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Ralph Steadman and the Gonzo Art of Flying Dog Brewery

Ralph Steadman
Photos by Rikard Österlund,

Suddenly, it feels like a seance. I’m staring at the ink-spattered, bug-eyed image of a snarling dog that seems poised to fly out of my computer screen on bat wings. On the phone from his studio in Kent, England, artist Ralph Steadman is channeling the grumbling voice of his departed friend and famed Gonzo journalism cohort, writer Hunter S. Thompson.

Steadman as Thompson is telling the artist that he might like to think about doing some art work as a favor to patron and neighbor, George Stranahan, the co-founder of Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland.

“Come on, ah, Ralph. Ah, ah, this will be good,” Steadman says, searching the past for the shadows of Thompson’s halting Kentucky drawl.

I’ve been shamelessly cajoling Steadman to go back to the mid-1990s, when Flying Dog, once a brewpub in Aspen, had become a full-fledged brewery in Denver. And when Steadman’s wildly imaginative, allegedly obscene, Flying Dog labels for Road Dog Scottish Ale (later Porter) and Doggie Style Pale Ale were first unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

ralph steadman

I say it was a watershed moment because craft brewing was just finding a new nexus of art, commerce and pop culture. But Steadman, who will be 80 on May 15, doesn’t quite buy this heady creation myth.

I’ve just sent them a new label,” he offers with a slippery laugh. “It’s for The Gourd Standard. It’s a smashing-fantastic label. Having a gourd on a beer label is pretty weird, isn’t it? I asked, ‘Does it fly? Like a flying gourd?’ ”

I first met Ralph Steadman in Denver in October 2004, on the festive occasion of Flying Dog’s 10th anniversary party, planned to coincide with the annual Great American Beer Festival.

Despite the fact that he told me I reminded him of Hal Willner, it was a moment I remember fondly. Especially standing outside the brewery one evening, sipping from an early batch of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey in the company of Steadman and the late, great British beer writer, Michael Jackson.

That time is recounted by Steadman in his candid Thompson memoir, “The Joke’s Over,” with a chapter called “Last Trip To Woody Creek.” As it turned out, October 2004 was the final time Steadman would see Thompson, who took his own life in 2005.

On the phone, Steadman reminds me of something he wrote in “The Joke’s Over” during a time of despair: “Just remember, as Hunter said, ‘Good people drink good beer.’ ”

Jim ralph steadmanCaruso, who became the CEO of Flying Dog six years ago and moved to Frederick, Maryland, where the brewery now operates, was a general partner and chairman of the company in 1994, when the idea of Steadman designing labels surfaced.

We viewed craft beer as liquid art in a bottle and we wanted original art to represent that,” Caruso recalls. “Back then if you looked at craft beer, there was a lot of block printing and a lot of clip art. So we really broke some new ground by having not just some interesting beers but this really crazy, unique art.”

Caruso also recalls how Steadman’s work became controversial, pretty much from the get go. 

We got in a little bit of hot water with the state of Colorado, way back when with the Road Dog label,” Caruso says, launching into his own extended take on the Flying Dog creation myth.

Hunter wrote what has become a toast for us, that I’ve used for years and years: ‘There is an ancient Celtic axiom that says Good People Drink Good Beer. Which is true, then as now. Just look around you in any public barroom and you will quickly see: Bad People Drink Bad Beer. Think about it.’

So Ralph was talking about Road Dog and Hunter and how he wrote this essay, ‘Good People Drink Good Beer.’ And he just splashed on the label, ‘Good Beer No Shit.’

We put about 15,000 cases of beer out to the market with that label. And believe it or not, one of our fellow craft breweries, which will remain unnamed but is very well known, complained to the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division about the label, saying it was obscenity.”

Flying Dog was forced to pull Road Dog, but soon returned it to shelves with Good Beer No Censorship on the label. Then, Mark Silverstein, the regional director of the ACLU, took the case to the Colorado Supreme Court and won, arguing on First Amendment grounds.

Decades and some 50 labels later, Steadman’s art is still inviting censorship and legal challenges.

In 2009, the edgy label he designed for Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch Belgian-style IPA was declared “detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare” by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, which banned sales of the beer in the state.

Steadman chuckles when reminded of that, allowing that the image picturing this particular Flying Dog’s private parts was likely his most over-the-top label, ever. He even wrote the copy for it. But that was by design, according to Caruso.

ralph steadman

When I pitched it to Ralph, I said, ‘Hey, our new beer is Raging Bitch. It’s for our 20th anniversary. I don’t want anyone thinking we’re going soft or anything, so Ralph it up a little, will you? What do you think?’ He said, ‘I’ve been waiting 15 years for this kind of project.’ ”

After a six-year battle, Flying Dog once again declared victory in March 2015, when the United States Court of Appeals ruled that the Michigan commissioners could be held accountable for violating Flying Dog's First Amendment rights.

The precedent was that freedom of speech applies to a beer label and that if commissioners violate that, you can sue them,” Caruso says. “So it’s a big win. It’s huge. And I’m going to take whatever damages we are awarded to fund a foundation to help people really understand what the First Amendment is all about.”

In a recent Newsweek piece, Robert Chalmers quotes Steadman’s friend Johnny Depp saying, “In many ways I look upon Ralph as a kind of miracle. It is just a gas to go down and see him in Kent; an incredible privilege. He really is just so gentle and so nice. And yet at the same time he is, as you know, a psychopath.”

Steadman likes that, and laughs, again, when I read the quote to him. “I’m an inky, messy artist,” he declares. “It’s a wonder that I’ve gotten away with it all these years.”

And that thought immediately reminds him of another Flying Dog label he completed for this year’s spring seasonal, Supertramp Tart Cherry Ale.

I have that dog with pieces of anatomy in amongst his jaws,” Steadman says, suddenly breaking into an excited canine growl. “It’s an aggressive looking bastard. I wrote Supertramp on the label, as well. And all the parts of the lettering have got feet.” 

Caruso says that the one thing people always ask him about is the process for the labels.

The answer is, we just love and trust Ralph’s genius. Ralph is not an artist for hire. He is a true artist. We give him a rough concept and what he sends back is always brilliant. We always want characters. But other than that, it’s whatever comes from Ralph’s pen.”

When I wonder if from the beginning he deliberately set out to provoke strong reactions with his Flying Dog art, Steadman thinks for just a second.

I didn’t do it with that in mind,” he says in a way that sounds like a wink. “But I thought, if you’re going to have something on a label, make it something you could look at while you’re drinking a beer.”