When it comes to making good beer at Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the most essential ingredients isn't even edible.

When it comes to making good beer at Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the most essential ingredients isn't even edible. It's the artwork on the beer labels.

This was the topic of discussion during the Mispillion Art League's free Third Thursday event last Thursday. The presentation was delivered by Dogfish Head graphic designer Tim Parrott, who explained the creativity that goes into designing the brewery's beer labels and promotional art, as well as its origins.

The genesis

Throughout the years, Dogfish Head's beer labels and advertisements have often had a distressed and vintage quality about them. This comes from Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione's attraction to concert flyers he used to see from do-it-yourself punk bands during the early '90s, Parrott said. During that time, it was popular for the writing on band flyers to use typewriter font. Not to mention, the graphics on the flyers typically resembled images that were cutout, pasted on paper and then Xeroxed. After Xeroxing lots of the same image, the last of the copies would result in a super faded look.

When Dogfish Head was founded in 1995, Calagione found himself creating artwork that reflected those early punk flyers. Perhaps the most notable reference to this is the Dogfish Head logo, which depicts a distressed dogfish head shark.

As for why Calagione chose the dogfish head for the logo, he did it for two reasons: the shark is indigenous to Delaware; and Dog Fish Head (with that spelling) is also the name of a road in Maine where Calagione would often vacation with his family, Parrott said.

Poetic inspiration

From the mid-'90s to today, Dogfish Head's beer labels and advertisements have done a good job of featuring off-centered designs. For instance, the Punkin Ale drink for this fall features promotional art of a three-eyed deer in a pumpkin patch carrying a satchel full of beer bottles, created by seasonal graphic designer Jim Mazza.

Calagione is very flexible in allowing his graphic designers the liberty to create whimsical beer labels and promotional art, as long as their work can communicate a story that ties closely to the particular drink it was created for, Parrott said.

"He's always going to sort of be at the helm at what we're doing, from an art standpoint," said the Milford-born Parrott, who now resides in Lewes. "But with that said, he definitely gives us a good amount of freedom. He trusts us to do the work. It's not like we're constantly being met in the morning with: 'Here's the thing I want you to execute.' It's not like that. And if it were, I think it'd be a very boring job."

To avoid complacency in making new beers and labels, Calagione has adopted this motto from 19th century-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

"This Walt Emerson quote is kind of the touchstone for everything that happens with the brand," Parrott said. "It's a favorite of Sam's. It's up in the brewery everywhere, so we're constantly reminded of it."

Knowing that Emerson's poem wouldn't fit on a beer label, Calagione has scaled it down to this: "Off-centered stuff for off-centered people."

Milford resident Cyndee Sammons, who doesn't drink beer, attended Parrott's presentation because she wanted to know more about the designs of Dogfish Head's labels. Anticipating the presentation was going to be dry, Sammons instead left the Mispillion Art League with a new respect for Dogfish Head, especially its owner.

"To be a visual artist on top that… that was very surprising," the 69-year-old Sammons said of Calagione. "It's just not what I expected."

Milford resident and graphic designer Ben Russell also gave kudos to Dogfish Head's deep roots in the arts.

"I liked learning what they stood for,"said the 24-year-old Russell, "and their vision."