Katie Johnson, creator of Bellingham Brew Deck.

The first thing I noticed when I sat down with a bottle of Ale Apothecary’s Sahalie and Breakside’s Passion Fruit Sour Ale, is that Katie Johnson’s beer palate is more attuned than mine. My palate isn’t much to speak of, so the gap of knowledge was that much more apparent.

The venerable Steve DeMoney of Elizabeth Station.

The venerable Steve DeMoney (a Joker) of Elizabeth Station.

“I think the Passion Fruit is crisper than the Apothecary,” I opined. “No, the Apothecary is definitely crisper…” I turned up my nose a bit, thought about it. Still thinking on it.

While the jury is out on that, what is known is Johnson is a WAY better artist than I. I max out with stick figures. I always wanted to be a talented artist doing swanky culture things. I tried forcing it in elementary school (sans swank culture), but it just wasn’t happening. I always wanted to open a brewery, but I wasn’t very good at that either.

Katie’s knowledge doesn’t just stop at craft beer. She’s informed about the people that slave over the beer we love and knows people in the craft beer industry up and down the Northwest’s I-5 corridor. It’s somewhere between the beer and those people that Johnson has honed her craft.

Some of you may have heard of, or seen, her work. Maybe you’ve heard about her project called “Bellingham Brew Deck.” Johnson is drawing portraits of people in the Bellingham craft beer community and building a deck of cards out of them. The deck will be 54 cards with four jokers. She hopes to be done by this November. They’ll be distributed across the Tap Trail, at locations like The Local, Elizabeth Station and Chuckanut Brewery.


I think there are four jokers in town

Bellingham Brew Deck

Dave Vitt of Kulshan Brewery

The people she draws get to decide what card they want to be. Mari Kemper of Chuckanut is the Queen of Diamonds, Aaron Matson of the Copper Hog is the Ace of Spades. The four Jokers will be Terry Urbanik, Jim Parker, Joe LeDoux and the fourth is being worked out. She describes her portrait style as “illustrative and funky.” Whatever it is, it’s pretty cool looking.

To start the process, she takes a closeup photograph of her subject. Then Johnson makes a representational sketch of the subject and traces a one-line drawing, referencing anatomical features and light sources. She says the mouth, eyes and hair offer the most clues to personality.

I said, “You know, I’m basically bald. What does that say about me?” She responded, “Oh! Your personality is definitely in the eyes.” I just nodded, but secretly thought that 33% of my personality was missing.

Johnson started working in the craft beer industry with Kulshan Brewing when Jim Parker handed over her resume to Dave Vitt. She cut her teeth there before moving to Portland, where she worked at Apex. Then, like a professional athlete, she was quickly picked up by renowned Cascade Brewing Barrel House. She recalls,

They wanted me and I wanted them

It was in PDX that she was first inspired to build a “brew deck.” After working at Cascade, she returned to Bellingham. “Tyler the Elder” over at Saravesa Bottle Shop had told her about some beer trading cards that listed an assortment of beer stats on them. She liked the idea, but felt they weren’t accessible enough. Around that time she moved back to Bellingham and decided to apply her artistic talent to her love of Bellingham’s craft beer community. Bellingham provided a much more community oriented experience for this project because of it’s smaller size.

There’s so much culture behind it – There’s a family aspect. It’s always been a pleasure to work for craft breweries. I wanted to celebrate the the craft beer community through this project.

Bellingham Brew Deck

Many of the portraits from the Bellingham Brew Deck project.

The brew deck project is giving Johnson insight into the inequitable makeup of that craft brewing community – The deck only has 5 women. “Women in the beer industry are slowly starting to become more prominent. I didn’t realize how male dominant it was until this process. The reality didn’t hit until this,” she said.

She says the support she’s received for the project from her “gentleman friend” Ben Buccarelli, Brewer/Owner of Menace Brewing, has been incredible because he’s helped introduce her to people in the brewing community. That, coupled with the support of Mari at Chuckanut, the Aslan crew and even the incoming Structures Brewing, has helped to make building the brew deck a real community effort.

When the Bellingham Brew Deck is launched she’ll showcase all 54 portraits at The Local Public House. It should be quite the sizable show, considering each portrait is about 14″ x 11″. She doesn’t have a place where you can view her work, but she thinks the project will give her the material for a website (she says her Facebook is public, so you can go there too.) She will be showing work in the coming months in Bellingham’s studios, as well as at Aslan Brewing for October’s Art Walk.

I asked her if she could only be working in the craft beer or the art community. She didn’t hesitate,

Art. But I LOVE craft beer.

In the brewing world a “brew deck” is the structure where a brewer stands while brewing – it’s where the work is done and provides the sturdy base for their delicious creativity to be expressed. The Bellingham Brew Deck will serve a similar purpose. The whole Bellingham craft beer community will stand there,  Jokers, Queens, Kings and the rest of the deck.

Bellingham will have to build a larger brew deck soon. There are more breweries coming, which means there are more Queens, Kings and Aces waiting to be noticed. The Bellingham Beer Deck is a snap shot of the Bellingham craft beer community in it’s prime and infancy. It’s where you can go reflect on our amazing craft community and the unique personalities that brew it. All this, while sipping their brews and playing a hand of cards.