Hoss Canteen” in honor of Eddie’s grandpa—“Hoss” was his nickname. Hoss was a respected man in the Central Indiana community, a family man, and in staying true to the Sahm name, was one hell of a character. “Canteen” is a word Eddie and Scott cottoned to immediately as a refreshing way to categorize a watering hole just off of the popular Monon biking and jogging trail. They appreciate the novelty of the word “Canteen,” which is rarely used as a qualifier outside of Mexican restaurant concepts (think “Cantina”).
Eddie and Scott have forgotten more about their industries than we could ever hope to know, so we worked directly with them on research, conceptual framing and positioning of this community-calibrated concept.
First and foremost, Hoss had to be a place for the people of Nora. Indianapolis proper has enjoyed a recent explosion of bars, restaurants, breweries, and food artisans that rivals any city in the country. However, much of this activity has occurred within our core metro area, leaving sleepier suburban communities like Nora with a prohibitive 20 minute drive between itself and all the action. Not to say that Hoss Canteen (Later to become Big Lug; we’ll get to that) was conceived in an attempt to make Nora seem “cool” or anything so ambitious. Rather to say, the place needed to serve as the type of comfortable, one-of-a-kind neighborhood craft beer hangout that the local community could easily adopt as its own.
An integral part of the Hoss conceptual process was embracing Nora as a sort of “stomping grounds”—and accepting the community for what it is. It’s not a place for the young, swill-pounding Butler University Bros who descend every weekend upon Broad Ripple, a village community about eight minutes to the south. It’s not a place for the intentionally shabby aesthetic of the fashionable Mass Ave or Fountain Square hot spots. No, far from it: Nora is a realm of aging vinyl homes, quality schooling options, and 37 year old accountants in need of a few beers following an intense lawn-mowing sesh. It’s a place known for being safe, but not so much for being “hip” or “with it.” (I think this is what the kids say).
If Hoss Canteen couldn’t ape the style of the typical beer geek dungeon in good faith, then how exactly was it supposed to look? Eddie and Scott were adamant in their ‘high-quality with no frills’ approach to beer and food. Traditional, quaffable beer, approachable “gastro pub-esque” food presented honestly, without defaulting to buzzwords like “artisanal this,” or “locally-grown that.” And this idea would permeate the entire Hoss brand: a small, focused selection of quality offerings. Straight-forward and to the point. This no-nonsense approach toward food and beer folded seamlessly with the visual design of the restaurant brand. Clean, simple, sort of industrial-ish design, but not really. Sort of IKEA-ish, but only not quite. Cooler than a chain restaurant, but not so cool that your Aunt wouldn’t feel welcome eating there. It’s not a difficult balance to strike, and after overthinking it for a while, we became resolute to avoid overthinking it.
Finally, there was the passion of Eddie and Scott as creative individuals and entrepreneurs to consider. Both of these guys are young, hard-working, successful people. They both have playful senses of humor. Eddie’s the type of dude who hates to let the conversation die, and so he talks, and talks aplenty. Scott is in many ways the opposite; reactive, quiet and thoughtful. They both like to laugh, and they both have warm, witty, not-so-serious personalities. If the branding didn’t land as a bit goofy, a bit fun, and a bit like when your dad wears a pair of just-too-short shorts only because he knows it embarrasses you, it wouldn’t reflect who these guys are. And it wouldn’t capture the essence of what made them excited about Hoss in the first place.
With these ideas in the bank, we headed into the most crucial part of our branding process—using mood boards as a collaborative art direction tool. Up until now, each of these ideas was just that, an idea. A collection of words, thoughts, and insights. Now, we had to come down from the conceptual clouds and make the leap to concrete visuals. We do this by gathering and curating images, hundreds of images, from logo sketches, to examples of photos, textures, typography, color palettes, and beyond. These are combined to form large collages, or “mood boards” that in turn guide our creative decision making. These mood boards are crucial to prioritizing messaging, and ultimately shape the final brand strategy and positioning.
We shared these boards with the Hoss team and together, discussed the merits of each idea as well as the problems, ripped them apart, and ultimately built a final board that best represented their vision for what the Hoss Canteen brand experience should look and feel like.
This final board resulted in a blend of Scott & Eddie’s individual personalities, their tendency toward straight forwardness and simplicity, and just a smidgen of Nora’s suburban aesthetic of strip malls and reasonable mid-sized sedans. Their ultimate vision breathed rife with bright, poppy colors and fun illustration paired with stainless steel, corrugated aluminum and various other material nods to the sleek industrial side of brewing.
Great Divide, A Roadblock
At this point, we were all thrown a curve ball. It turns out that Great Divide, a well-known and firmly established brewery out of Colorado has a rye lager called “Hoss.” God. Damnit. Shortly after Eddie’s team reached out to politely request Great Divide’s blessing in the usage of “Hoss” Canteen, Great Divide sent a polite but resolute “Nope” in response. And since they distribute to Indiana, they were in the right to protect their trademark.
For what it’s worth, Great Divide was cordial. But that doesn’t take the sting out of losing a name you’ve had your heart set on ever since dreaming up the concept.
Just kidding. While the name needed to change, the brand essence and positioning work still held true. This gave us a wealth of ideas to wade through for developing another fitting name. To be honest, the next week was a blur and we ended up tripping into finding ‘Big Lug’ more than arriving there by any scientific method. But we found it. And it was available. And everyone loved it. And while it’s easy to look back at what’s been created and say it worked out well, we do believe this ended up being a more approachable, novel and appropriate name than what we were originally working with.
With the name figured out, and the art direction in place, we headed into the brand identity design process. This is the point where the rubber hits the road, pretense is cast aside, and we make the pretty stuff that most of you are probably here to see.
Using their mood board as our guide, we developed two initial directions:
The first was a hand-rendered cursive logotype, evocative of an old sign you’d see in a Nora storefront. It included lots of texture, pops of color, and fun messaging. “Big Lug Canteen. Decent.”
The second direction was clean and contemporary, a bit goofy and non-pretentious, featuring custom-made typography astride a simple canteen icon (groundbreaking stuff here, people). This extended to a fun icon system, including Scott’s face, and alternate builds for house beers and various menu items.
After a lengthy conversation, the canteen-driven direction was the clear winner. I’ll fast forward a bit here and say that over the next several months, we finished up Big Lug’s modular identity system, copywriting, print menu system, drinkware, merch, tap handles, keg collars, festival kit, and fully responsive, menu-forward website. Further, we were able to carve out a few areas in the space to create what is perhaps the finest bearded baby cupid + beer eagles + hot dogs + burger mural in
the entire world Nora.
And while all of these touchpoints are important, the real star of Big Lug is the space itself. George Small (Eddie’s architect) took our branding package and knocked the exterior and interior buildout out of the park. Bright, contemporary exterior color pairings, enormous plasma-cut slabs of steel, exposed I-beams, dazzling pendant lights, large windows looking into the brewery, and an upstairs patio overlooking the Monon bike trail (complete with views of misguided people who waste time on things like diet and exercise) make it one of the most remarkable spots in Indianapolis.
The reception has been resoundingly positive so far and I bet it will only get better with time. Nora loves it, beer geeks tolerate it, and you’ll love it too. Go now. Grab a Kristofferson Pale Ale and some wings. And don’t overthink it.
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Interested in branding your own brewery? Check out our comprehensive craft beer branding guide over at www.craftbeerbrandingguide.com