Like most people, my first encounter with iconic British illustrator Ralph Steadman was through Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Steadman’s frenzied cartoonish sketches cemented that story in my head, and I’ve been an enormous fan ever since (my personal favorite being his movie poster for Where the Buffalo Roam). My other big encounter with Steadman artwork has been through Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery, which has had Steadman designing its beer labels since the ’90s, and they are easily some of the best in the industry.
How did Steadman come to illustrate for some random brewery now based in Frederick, Md.? It’s quite a cool story actually. Flying Dog Founder George Stranahan, who died in 2021, was the wealthy heir to the Champion Spark Plugs fortune, and he was a man that dabbled in a variety of businesses, academics and adventures. He had a PhD in physics, founded the Aspen Center for Physics and had expertise in everything from photography and writing to owning restaurants and running breweries. He even led an expedition to the summit of K2 in 1983 at the age of 52.
In 1990, Stranahan opened a brewpub in Woody Creek, Colo., and the Woody Creek Tavern was a regular hangout for gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who lived nearby and “frequented the establishment on a near-nightly basis for late lunches when in town,” according to Wikipedia. Thompson lived only a few blocks from Stranahan’s Flying Dog Ranch in Colorado, and the two became friends. That’s how Steadman got commissioned to do beer labels for Flying Dog, starting in 1995. Of late, Flying Dog has been celebrating Steadman and its beer labels with a cool video series called Behind the Label. In these, Steadman talks about his craft.
“I just sort of do what’s in my head,” says Steadman in the video above. “I go with the flow of my pen.”
What must be in his head? The North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Commission must have been thinking the same thing when the government body did not want to approve the label of Flying Dog’s “Freezin’ Season” winter ale specifically because of Steadman’s drawing of a naked man standing by a fire. Last year, after a lawsuit, a North Carolina court ruled in favor of the Maryland-based brewery, allowing use of that image.
Now, watch Steadman discuss that fantastic beer label, which is one of my favorites:
When you’re finished with that, watch Steadman discuss all these labels.