Clown Shoes: When a National Brewery Puts a Local Trio on its Label

There’s a good chance you do not know who Shawn Hillman, David Delgado and James Blue are. But if you were able to snag a bottle of Clown Shoes’ North of Sonora, you are familiar with their faces. Take a look at the label and you will see Dave and James racing in on the Gila Monster, while Shawn is rolling in on the back of a quail.

All work for Quail Distributing. Hillman is the craft beer portfolio manager, while Delgado is a craft beer specialist and Blue an account manager. The trio had the good fortune of not only getting to be a part of Clown Shoes’ celebrated artistic labels, but also create the beer itself. Hillman was in charge of the project, and he came up with a contest for his salesmen to decide who would join him.

“A bit of disbelief really,” Delgado said of his reaction to it all.

It did not happen by accident, though. The opportunity was a prize from Clown Shoes for selling more of the brewery’s beer than any other distributor in the region.

“I didn’t really start the project thinking I was going to be on the label, so it was kind of cool when Jim came up with the idea,” Hillman said.

The “Jim” Hillman was talking about is Jim Ronemus, who is the Director of Sales for Clown Shoes. As part of his job he is also the regional manager for the Southeastern and Western U.S., which of course includes Arizona.

Ronemus said North of Sonora is part of their series of state-specific beers, a concept that came about due to a wonky law in Ohio that essentially said any malt liquor with an ABV above 12 could not be sold in the state.

At the time, the beer in question was Blaecorn Unidragon, a Russian Imperial Stout that clocks in at a hefty 12.5 percent ABV. Wanting to get the beer into the state, the brewery created an Ohio version of the beer.

“We called it ‘Ohio Unidragon,’” Ronemus said. “Different label, different name, sent it to Ohio.

“And the buzz and the feedback we got for making a beer just for Ohio was overwhelming.”

Ohio did away with the law in 2016, but popularity demanded that the idea of state-specific beers remain. Beers had been made for places like Texas and California and, once it was determined that there was room to brew, Arizona was an obvious choice to be next.

The whole process took months to make the trek from being an idea to becoming a beer. It all started with figuring out what kind of beer it would be. Knowing Clown Shoes’ reputation for big imperial stouts and IPAs, given the chance to decide, Hillman said he wanted to switch things up a bit.

“Let’s go with an imperial porter, and I said instead of bourbon barrels why don’t we go with rum,” he said. “And then to kind of give it a Southwestern twist, we decided to go with the Mexican Vanilla Bean and dark agave nectar.”

After consulting with Clown Shoes’ head brewer, with an eye on making sure the beer had a Southwest flavor and style, North of Sonora was born. Made with dark agave syrup and Mexican vanilla beans before being aged in rum barrels, it does not disappoint. But while it was pretty cool to collaborate on and create a beer, getting to be on the label may have been a greater prize. It is Clown Shoes, after all.

“I cannot even begin to tell you how many times at events or just talking with buyers at bottle shops or pubs, a common question, ‘What do I have to do to be on a Clown Shoes label?’” Ronemus said.

The answer is pretty much either work for Clown Shoes or, as was the case here, sell a lot of their beer. Only then will one be able to grace a label.

“That’s a big part of their following in the market, too,” Hillman said. “Not only is the beer amazing, but people really enjoy the artwork and find it fun.”

It’s true. Pick any Clown Shoes beer at random and you are bound to be impressed by what you are looking at. Pretty much all bottles are created equal, but their labels are not. It is clear great pride is taken in the artwork, which is produced by artist (and Clown Shoes employee) Michael Axt.

Ronemus said when Axt does labels “he really digs in,” which meant once the concept, which was thought of by the GM and founder of Clown Shoes, was settled on, each of the three models had to pose in certain positions. Yes, models.

“Art is a misconception, that you can just take a picture of somebody and art them into whatever you want,” Ronemus said. “So he had to get these guys positioning right, doing certain things.”

He said Delgado was told to look forward and point as if he was yelling “Fire!” and for Blue to look give the psycho look Christian Bale gave on the poster for “American Psycho.”

Hillman was asked to look like he was having fun, but with a side profile of his face to show it.

“That was kind of interesting,” Hillman admitted. “Jim reached out and asked us, the three of us that are on the label to send in some selfies with our face in certain directions so that it actually matched up with the artwork on the label.

“So I don’t know, I probably took 20 or 30 shots and sent them all over to him.”

Hillman added, with a sigh, that he figured one of them had to work, which was the case. He noted he had done selfies before, but never for the sake of art.

“After about a week they sent us back the image that you see on the bottle now, making sure it fit James’ vision with a few changes they had made to make sure it made it through TTB approval,” Delgado said.

Ronemus is biased, yes, but he understands the value that eye-catching labels bring.

“Clown Shoes is like, you know there’s a story there,” he said. “These (other beers in the cooler) are good, Clown Shoes says, ‘hey, ask me about me.’”

Feedback on the beer itself has been positive, and everyone on the label got plenty of bottles to give away or keep for themselves. Hillman said he has one signed by all three of them that will never be opened. Not surprisingly, there are also copies of the label that are being printed up to be framed. After all, this is the type of thing anyone in the beer industry would be excited and proud to show off.

Hillman said the response has been nothing but positive, with people in the craft beer community sharing how they saw him on the label. Delgado said the launch event for the beer was fun, pointing out that people were asking him to sign their bottles. That, he made sure to point out, had never happened before. But there was a different first Delgado was most excited to experience.

“It was great to be able to hand my dad a bottle of beer with my picture on it,” he said.

Adam Green

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