MAKER/Drinker #1 — Matthew LaFleur

by Michael Kiser

About a year ago, Matthew LaFleur came out of nowhere for me, with a humble homebrew in one hand and a handshake in the other.  "I'm an illustrator," he said. "And this is a beer I made. Let me know what you think!"

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It became clear to me in that moment, that both illustration and beer making came from the same creative place in Matthew, and a year later, it's still impossible for me to separate the two. Every time he generously shares a new bottle, I'm as excited to get the beer as I am to see the new branding he's created under the "LaFleur Brewing Company" label. It's sort of the best art subscription you can ever imagine. 

I've met so many creative people in the craft beer scene, whether artists, designers, craftsman or tinkerers that I thought it was time to kick off a new series devoted not only to the creativity in the beer, but to the creativity around it as well. And Matthew is a perfect place to start. He's been busy this year, so I went up to Evanston to spend a morning with him in his home studio. And of course, he had another LaFleur brew/illustration joint waiting for me — a robust porter called "Undead Elixir" accompanied by a clever, and sophisticated drawing of a skeleton and a zombie living it up. "The idea," he says "was to pay homage to the yeast I used, which went quiet on me, and then joyfully came back to life late in the game." I'm getting quite a collection of these bottles. 

You can find more of Matthew's work and contact him through his site here >> 

Read on to learn more about Matthew's process, passions and projects... 

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What's your illustration/design background?
I have never not spent time drawing. Positive words from art teachers, parents and especially friends made the decision for me. As much as I wanted to go to college several states away, I only ended up 4 hours from where I grew up: Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts in their Illustration BFA program. It's a humbling experience when you go from the artistic top dog to the flea in a field of other former top dogs, scratching to get recognized. I had to work hard, and learning how to finish a work was the toughest. I was forced to get pretty damn good at pen and ink while art directing the daily SU newspaper. I was inspired by illustrator Peter deSeve to learn how to handle watercolor with my drawings. But senior year, this was 1996, I scanned in a pencil drawing and colored it using my buddy's Apple Quadra. Back then, I'd color a few segments, add some shading, hit Save and then go make a sandwich while the processor struggled with the massive 15 MB file. When someone encouraged me to try a WACOM tablet/stencil, a pressure-sensitive, pseudo-painting epiphany, the analog and digital were married, and the rest is Photoshop history. Watercolor is in the pre-nup, though.

When did you get into beer making?
I have three brother-in-laws who are all homebrewers. One Christmas several years ago, they all visited, and we made the trip to Brew and Grow's original location down a glorified alley in an industrial part of Chicago. They bought me the basic buckets, carboy, tubes, spoon, and a kit to make a red ale. We brewed on the stove, like I still do, and they gave me a crash course in art of beer making. I've always enjoyed cooking, and this was like making soup with a hearty addition of biochem. Back then, every time I had a question, I had them all on speed dial. Now you punch in anything your experiencing into Google and hundreds of people did the same thing and half of them had great solutions and advice. Plus, I joined the Evanston Homebrew Club over a year ago. I've met fantastic people, some very serious, and some not too serious, with barrels of homebrewing experience. I'm serious, they've filled several 50 gallon barrels with brews.

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What are some of the coolest things you've gotten to do over the years?
I have been fortunate to do some illustrations for the Wall Street Journal's Personal Journal section. I say fortunate because, with a 9 to 5 job, I don't have the ability to turn around art in 24 hours or less. The stories were always very interesting and provided the opportunity to do some really fun art. I've done some book covers and interior B&W illustration for Sterling Publishing in NYC. The black and white interiors were for a series of baseball trivia books and a few who-done-its. The book covers were for the Official Mensa Puzzle Book Series of puzzles, brain-teasers, optical illusions, and who-done-its. I used different animals for each one. These were all for a young adult age group.

After joining the Evanston Homebrew Club, I worked with Ted Perez, club president, on coming up with a brand/logo for the group. It has since been put on signs, shirts and glasses. I am particularly proud of how it turned out.

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I don't know if it's a measure of success, but I have the top Google image result if you type in "cute turtle." Quite a life achievement, I know. This all stemmed from the fact that I did a quick pencil sketch of a cute turtle that I uploaded to my doodle blog, a repository of in-progress and random stuff. The title of this post was "When in doubt, draw a cute turtle!" This post has the most visits, clocking in at 41,125 pageviews according to my Blogger stats. No idea how that happened. From the U.S., but also Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Russia, India, Malaysia, Germany. I'm huge in the Philippines, apparently.

Because my main gig is not the freelance work, I've had to hold down jobs with benefits. I've been moderately successful based on the fact that I have not done much self-promotion. When I finally caved in to joining Twitter, I quickly realized that it's a great real-time promotional tool. I sought out the individuals and business with whom I wanted to work, and I professionally (not psychotically) approached them with short comments and Tweets with URLs to my work. It took a bit of time, but once my name was out there, and my website is in my bio, a had a few people email me work propositions. My first professional beer label, for Middle Brow Beer's first contest-winning brew, is in the works. I can't wait to see it adorn their bombers.

What's coming up for you beer + illustration wise?
I just brewed a big American IPA, and then fermented it with the Belgian Schelde yeast. I really like this style and always wanted to try making one. I am dry hopping with Citra, Columbus, and Falconer's Flight hops. While racking to the secondary fermentor, I must admit, it was damn good. It's a wonderful feeling, as a homebrewer, when warm, uncarbonated beer tastes great. 

The label art for Middle Brow Beer's first homebrew contest-winning brew, a dark spiced Saison, has been delivered to them. I'm very happy with the results, as are they. Watch for that in the coming months. I'm sure it will be delicious.  

I've been named a finalist in the Arcade Brewery Label Design contest for their first public brew, a Scottish Ale. The first part of the process was a contest to suggest and vote on a name. The winning moniker was "William Wallace Wrestle Fest." I'm really happy with my submission. Like the labels I have done for my homebrews, it has a comic book look with a hefty helping of humor. 

I submitted my Undead Elixir porter to the Urban Knaves of Grain Drunk Monk homebrew contest, my first competition. I scored a 29 out of a possible 50, one point away from "Very Good." A good showing for a first-time competitor. I received feedback from three judges about it. Appearance and Mouthfeel scored well. The alcohol content and the higher fermentation temps lead to aromas and flavors that were stylistically off the mark. Brew and learn. 

And most recently, I'm meeting with Jared Saunders, owner and "camp counselor" at Brew Camp (one of the best homebrew supply shops in these parts) to talk about ways we can work together. He's also a big proponent of the Evanston Homebrew Club. We've been discussing working together for a while, and we have a couple project ideas in the works. This guy has about six different jobs, but his passion for homebrewing is obvious the moment you walk into the store. I can't wait to work with him and his team.

 

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Tell me about the studio/home life of an illustrator...
I've been married for over 12 years to an extremely talented pianist, teacher, and writer in the making. I have 2 daughters, 5 1/2 and 8 years old, and they play violin and cello. Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of art and music in our house. Sometimes the girls will color or draw on the floor behind me in the studio, and sometimes it's a constant battle of balancing my time with them with the time I need to get things done. At this stage of my career, I need to hold down a job M-F, so freelance gets done during nights and weekends. Some day this may change, but it's necessary right now. Trying not to feel guilty while I'm not building with LEGOs or reading to them because I have to work is a struggle. I think it's a great lesson to them, though: You can make a career doing anything you want, but you've got to know how to live a worthwhile life with the ones you love while doing it.

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How does beer and illustration relate for you?
The first few homebrews I handed out used up-cycled doodles and artwork that had been in sketchbooks collecting dust. Illustration is mostly about telling stories, and retro-fitting existing art on labels only pointed out the short-comings of the story-telling potential of the brews. There is journey to the processes of creating both brews and illustrations that I love. Each is about crafting a story. I put equal effort into the brewing of the beer and the naming and labeling of it, and the final idea comes from some aspect of the brew "story." For example, for the Slaughtered Hop label, I had actually eaten a freshly picked hop during brewing. I don't recommend it, but I like to taste everything that goes into the brewpot. Since it was brewed in the Autumn around harvest time, I thought a werewolf chowing down on a hop cone would make a great label. For the Undead Elixir, I had to bring a yeast "back from the dead" since its "best if used by" date was month's before. This provided an opportunity to draw zombies and skeletons, and who would pass that up? However, I wanted happy undead engaged in a rousing drinking song. I'm calling it my Monster Series, and they're sort of a parody/homage to the frightening, death-ridden artwork you see on Three Floyds' labels.

 How did LaFleur Brewing Company start? 
LaFleur Brewing Co. started with the silly idea that anyone could enter their homebrews into the Untappd app. The first step is coming up with a stupid brewery name. Because of my freelance work, my last name has always been my calling card, and it's fairly unique unless you live in Quebec. I know this app isn't one of your favorites, and there are many things that could be better about it, but it's pretty neat to add your beers so others can log them in and rate them. After arranging a meeting with someone who I would classify as a pro-homebrewer, minutes before the meeting, I took a sharpie and quickly drew a fleur-de-lys on a bottle cap before I gave it to him. His first response was "I like this." Boom! Impression made before the beer was even sampled.

I started putting my beers into the hands and mouths of more people, and it dawned on me that this would be the perfect vehicle to share and promote my illustration. Duh. I'm not trying to start a brewery here. But there should be artwork on the damn bottle. Who doesn't like beer? The first official labeled bottle was for a Belgian Specialty I had made, and I was meeting up with none other than Good Beer Hunting to give him a bottle. I tweeted later "I wondered if I could promo my work this way," and your response was a strong affirmation of that.

I even arranged a meeting with Cleetus Friedman after reading about his beer collaborations, met him at City Provisions, and we chatted briefly about making beer and working together at some point. Once I had his approval of the beers and labels I left for him, I realized I had to up my game.

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What does the beer community mean to you?
Right now, the exploding beer community of Chicago means a huge potential pool of work for me. I have interacted with many of them via Twitter, and I have met a few at beer events and planned meetings. More than a source of income, though, I have a huge appreciation for craft beer. It's like any local business endeavor: I'd rather spend my money on the fantastic brews of Illinois, or Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, than go out of my way to seek out no-doubt excellent beers from further away. Craft beer people are some of the nicest, easy going, and helpful people. I periodically email with folks that are very close to opening breweries, writing business plans, ordering equipment, and they always have time to answer my (dumb) questions about beer-making.

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What are some of your all-time favorite beers?
Sierra Nevada's Ruthless Rye & Celebration, Half Acre's Mr. Ouroboros (Over Ale was my craft beer gateway drug), Stone's Ruination, Founder's Porter, Lagunitas' Cappuccino Stout, Greenbush's Retribution, Two Brother's Northwind, Left Hand's Milk Stout Nitro, everything I've been able to sample from the brewers at Low Dive. They've been able to add things like mint and peanut butter to beer and make it unbelievably delicious.

What's in your fridge right now?
Revolution A Little Crazy, New Belgium's Trippel, Springboard, Ranger and 1554, Half Acre's QuakerBridge, Stone Arrogant Ale, Lakefront Fixed Gear, North Coast's Pranqster (my wife's current favorite), Deschutes Mirror Pond, Moa Breakfast (thanks!), New Glarus Thumbprint Saison, and a couple homebrews. They have great company.

Have beer and illustrating taught you anything?
Something I never seem to learn is don't ignore any aspect of the process. It won't take care of itself. 

You can find more of Matthew's work and contact him through his site here >>