If you think of wood chippers and the Coen Brothers when you think of Fargo, think again. There’s cool stuff happening in North Dakota’s biggest city. And one of the coolest is a collaboration between the neo-pop artist Punchgut (AKA Matt Mastrud) and the craft brewery Drekker Brewing Company.
Drekker Brewing: Where the labels are inspired by gig posters, record sleeves and skateboard decks
With edgy designs and a shared alt-rock aesthetic that’s dark and funny at the same time, the Fargo-based artist and a team of cutting-edge brewers are building their brands and growing together while their hometown booms.
“We’ve had a lot of fun pushing the scene forward and pushing people’s comfort level forward. We do that with the styles of beer — challenging the definition of what beer is,” said Mark Bjornstad, Drekker Brewing’s president and co-founder. “Our artwork is kind of this grim, dark, scene but also with this little cheeky, kind of skateboard deck fun aspect to it as well. We’re kind of pushing the envelope on what’s fun and what a beer brand can do.”
The craft beer magazine Caña has called label art “the new record sleeve” for the 21st century. As music goes digital, beer cans are still a tangible product that creative producers can have fun and make a mark with.
Punchgut’s pop culture-influenced work, with more than a little Gen X nostalgia, is a perfect fit for Drekker’s experimental approach to brewing. Punchgut’s label for Drekker’s Doomsday Device IPA made USA Today’s list of top 10 beer labels for 2020.
“When we look back at what art inspired us, I don’t think we even thought of it as art at the time. It’s gig posters, it’s record sleeves, it’s pog tabs, it’s skateboard decks,” Bjornstad said. “We want to create an experience around this beer, this creative beverage that you’re going to drink with some friends and share and then you’re going to hold this can. … If you like it and if it challenges you and makes you think about something, that’s what art does.”
Monsters and Monikers
When Bjornstad and his Drekker Brewing partners were looking to put their own inspiration into visual form, they found the perfect partner in Mastrud. As Punchgut, his aesthetic evokes skateboard art, punk-rock zines and gig posters. For a guy who describes himself as an introvert and a “worker bee” who’s happiest in his home studio, Mastrud comes up with some wildly dark — but also low key funny — work.
Mastrud got his start doing gig posters for acts from Audioslave to Lucinda Williams. He took on the name Punchgut when he found out his original self-deprecating username, Jerkface, was already taken.
“I was going to use that as my artist name but someone already had it trademarked. My younger brother told me to do Gut Punch, but I didn’t want to listen to him all the way so I flipped it,” Mastrud said.
The moniker allowed him to experiment with darker, weirder stuff in the early days, he says. And as his reputation on the international scene grows, he’s more than fine being best known as Punchgut. Mastrud is a Fargo native. And art has been his refuge since childhood, when he started conjuring up the monsters that still populate his work.
“Art was a nice escape to just not talk or have eye contact and just zone out in the back and disappear in grade school. I kind of latched onto monsters during that time period too,” he said. “The best thing about monsters or anything kind of dark is there’s really not a right or wrong way…It’s kind of a free-for-all of what you can draw.”
“Into the Rabbit Hole”
Like Mastrud, Bjornstad and his partners at Drekker Brewing are North Dakota guys. They’ve leaned into a Viking vibe at the brewery and in their labels. It’s a take on the region’s Scandinavian heritage. (The name Drekker comes from the Norse word drekka—to drink). But there’s also plenty of creative fodder in 80s and 90s metal and rock references.
Drekker’s Milk Maiden stout winks at 80s heavy metal, and the team pays tribute to the 90s alt rock band The Flaming Lips with their She Don’t Use Jelly and Evil Natured Robots IPAs. Bjornstad and Mastrud have worked together on ongoing themes and “easter eggs” inside jokes on labels that fans love.
“It’s really cool to see people start getting into the rabbit hole with us,” Bjornstad said. “It’s fun to see how much the beer scene around here and our fans around the country have grabbed onto what we’re doing with labels.”
“It’s Been Quite a Ride”
Fargo and its sister city Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the Red River are jumping. With a booming economy anchored by three universities, a Microsoft campus, and a young and growing population, the city is a hotspot for trendy bars, restaurants and breweries.
Fargo’s population has increased by more than 20 percent — nearly 25,000 new residents — in the last decade. And it’s a young city, with a median age of just 30. The Fargo craft brewery scene is hot, with Drekker Brewing as the crown jewel. The company opened their new taproom, known as Brewhalla, in 2018 in a gorgeous restored 19th century train shop. And of course, a Punchgut-designed mural, full of Viking-helmeted skulls, was a must.
“This has been quite a ride out here,” Bjornstad said.
And for Punchgut, his hometown is also the source of his creative inspiration.
“I know we’re supposed to encourage everyone to move out of their hometown, but I don’t really mind it. I wasn’t in a big hurry to leave. I have lots of good people around me,” Mastrud said. “I’ve liked watching Fargo grow over the years…You see people experimenting more and you do see more artists.”
“Old-School, Skateboard, Deathstyle”
The Drekker team wanted standout cans, and that meant getting away from the crafty/cool minimalist look some other breweries have gone for.
“We wanted to go old-school, skateboard, over the top, tongue-in-cheek kind of deathstyle with very vibrant colors,” Mastrud said. “We wanted to keep that template going with all of them, making them pop off the shelf.”
This month, Mastrud was working on a deadline over Labor Day weekend for his latest collaboration with Drekker: a trail mix sour featuring raspberry, pomegranate and cranberry sour conditioned on granola and peanut butter. Bjornstad wanted a “slug-like alien/monster televangelist” for the beer, called Gorp Be With You. And Punchgut delivered.
“We bounce ideas back and forth against each other. Sometimes they have a full concept that they want to see fleshed out,” Mastrud said. “Other times, they’ll just give me a name of the beer and I’ll go with it from there.”
For Bjornstad, the synergy between the artist and brewers defies the usual labels like partnership or collaboration. It’s more like a Viking-style brotherhood among these grown-up Fargo kids.
“It seems too formal for the way we do it. I’d say we have a blood pact,” Bjornstad said. “We’re always going to do our stuff together because we have such an identical idea of how we want to poke the bear and how we want to bring this weird brand together and make it fun. We have the same wavelength that we’re always on.”
View more of Punchgut’s work (and buy a poster or download free phone wallpaper!) at punchgutstudio.com. See where you can get a can of Drekker Brewing craft beer for yourself at drekkerbrewing.com/beer-finder.