A U of M Design Class Crafted Tap Handles for Three Minnesota Breweries

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Photos by Warren Bruland

If you were at the University of Minnesota’s Campus Club on December 16, 2014, you got a firsthand look at an exciting collaboration between some of Minnesota’s best craft brewers and designers. If you weren’t, don’t worry: You can see the fruits of the collaboration at Excelsior Brewing Company and Fair State Brewing Coop, where they’ll be on display indefinitely.

“They” are tap handles designed by students in U of M instructor (and Target fabric designer) Sarah Sheber’s Product Form and Model Making class. How did a handful of college students, many of whom aren’t even of legal drinking age, get tapped for this project?

Almost by accident, according to Sheber. Last year, she and Product Design program director Barry Kudrowitz were brainstorming ideas for the coming semester’s classes. He casually threw out the idea of tap handle design, with the caveat that they’d “never be able to work it into a class.”

Challenge, you say?

Sheber took that as a challenge. She immediately got in touch with Phil Platt, a Campus Club alum, for access to his sizable Rolodex of local brewers. Sheber was particularly interested in smaller, newer breweries, which she figured would permit her students more creative control and access to internal decision-makers.

“I wanted students to have a chance to learn as much about their brands as they could, to see as much of the business and understand the different roles that go into producing local brews,” says Sheber. “With a large company, individuals own a small piece of the process. With small companies, each member of the team needs to be flexible, to know the business and the brand, and to be able to wear a lot of hats.”

To Sheber’s knowledge, this is Minnesota’s first design collaboration between a university school of design and the craft brewing industry. She hasn’t heard of such collaborations elsewhere either, though “local industry partnerships are a popular way to build connections for students and to give them real world experience [… while still providing] the safety net of the classroom,” she says.

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A handle for every brewery

After contacting (or attempting to contact) a who’s who of Minnesota breweries, Sheber settled on Fair State, Mighty Axe Hops (which provides tap handles to breweries that use its hops) and Excelsior. Then she sent her kids to work.

“Students drove the inspiration for each of their designs,” she says. “Each brought three concept models—loose, raw explorations of what their concepts could be. [The breweries’ brand reps] gave feedback about what worked and what did not and which design they would like to see the student continue with.”

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Open and armed with distinctive branding courtesy of Minneapolis-based Little & Company, Fair State stuck with a modified version of its “infinity loop” theme for handles that would ultimately adorn its kombucha tap line. Without a taproom (or beer) of its own, Mighty Axe took a different tack, focusing on “cross-branding with the brewers who use their hops” while maintaining “an expression of appellation—where their hops come from,” says Sheber. And Excelsior’s designs, in keeping with the brewery’s lakeside location, paid homage to “lake life culture, boating, beach, sun and water” without being derivative or hewing too closely to Excelsior’s current “buoy-inspired” design, she says.

Designing for the future

The December 16 event doubled as a final design review and happy hour event complete with free beer from Fair State and Excelsior—a fitting end to a productive semester. Thanks to a groundswell of interest from “brewers of all scales,” Sheber is already planning next year’s class.

“With the continuing boom in new taprooms and breweries, I’m excited to grow our network of beer design enthusiasts,” she says.

So are we, Ms. Sheber. So are we.

 
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