Massachusetts illustrator Dean McKeever is the man behind the cult classic Tree House Brewery craft beer cans.
What do you do on the day you release the cultiest of cult beers in a special-edition can designed by an illustrator-artist with a growing following? You call the cops.
Tree House Brewing in the western Massachusetts town of Monson did just that recently to control the throngs descending on its dirt parking lot over the latest sporadic release of a beer called the Juice Machine. Craft beer drinkers are fanatical about this six-year-old rural brewery, the entirety of whose sales come from its on-premise retail store. It produces 14 of the 50 highest-rated beers on BeerAdvocate.
Like most Tree House beers, the Juice Machine is an American double IPA: very hoppy, very potent—and also very hazy according to what some consider a distinct, Northeast IPA sub-style associated with Tree House and its sought-after eastern-Mass peer Trillium.
Unlike most Tree House beers, the Juice Machine comes in a can with a robot on it. “I redid the robot from Lost in Space—he’s possessed by the beer and the fruit,” says illustrator and craft-beer fan Dean McKeever. The “fruit” is a play on both the prominent citrus and tropical notes associated with uber-hopped American IPAs, and the fact that these beers are so opaque they resemble orange juice.
“People flip out for [the Juice Machine],” says McKeever. He recalls the parking lot looking “like a Patriots game” when it was last released.
There’s also a fair amount of flipping out happening over Tree House’s Curiosity beers—single-release brews named simply after their number in the sequence. There have been 35 so far, and McKeever, who earned a bachelor of fine arts at UMass-Dartmouth in 2008, has designed unique labels for each release beginning with number 18.
He collaborates with Tree House brewer and cofounder Nate Lanier on the ideas for the cans. Dean Rohan, another cofounder, says, “They have a little bit of a theme behind them: They’re natural, woodsy.” And they are truly collector’s items, as evidenced by the robust online trade of Curiosity cans, whether they’re full or empty. Tree House no longer announces the release of these beers because of the aforementioned crowd-control issues.
The Curiosity cans are more representative of McKeever’s style, which is rooted in nature: mountains, trees, cabins emitting wisps of chimney smoke. He names both Van Gogh and Bob “The Joy of Painting” Ross as inspirations. “I’m inspired by vintage elements, illustrations from the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he says. “I try not to beat my work to death with too much color or line work.” At the same time, he adds, “I try to create a lot of depth—the illusion that there’s three dimensions.” All of these influences and intentions came together as the Curiosity series entered its thirties.
“I’m really stoked to be a freelance artist,” McKeever says. “A lot of it is because of my connection with Tree House.”
McKeever lives in East Longmeadow, only about a half-hour drive from Monson. (Tree House is building a second facility in Charlton that will greatly expand its capacity.) When he’s not designing labels for Tree House or other breweries—including Tioga Sequoia in California and Haint Blue in Alabama—he designs skateboard decks for Theory in Northampton and Hoodlum in Hartford, and shows his prints around western Massachusetts.
Check out McKeever’s work at Beerology in Northampton and at the Made in Massachusetts Festival at the Big E July 8 and 9. Or check him out on Instagram, where the artist’s Wednesday night “live draws” have a growing audience.