…into the 2nd floor entrance, just off the corner of Pike Street and 4th Avenue in Seattle, and you’ll be instantly greeted with high ceilings covering wood clad partitions, amazing artwork (of all kinds) and small pockets of employees engaging in energetic conversation between two ping pong tables and the three tap bar. All of this surrounds one of the coolest work environments I’ve seen inside or outside of the craft beer industry and I want to live here. It’s not open to the public, but if you’re in the market for their services, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind setting up a meeting.
It’s 4:00pm on Friday
“Happy hour starts at 4:30 on most weekdays but we usually get started a little earlier on Friday” Julian Power tells me as he leads me to reception area set directly in view of the entire operation. “I’ll grab us a couple pints. Cider, Pale Ale or Stout?” “Pale sounds great. Thanks!” I respond after a slight pause, still contemplating the environment and trying to figure out how I would possibly be able to describe the visual splendor of this place in a simple article. If you want to put yourself in this place in time, just look at the image below while drinking a Pale Ale and listening to Jamiroquai.
Julian is the Creative Director for Taphandles LLC., (that’s him on the right) and I probably don’t need to get into the details about the function of the business much since the name pretty much sums it up. I think it’s safe to say that nearly everyone who has ordered a beer at a brewery, tap house, or neighborhood bar has made their pint decision partially because of the work Julian and his team of designers has created. He hands over the promised pint and I snap out of my Charlie Bucket style gaze of the magical world around me. Compelling statistic: the tap handle is the #1 most influential point-of-sale marketing tool on-premise. Second only to the Bartender’s recommendation.
It all began in 1999
Like many great beer companies, Taphandles started small. One guy, a lathe and a garage in West Seattle. Throw in a fairly significant beer boom, some savvy marketing concepts, a team of talented people and 16 years to cultivate the craft and we now have a company supporting 50 employees, a strong collection of professional services and a portfolio of nearly 7500 tap handle designs.
As we slowly stroll through the various departments he explains the function of each and how they all work together to achieve an amazing result to what I have certainly taken for granted as “just a tap handle.” “This is our design department.” he says as he gestures toward a sea of computer monitors and focused artists (surprisingly still hard at work at 4:30pm on a Friday). “We have a team of 8 designers and 4 production designers.”
Just to the right of the design department is the portfolio wall, showcasing about 1/3 of the designs they’ve created for breweries all over the world; each having very identifiable personality and style. “Have any favorites?” I asked as I scan through the rows looking for some I may recognize from home. I expected a diplomatic “I like all them” response and wasn’t entirely disappointed. But what isn’t to like? Being a designer myself I can appreciate the responsibility of the Taphandles team to make sure the design not only speaks to the beer drinker, but also to the brewery and it’s personality. Each one has a story that you can almost fully comprehend without any dialogue.
“This one I like a lot” Julian says as he directs my attention to a handle they created for Surly Brewing in Minneapolis. While simple in its design you can see how every detail was accounted for to match the style of the brewery. It was at the top of the current collection and though it didn’t standout from the others, it certainly would catch your eye in a lineup at a local tavern. I can only imagine the amount of time it took to create from pencil sketch to prototype to finished product, but the end result is impressive.
“Have you done any work for breweries in Bellingham?” I asked, already knowing they were at least the team behind the tap handles at Wander Brewing. “Yep. We’ve done work for Wander Brewing, Chuckanut, Boundary Bay, Kulshan…… we might be working on something for another brewery up there right now actually.” This isn’t a surprise. It’s probably easier to list the breweries they haven’t worked with and it’s easy to see why. They just do great work.
Here’s a small selection from their portfolio.
The Design Process:
“We get various levels of direction from our customers” said Julian. “Anything from pencil sketches on a coaster or napkin to full clay models.” They start the design process from those suggestions and, like all collaborative design projects, add in their own suggestions to create both a visually amazing and structurally significant final product. “Most of the tap handles we create for our customers are included with keg delivery through the distribution channels.” Which makes sense. If I wanted people to buy more of my beer, I’d definitely invest in a well designed tap handle to amplify my product. But that isn’t a rule. Many breweries and/or tap houses have hired Taphandles to create handles for their own locations. Although uncommon, you could have your own personal tap handles made for your home brew operation too. It’s remarkably easy when you have a team of pros on the job and you might be surprised at the cost. Taphandles also has an online store where you can purchase semi-customizable tap handles.
Beyond the handles
When a company like this finds a successful niche, it makes sense to leverage that as much as possible and I was thrilled that they had already started to bring back the well designed beer promotional signs from days past. The kind that you can find in any bar that existed before 1980. Backlit, multi-dimensional works of art. Taphandles has also created some amazing point of sale items like the Guinness Harp that you’ve most likely seen at a grocery store during St. Patrick’s Day (and many many more that I’m neglecting to mention simply because of the overwhelming experience). I was actually texting with Casey Diggs from Boundary Bay Brewery while brew-hopping in Seattle and he sent me the image on the right after I mentioned meeting with Taphandles.
As we continue touring the space we pop into a couple of small conference rooms and offices with large acoustic sound panels featuring elaborate illustrations of the god of beer created, of course, by the design staff. “We submitted this one for a contest a few years ago.” Julian says as he points at a roughly 4′ x 6′ illustration of mythical characters intermingling organically within a sea of text that supposedly outlines the beer recipe for Pliny the Elder. The entire office space is littered with beer images, sculptures and playthings that can only encourage creativity. I wanted to stay there just to absorb the creative energy, but I reluctantly turned down a second pint, thanked Julian for his time and headed back down to street level en route to visit NW Peaks Brewing, Fremont Brewing, Reuben’s Brews, Holy Mountain Brewing and Standard Brewing. My job is awful. 😉
I’ll never view a tap lineup the same way.
I definitely took tap handle design for granted. I guess I always assumed each brewery just hired a freelancer to put together a design that matched their brand, and perhaps that’s the case for some, but having a specialized team of beer folk do this design work makes so much sense and certainly acts as a HUGE investment for breweries of any size. If you’re now inspired to check out handle design in more detail I encourage heading out to the Bellingham tap houses. Elizabeth Station has an impressive collection of handles as does McKay’s Taphouse. Most used primarily for their artistic qualities, but some still being handled every day and identifying the beer that you’ve either loved for years, or one that you may have never heard about (but the handle design spoke to you). Whichever you decide, know that Taphandles LLC was probably the team behind the design.
I’m due for another pint soon and can’t wait to see what my favorite handle will be pouring today. Cheers.