The first time I met Katie Johnson, I was having a beer at Menace Brewing with friends, one of which she knew, and she asked us for a phone charger. I had one in my car and lent it to her while I drank my Wee Heavy, and the few times I saw her after that, she remembered and thanked me again.
During this interview, she again realized her phone was dead as she tried to show me something on her phone relevant to her latest project, the Bellingham Brew Deck.
For someone who is seemingly so often disconnected by the feats of her cell phone battery, there’s no doubt that Johnson is well connected in the brewing industry.
Whether she’s your one of your favorite local bartenders or the face behind your favorite cover art on What’s Up! Magazine, Johnson seems to know everyone in town, especially if they serve, drink or make beer.
Combining her art with the art of brewing, over the last two years Johnson has been working on a series of portraits of Bellingham brewers and blenders. Last time we checked in with her, she filled us in on exactly what the Brew Deck entailed. Johnson will be doing around 60 portraits of the faces behind the brews. This includes every card in a traditional deck of playing cards, but instead of the king of hearts, it might be the king of hops, someone like Frank Trosset of Aslan Brewing Co.
It’s taken her two years so far, and she’s currently sitting at about 39 portraits with more lined up.
“Working years as a bartender, we’d always have customers come up and say this is really yummy beer and you guys do such a great job. We were always hearing that [as bartenders] but no one in the back was really hearing that.”
Johnson described the decision to do the Brew Deck as her chance to celebrate the people in the back of the house. Working as a brewer has historically not been the most glamorous or best paying job, Johnson added, and brewing beer comes from a sole passion for the craft, something worth celebrating.
Originally, Johnson and a friend from her time in Portland had brainstormed the idea of brewers trading cards, however a graphic design version of that deck already existed. Anyway, Johnson wanted to do something a bit more approachable with maybe less information, and decided on a deck of portraits.
Thus far, people can request which card they’d like to be represented as. However, there are four jokers that Johnson gets to decide on. Two or three have revealed themselves, and Johnson is waiting to meet the last of them. These jokers are the big influences and personalities in Bellingham’s brew scene and so far include names like Jim Parker and Terry Urbanik.
“People are always really humble and gracious to be participating in it, so it’s only ever been so positive with those interactions.” Johnson said of brewers’ reactions to being approached to be a part of the deck.
Often times, Johnson will know the brewer she is portraying in the deck. However, for those she meets for the first time with the intention of including them, getting a read for their personalities has become a second nature.
“When I’m drawing them I’ll take pictures of them, but I’ll take four or five snapshots and try and find the most genuine.” Johnson said. “When you put a camera in front of their face then they know what it’s for, since the whole idea is to highlight these guys in the back of house who never get recognized.”
Completing this project has been creative means for getting to know the craft beer scene in Bellingham even better for Johnson. From the Bellingham originals like Boundary Bay to Gruff Brewing who is one of the next to be drawn, the deck has offered her a chance to draw brewers across a broad range of time spent brewing in Bellingham and get to know specific brew styles.
“I think that’s what is so great about the Bellingham beer community. You have each craft brewery specializing in different things. Once you start tasting all these beers you get a signature profile. Not knowing what beer you’re having from say, Aslan, you can taste it and know it’s from Aslan.” Johnson said.
If you know Johnson and you’re wondering if she’s drawn her significant other, owner and brewer at Menace Brewing, Ben Buccarelli, the answer is no. She said that he thinks the last will be the best, and he wants to be saved to be the last card drawn.
Johnson started her beer career at Kulshan Brewing and saw the company and following grow from the beginning, then moved to Portland to work at Apex, where her love for craft beer grew even more. Johnson knew this was the industry for her when she could describe a beer to a customer confidently and become close with the nuances that beer has to offer.
It was then, and when she realized she would rather spend an extra few dollars to buy a Bridgeport rather than a case of Natural Ice in her early 20’s. For some reason, Natural Ice came up several times during my conversation with Johnson, who has a palette I could only ever dream to have.
After one of the first times I met Johnson, a mutual friend of ours told me her favorite thing about her was that when she talked about something she was passionate about, she closed her eyes for a brief moment while she described it.
Of course, I was looking for it this time, but during our conversation about the endless opportunities and personalities in the Bellingham brew scene, and the work and time she has put into the deck, I noticed it more than once.
Since we last checked in with her, she’s twice as far along on the series of portraits, meaning she’s picked twice as many brew brains and developed both of her passions visibly more.
[Header photo is Robert Arzoo of North Corner Brewing Supply]