As Maria and I were walking to Work Labs we didn’t really know what to expect. I had found out about them when our friend Harvey from OhBeautifulBeer featured their Work Beer pint glasses. The brand was visually engaging and unique from anything I had seen in the craft beer industry. I looked into them further and was fascinated to discover a story about small design group that created their own beer brand that rose to regional prominence only to see their brewery partner close soon thereafter.
Our travels were going to be taking us through Virginia, so I shot them a message to see if we could meet up. The chance to meet up with others who shared two of our passions (craft beer and design) was too much to pass up and I had quite a few questions about what happened to Work Beer and what was next.
Casey, the jane of all trades office assistant who I had been in contact with, answered the door as we arrived at the Work Labs office in the historic Monument Avenue District of Richmond. The building had an old charm that seemed like the perfect cover for the eclectically adorned interior. The office had a modern layout and every surface seemed to sport a different color and texture. Each piece of unique furniture accented the creative environment that we were now inhabiting.
As we entered the project room I was hit with flashbacks of my shared studio space in design school. Casey introduced us to designer Andy Stites who gave us a little more insight into the company and it’s background. Cabell Harris founded Work Labs in 1993 with a strict policy of only doing great work that they would actually be proud to show people. Many agencies will make similar statements but you could tell Work Labs really embraced it. The ad agency / design shop has more of think tank feel as they have worked on a wide variety of projects including a large amount of self initiated endeavors. Work Beer was one of those projects.
The genesis of Work Beer started simply enough in 1998 when an after hours gathering at the team’s favorite tavern hatched the realization that they “had become dissatisfied with the beer we were drinking. This is the same beer that Management drinks! We deserve better! We work hard. We’ve earned it!” Not to be brushed aside as simple drunken bravado, Work Labs got working on a brand design that defined the working masses that they aimed to appease while striking a deal with the local brewing outfit Main Street Beer Company. In exchange for some promotional design work the brewery would produce Work Beer.
In a mere 7 months Work Beer became the best selling beer of the company’s 27 brands in four states. Work Labs won multiple awards for the design of the Work Beer brand and subsequent ad campaigns. This all in spite of the fact that the actual brewery wasn’t that great and several Work Beer fans noted that the batches were really inconsistent but kept buying it for the great branding. Eventually the short comings of the Main Street Beer Company caught up with them and the brewery closed in 2004. Luckily, Work Labs was able retain the rights to the brand and have been looking for another producer who could keep Work Beer going.
Walking through the Work Labs offices you could literally feel the creative energy running through the space. This is the type of outfit that I imagined myself working at while working my way through design school. Every surface of the office has an idea waiting to happen. Big brainstorming pads show the early stages of a project while large format prints display process images for a new educational website while prototypes and mock-ups inhabit any free space that can be found. This is group takes pride in their work and weren’t going to let their beer fade away easily.
Work labs started shopping the idea around to potential partner breweries. In the process Work Labs became good fiends with Breckenridge Brewing in Colorado. At one point they were drawing up plans for a shared facility in Richmond that would be combination brewery / event / office space. Those plans ultimately fell through but Work had shared their brand scroll with Breckendridge who happened to use an out of house ad agency named Cultivator.
This same ad agency also worked with New Belgium Brewing and created an ad campaign in 2012 for their Shift beer that shared more a slight resemblance to Work Beer including imagery, copy writing, typefaces, and layouts. Cabell and his crew were beside themselves.
While Cabell wasn’t interested in a legal battle he did want credit for the work that they had done. So Work Labs put up a quick one page website asking if Work Labs should be insulted or flattered. The site went viral in the ad and beer communities which prompted New Belgium to respond. Their official statement read:
“Here at New Belgium Brewing we have always taken great pride in creating innovative, original communications to engage our audience. Shift Pale Lager is inspired by our twenty-plus year tradition of having a shift beer at the end of the day. The imagery and taglines are reflections of our culture and of the universal sense of accomplishment that comes from collaboration. Shift is our own original work and was created independently.”
To this day New Belgium and Cultivator have never admitted any wrong doing although you will notice the agency doesn’t include the campaign in their online portfolio. We will probably never know the whole story but it has put a little tarnish on a New Belgium brand that has otherwise been a good citizen in the craft beer industry as well as in their community.
Undeterred by the setbacks it has encountered with, their beer projects Work Labs continues with it’s strategy of using design to help advance craft beer. They are currently working on a project to help home brewers gather feedback and gain exposure for their creations. Through the Fermentation Society’s Speakeasy platform home brewers can register their home brew and will receive a set of custom printed labels from Work Labs. Each set has a unique QSR code making it easy to scan and leave feedback for the brewer. They are even working to connect small brew pub owners with established beer brands. These collaborations give the brew pubs greater exposure and the established brewers a “link to their roots”.
Work Labs’ self initiated beer projects are an impressive example what can be accomplished when you apply the design process to an industry that embraces innovation. Our trip to Work Labs was both inspiring and educational. With all the talent and creatively flowing through their office we can’t wait to see what the future holds for Work Labs and Work Beer.