As Flying Dog Brewery celebrates its 25th year, the Frederick, Maryland-based brewery is known as much for being a pioneer in changing beer drinkers' tastes and as it is for turning heads with its eye-popping labels.
That's thanks in large part to its longtime relationship with iconic illustrator Ralph Steadman, the prolific artist best known for his work with legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Since the brand's creation, Steadman has created attention-grabbing artwork for the brand.
"We have always believed that our beer — and craft beer in general— is liquid art in a bottle and we wanted original art on the labels," said Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso. "Especially when you think back to 1995, Flying Dog and Flying Dog's labels were truly groundbreaking."
With craft beer in its infancy, Steadman's unique style helped serve as notice to beer drinkers that the beer they were about to open was unlike anything else available at the time. Fast forward to today's crowded craft beer marketplace and the unique style is still paying dividends, allowing Flying Dog to stand out from its competitors.
"I think what it's done is it's really opened people's eyes to how distinctively different craft beer was and how we really brought that artistic creative expression aspect to craft beer," said Caruso. "It's been huge for us."
Twenty-five years later, the thrill of working with such a legendary artist hasn't worn off.
"When we open those emails with his digital files, we're like little kids at Christmas around the computer," said Caruso. "By the time we put it on the package, it's just so always distinctly Ralph Steadman. A lot of people may not know who he is, but everybody knows that style, and think to themselves, I've seen that somewhere before."
This little bit of difference is a source of pride for the company.
"I think what people have come to expect from Flying Dog is an edginess, but we never go out there to shock people," said Caruso.
A perfect case in point? The beer Flying Dog released five years ago in honor of its 20th anniversary was a Belgian-style India pale ale that used El Diablo yeast.
El Diablo, which means "the devil" in Spanish, is a fitting name given that the yeast ferments about 30 percent faster than is typical. The company hoped to incorporate that aspect when naming the brew, which proved to be a challenge with thousands of breweries in operation and tens of thousands more beer names already in the marketplace.
"We were going to call it 'Devil Dog,' but that name was taken, as were most other names with dog in them, and we were down to the wire to come up with a name," said Caruso.
One of the available names the company came up with contained a nod to the aggressive yeast and a well-known term for female dog: Raging Bitch. But the company knew the name, with its derogatory implications, might be an issue for many. So Caruso presented it to Flying Dog employees before moving forward.
"I asked all the women in our brewery about possible names and included Raging Bitch, and they said we love it and in fact if you don't do it after all the talk about staying true to ourselves, we'll be forever disappointed in you," Caruso said.
Flying Dog released Raging Bitch, and not only did it start "selling like crazy," it struck a chord with many female beer drinkers, Caruso said.
"Women could not get enough of the merchandise and they were getting together for happy hours calling them 'bitch sessions' and wearing the Raging Bitch T-shirts," he said.
Far from a novelty, the beer has been a success for the brewery, becoming its number one seller since its release and accounting for more than a third of the brewery's sales.
"We don't believe in a flagship strategy, we don't want a beer being 80 percent of our sales, but it continues to grow," said Caruso. "The combination of the scratchy penmanship of Ralph and that art, and the name and the quality of the beer, it's just a home run."
It's that combination of edginess, and pushing the envelope, that the brand hopes retain as it moves forward.
"If everyone here thinks something is funny and cool, then that's what we do," said Caruso."You can scratch the surface deeply here at Flying Dog but you'll just find that we're so weird here that we don't need an outside agency to help us be weirder."