Meet Gretta Johnson, the Woman Behind the Most Beautiful Beer Labels in Brooklyn

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gretta johnson, grimm illustrator

Since launching in 2013 with From the Hip, a Belgian-style golden ale spiced with rose hips, Grimm Artisanal Ales has rarely rebrewed a recipe. Specifically, an act of duplication from Lauren and Joe Grimm’s nomadic beer-making operation has occurred with only two: Bees in the Trappe, a Trappist-yeasted tripel made with honey, and Double Negative.

Their decision to rerelease the latter last week was a no-brainer. An atramentous pour with dark chocolate and black licorice flavors and a strong FIN of bitterness, Double Negative was awarded a silver medal in the Imperial Stout category at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. Since its deserving win in September, and the Gowanus-living couple’s announcement that a second batch would arrive in December, I, like many others, eagerly awaited its return with an empty snifter.

While the wait ended at The Owl Farm‘s weeklong Imperial Stout Festival last Friday, to my dismay, a frantic eyeballing of the Park Slope-neighborhooded bar’s BeerMenus the next morning didn’t see Grimm’s award-winning liquid. I must’ve passed out and missed out!, I thought, groggily rising from my couch to wipe the remnants of last night’s debacle involving chicken fingers and Honey Bunches of Oats from my shirt. A later exchange with Owl Farm on Twitter confirmed my sad-ass presumption:

Owl Farm Tweet

I was bummed, but not surprised, by Double Negative’s one-night Snagglepuss (see: “Exit, stage left!”). It’s an excellent beer, one that is both aggressive (10.0 percent ABV) and accessible (#EZ2Drink). I would even designate DoNe as the best in Grimm’s young portfolio, which, if I had to summate in one word, would be “creative.”

This creativity extends to Grimm’s branding, featuring the artwork of longtime friend, Gretta Johnson. Her standout label designs depict fun, fluid, and illusory scenes with dancing flower petal-headed fairies and mysterious cloaked monks, and they rarely evoke anything related to beer—possibly their most unique quality.

A native of Wisconsin, Johnson met Lauren in 2007 at New Urban Arts in Providence, Rhode Island, where both taught young artists at one of the studio’s afterschool programs. As students at Brown University, Lauren and Joe had attended a lecture by Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, sparking their deep-end dive into the funky sea of fermentation. The couple was soon concocting small batches of kvass, mead, and kombucha in their kitchen; beer followed—mostly Belgian-style ales, after Joe discovered and devoured venerable suds from Orval, Chimay, and Cantillon while touring Belgium (he’s also a musician).

After both graduated from Brown, the couple relocated and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. Johnson, who had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, made the same move with her boyfriend. As the Grimms continued to refine recipes, experimenting with different spices, herbs, and flowers, the excess of beer was distributed to friends and sold at art exhibits (“That was under the table,” Joe laughs) for feedback. Johnson was one of their first taste-testers.

“We were their guinea pigs, happy to try anything they made at their awesome dinner parties,” she recalls. “They’ve really spoiled me, honestly. I used to be okay with ordering a Corona, but they helped me discover that I love sour beer. That’s usually what I want now.”

Johnson, who now lives in Sunset Park, teaches drawing, sculpture, and comic book classes at the Children’s Museum of the Arts, P.S. 347, and the RAD school. “Sometimes first graders come up with the most insane, beautiful drawings. They’re incredibly open, which is very energizing to be around,” she says.

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When designing work for Grimm (including the above poster for the brand’s recent expansion into Massachusetts) using ink or watercolors, she tries to incorporate her past as a dancer and athlete. “I love capturing movement. Physicality is very important to me.” Since Grimm releases a new beer monthly, her turnaround is quick, and she doesn’t overthink them. “Most of my drawings take a day or two to complete. I like to keep everything very spontaneous. My gut instinct is usually my best.”

The process usually starts with some ideas ping-ponged between both sides, “but usually that’s it, pretty quickly an image will pop into my head from the name of the beer or an ingredient,” Johnson says. “Being artists themselves, Lauren and Joe are really hands off and just let me do my thing.”

We asked Gretta to give us the 411 on Grimm’s five latest labels. The fifth is for Color Field, slated for January:

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Double Negative//Imperial Stout
Beer Description: Double Negative pours jet black with burnt orange highlights. A long lasting tan head leaves abundant lacing. Aromas bursting from the glass include coffee, bitter chocolate, caramel, black currant and blueberry. Creamy and viscous on the palate, the flavor initially follows the nose. A pop of smooth bitterness comes after, and then a lingering, roasty finish.

GJ: I was trying to think of a way to convey the concept of “negative” without using symbols. My initial sketches for this one included a lot of stairways and bricks; I was toying with the idea of ‘descending.’ I started to sketch different versions for this label without people, but these cloaked figures provide a human element to project ideas of mystery and darkness onto and they become the focal point. Dynamism in a drawing is very important to me, so I try to always capture figures in a transitional moment, in a threshold. The place that these two people are descending to carries ominous tones. It feels powerful. The color choice on this one is also very powerful: the burst of yellow draws the eye to the doorway. The entire thing reminds me of the Tintin comics; he’s always running down stairs and through hallways.

grimm, still life

Still Life//Tart Apple Grisette
Beer Description: Grisette is a crushable, thirst-quenching historical Belgian ale originally brewed to refresh coal miners at the end of a long day. Still Life is our interpretation, brewed for the autumn season: a tart, funky farmhouse ale produced with a mixed culture fermentation. Red Jacket apple cider from the Finger Lakes region of New York lends seasonal flavor, while spelt provides a rustic grain character. This unboiled, unfiltered ale is dry hopped with German Hallertau and Czech Saaz.

GJ: This drawing was originally meant for a different beer called Gradient, but Lauren and Joe decided to brew Still Life before that and needed an image for the label, so conveniently we used this. I realized it was a good illustration for a “still life” idea, since those paintings traditionally capture arrangements of objects placed on tables. I drew the image with ink and then filled in the objects with gradients of varying directions, giving it a very graphic feeling. Hands are particularly fun to draw and placing a disembodied-gesturing hand next to a pitcher creates an eerie still life. Lauren added a little peep of red to the sleeve on the arm, I think to allude to the apples involved in the making of the beer. Looking at it again, with the added color, it reminds me of Snow White. The evil witch has concocted a cider for the girl and she is reaching for a pitcher of it.

grimm, shapeshifter

Shapeshifter//Scotch Ale
Beer Description: Turn-of-the-century Scottish brewers relied on caramelized brewing sugars to lend flavor to their strong ales; we brewed our Scotch ale with dark candi syrup from Belgium, where similarly flavorful brewing sugars can still be found to this day. Shapeshifter pours a deep mahogany color with ruby highlights and a luscious cream-colored head. Aromas of caramel and hazelnuts waft from the glass, to be followed by decadent flavors of dried figs and berries, pipe tobacco, and marzipan. This velvety, rich sipper is perfect for a chilly Autumn day.

GJ: I played around with a French curve stencil—a technical drawing tool used to get smooth curves of various sizes—for this one, trying to create a circular pattern to describe the transformation of this girl ‘shapeshifting’ into a beast. William Blake’s work is very inspirational to me in the way he composes his images as well as the way he embraces emotion and drama, and a book of his I have is always close at hand. I was particularly attracted to the way he drew the eyes of the animals in his Divine Comedy series: they have a very human look to them and conceptually that jives well with the shapeshifting idea. That’s what I went for here.

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Bees with a Buzz//Brandy Barrel-Aged Bière De Miel
Beer Description: BEES WITH A BUZZ is the brandy barrel aged version of Bees in the Trappe, our bière de miel brewed with clover honey and a trappist ale yeast. The delicate honey and yeast flavors of stone fruit and spice that characterized the original version of Bees in the Trappe are now overlaid with notes of vanilla, sherry, distilled white wine, and a distinct nuttiness. The elegant subtleties of brandy and oak create a richness that develops further with each taste. This beer is perfect for cool autumn nights, harvest moons, and falling leaves.

GJ: Like the beer, this label is a sequel to Bees in the Trappe, which depicted bee people running through a hive-like structure in a frenzied way. The bees here are buzzing with brandy, as the beer was aged in brandy barrels, and the barrel has became the new hive. Since I like there to be a direction to the drawings, this one puts the viewer on a zigzagging path with the bee people. It also mimics the flow of liquid—a river of buzz!

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Color Field//American Wild Ale Brewed With Flowers
Beer Description: Color Field is an American wild farmhouse ale brewed with hibiscus, rose hips, and chamomile. Produced with a mixed culture fermentation, it pours a hazy pink color topped with a fluffy white head. Tart aromas of lemon, black pepper, and earthy, gently perfumed botanicals mingle with classic saison funk. The soft, refreshing acidity is balanced by a hint of floral sweetness. This beer is never boiled and never filtered.

GJ: This idea was very dependent on Lauren’s choice of colors, which would be light and colorful given the ingredients. So if I gave her an image of flowers, it would allow her to divert from the darker colors in a lot of their other labels and let some brighter ones in. I also gravitate toward drawing flora in my own work, so the imagery was a natural choice. The term “color field” makes me think of springtime and, like how we feel when the season arrives after a long and dreary winter, pastel colors bursting forth from the greyness. My version of flowers always tends to take on a less realistic, more psychedelic tone, which is appropriate because it is beer after all.

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