Queen City Fresh: Cincinnati artist Keith Neltner makes beer beautiful

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CINCINNATI -- One of the many craft beer sites I like to visit is Oh Beautiful Beer, which celebrates remarkable graphic design from the world of beer.

It was here that I come across three profiles from local artist Keith Neltner of Neltner Small Batch (NSB).

The first was for Lance’s Brewery Tour, in which NSB designed an original Neltner poster in support of a Kickstarter campaign for Lance Rice, a gifted beer historian that has autism and whose dream is to write his own American brewery history book.

The second was the remarkably detailed bottle label art on Strutter.

Loaded with layers of intricate detail and depth this is one bottle you’ll want to display proudly amongst your collection of beer trinkets.

Strutter is one ornery rooster and the first bottle release from Bitter Old Fecker Rustic Ales, a small batch brewing company out of Chelsea, Mich. If you were one of the 816 people to get a bottle, consider yourself very lucky.

Third -- and certainly not least -- was the bottle label art for a limited edition promotional brew, Kentucky Black Walnut Ale, brewed especially for NSB by Bitter Old Fecker Rustic Ales.

Kentucky born and American-made, this handcrafted brew was made in a small batch of 300 bottles using locally-sourced walnuts – it’s strong as a mule.

You may not be familiar with local artist Keith Neltner of Neltner Small Batch (NSB) but chances are you’ve unknowingly admired his work.

If you don’t believe me, check out one of the latest taps at Arnold’s Bar & Grill. The new menus and a beautiful 1861 porter tap handle are from NSB.

You can also check out this cool video from Queen City Project spotlighting the release.

In the only Cincinnati history that I can lay claim to, I was the first person served this wonderful beer at Arnold’s. None other than Mr. Greg Hardman himself presented it to me. Hardman is the owner of the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company.

Have you seen the new vinyl LP and T-shirts from the local band The Tillers or the video Country Road from the Kentucky Struts? That was NSB.

NSB also made the cool goat graphic at the corner of 12th and Walnut streets for HalfCut. Are you sensing a trend here?

While craft beer fans may be unfamiliar with his work (until now), Keith is a veteran and no stranger to the local creative scene.

This year at the Cincinnati Addy awards, Keith received three out four Judge’s Choice awards. Those recognize each judge’s personal selection of the show’s outstanding creative piece.

For more than 15 years, Keith has been working at and with firms like Landor, LPK and Possible on brands like Wrigley, Hershey, Sharpie, Jim Beam, etc.

Neltner Small Batch (ESB)

“Farming is hard. Sweat is religion. Art is blood.” is NSB’s manifesto.

This creative workshop (formerly Neltner Creative which was started in 1999) was created in 2013 and is located in Camp Springs, a small valley in Northern Kentucky.

For more than 150 years, the Neltner family has been rooted in this area settling here from Germany. The studio is in a newly constructed gambrel style barn that sits near Keith’s stone home built in 1843.

Just down the road is Neltner’s Farm where Keith grew up and where he is still active in the family farm.

As you might expect the influences of a rural upbringing helped shape the idea of “brands built by hand” in a “small batch” mentality. This approach is at the core of the NSB aesthetic, which prides itself on crafting very high quality work.

NSB sources everything they can locally and are committed to supporting American-made products and services. Collaborating with writers, directors, photographers, print makers and editors here and across the country.

Since launching this venture, NSB has been called upon to help local business with ties to the local brewing scene such as Arnold’s Bar and Grill, the soon-to-be opened HalfCut, as well as local musicians such as The Tillers, The Rubber Knife Gang, Frontier Folk Nebraska and The Kentucky Struts.

In addition, preservation of music history and land with the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation and Music for the Mountains initiatives. These are just a few of the projects that NSB are applying their considerable talents too. For a complete listing, check out the NSB website at neltnersmallbatch.com

HalfCut – Naming, Branding and Illustration

Surely by now you’ve heard the buzz, or perhaps more appropriately the “meh-eh-eh-eh” or bleat of a goat, regarding HalfCut the new “craft beer café” opening soon in Over-the-Rhine.

Owners Jack Heekin and Tom O’Brian, who also founded Pedal Wagon, selected NSB to do the naming, branding and illustration work for HalfCut.

In addition, just recently under Keith’s guidance an interior wall inside HalfCut has been transformed into beautiful beer art. The mural is a simplistic info graphic of how beer evolves from earth to barrel to glass.

Each time you stop in and fill up the coolest looking growler in town you’ll have Keith to thank for that artistic inspiration that oozes from the mortar.

Bitter Old Fecker Rustic Ales – Brand Inspiration, Identity and Packaging

Not coincidentally, this Chelsea, Mich., small batch brewery started by Nathan Hukill was a perfect fit into the NSB portfolio sharing that small batch approach with a shared passion for all things handmade.

The brewery produces only barrel-aged beer high gravity, bold beers brewed in a “rustic” style using non-traditional foraged and locally sourced ingredients.

The approach is so handmade that the brewery can literally produce beer without electricity. Not only is the label artwork fantastic but it has the most bad ass bottle cap in brewing – “A Rooster walks into a bar. He kicks ass.” Short, direct and to the point. That is one rooster you just don’t want to cross. Any questions? Yeah, Strutter didn’t think so.

NSB is finishing up work on the next beer label artwork for the next release in the Bitter Old Fecker lineup. An Imperial Blond Ale brewed with morel mushrooms aged in bourbon barrels dubbed Kaplan.

Unfortunately, Bitter Old Fecker is not in the Ohio market so if you want to get your hands on a bottle you need to make a day trip and cross the border into Michigan.

Q & A with Keith Neltner of Neltner Small Batch (NSB)

I sent Keith a couple of questions regarding his recent projects and foray into the brewing world and he was kind enough to take some time and respond.

QCF: Let’s start with your most recent local project for HalfCut. How did this come about and what was the inspiration/story for the term HalfCut and the image of the goat?

Neltner: The short answer is we had a great reference from our friends at Arnold’s Bar and Grill and I had met Tom riding the Pedal Wagon when we launched the 1861 Porter. Last summer when Tom and Jack met with us they had this great story about their travels and we had a couple of meetings with them we call “Flannel Sessions” where we distill the essence of the story down. This gave a solid, real place to start when we began the naming process.

Narrowing down from a list of hundreds, Halfcut rose out of the pile. It is a term from the 20’s that means pleasantly buzzed -- not drunk -- but that point where you’re comfortable with friends. Another core part of the brand was exploration/journey, and the Halfcut Goat was created from that curiosity.

I chose a bold expression of the goat that was simple and stark enough as a stencil, using black and gold as a strong contrasting pallet. In OTR we wanted to respect the history of our surroundings but also keep true to the urban qualities of the neighborhood.

QCF: The mural inside HalfCut measured 14′ x 24′ and has been your largest installation to date. What was it like working on a installation of that size compared with that of a beer label? Are you ready to take on a larger installation such as one of those huge ArtsWorks murals that adorn the side of large buildings throughout Cincinnati?

Neltner: At first it was a daunting thought but the key was lots of planning. There is always the creative aspect or challenge, ‘What does this piece need to communicate no matter what the format?’ and then the reality of, ‘How do we apply a 13’ farmer and a  7’ goat to a brick wall in a historic building?’

Once the illustration was established at a much smaller scale, we got a good sense of the condition of the brick wall. I contacted Cincinnati artist Stacey Vallerie to collaborate with me on the install and planning. We had a core team that stuck with us through the cold days and nights to get it done -- I couldn’t be more stoked about the end result -- I think we’re ready for anything now.

QCF: You’ve now done two beer bottle labels for Bitter Old Fecker labels which I thought were absolutely amazing. I plan to make a trip to the brewery soon and beg and plead with Nathan Hukill for a bottle of each. What’s it’s been like moving from a medium of music videos/documentaries and posters to beer bottle labels? Do you simply shrink the artwork concept to fit the medium or do you have to take that into consideration from the get go?

Neltner: I’ve worked on consumer package goods for the better part of my 16 year career, working at and with firms like Landor, LPK and Possible on brands like Wrigley, Hershey, Sharpie, Jim Beam, etc.

That has established a foundation of experience doing branding for large, household names but at the same time I’ve nurtured an illustration career and done work in the music industry so now I get to mesh all of that together in the work that we do at NSB. So with Bitter Old Fecker things are thought out and meticulous as much as they are aged and weathered.

So space is a big consideration, how an inking of Kaplan or Strutter balances with the old English type of Bitter Old Fecker when its in Whole Foods next to other craft beer.

What we’re creating is this really rich backstory about Cecil and his ales personified through these animals so hopefully art and hops create fans and collectors.

QCF: Switching gears to music. At the top of Queen City Fresh’s favorite local bands is Cincinnati’s bluegrass/folk trio The Tillers. You did the branding and design for their awarding winning album, Hand on the Plow. Yesterday, I got a copy of the vinyl LP and it looks fantastic. Talk about your relationship with The Tillers and how that project evolved.

Neltner: Well, The Tillers are amazing, humble human beings first. I knew them through the local scene but not until they played our family farm’s pumpkin festival did I get to know Mike Oberst. We had a mutual friend in JD Wilkes of the Legendary Shack Shakers which was common ground to strike up conversation. Mike called shortly after that performance about their upcoming recording sessions and asked if I’d be interested in working together.

I think we talked every other day that year about the project. There is so much depth in their simple approach and I wanted that to come through in the artwork. Hearing the music is such a part of the process for me -- what colors come to mind and imagery start to rise to the top.

With Hand on the Plow, the final piece illustrates the sun going down on a farmer plowing the last furrows of the day. My Dad would plow the fields when I was a kid, we would dig wagons of potatoes for days, so it was an image very close to home for me.

There is a lyric, “Let our bones dance around until our bodies all grow cold” in Old Westside that is surprisingly dark and optimistic all at the same time and is a reminder of how fleeting our time here is, so lets enjoy it.

We enlisted Michael Wilson (who is an American treasure that resides on the West side of town), to photograph the band. The concept was to create portraits of the band that depict a picture of someone close to them that influenced their upbringing.

We also photographed the band in an old cemetery right near the Anderson Fairy in Kentucky. During that period the Tillers were signed with Muddy Roots Music so its been amazing to see their music spread across the world and in the underground country scene, a place I’ve worked for over a decade.

QCF: One of my other favorite local bands is Americana Rock band The Kentucky Struts. You worked with them on the video for Country Road from the album Year of the Horse. Although, I love the song See Ya’ Through from their debut album, you certainly raised their bar considerably with your efforts behind the camera on Country Road. I understand Todd Lipsomb (lead singer of KYS) is also an artist/designer, was the concept for the video a collaborative effort? Do I have it right that, the video was shot on your family’s farm?

Neltner: Todd is a good family friend of ours. We grew up with similar backgrounds and we’ve worked in the creative and music industries together. Todd asked if I wanted to contribute a piece of art to his “Year of the Horse” album and I suggested we create a music video for “Country Road.”

The opening verse was written about my Dad who passed away in our apple orchard in 2003. The song had a huge emotional pull for me and we filmed a lot of the orchard shots in our family orchard in Camp Springs. Much of the song is also about Todd’s mother in law’s battle with cancer so the whole experience was both exhausting and therapeutic.

Brian Steege, a Mason-based photographer, had a huge part in bringing the story together directing the project with me. The essence of the story was written through the lyrics but we didn’t want a linear path or typical music video format so we kept it very textural and ominous not knowing the outcome of the characters in the video which essentially overlaid the story onto the viewer. Todd and I are planning to release a split vinyl under “Neltner Small Batch” this summer, more on that soon with a special guest or two.

QCF: Wrapping up, any projects in the pipeline for any work with either local breweries or musicians?

Neltner: There are a number of things happening, we’re branding an up and coming brewery in Covington (to be announced soon), some small batch vinyl and there is talk about Kentucky Black Walnut being distributed in Cincinnati. Thanks for the support.

For the latest on the brewing scene in the Queen City, go to: wcpo.com/beer

Copyright Courtesy of QueenCityFresh.com

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