By Kyle Kirves
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t remember the word SKA! showing up in one of the flashy balloons on the campy old Adam West Batman series during the fist fights between the Caped Crusader and whatever celebrity villain the episode featured that week. (Vincent Price as Egghead, anyone?) But that’s ok. The brewers at Ska Brewing in Durango, would rather write their own superhero stories anyway. And their tale starts with a mystical, nearly forgotten tome left to gather dust on bookshelves wherein secret spells were outlined in great detail – perhaps something worthy of Doctor Strange or Harry Potter.
I’m not kidding.
“In 1985, we found this book in my dad’s living room called the Brew Book,” says Dave Thibodeau, co-owner/founder of Ska Brewing. “It turns out that my dad had been homebrewing since 1969 and it contained all of his log sheets and recipes through to 1980.”
To Dave and fellow co-owner and founder Bill Graham, the book was a revelation. Self-described as “punk kids into ska music and staying out late,” Dave and Bill suggest the book called out to them, inviting the kinds of curiosity and experimentation that might appeal to troublemaking kids – errrr, make that enterprising youths.
“We weren’t old enough to buy beer in 1985, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t make it. Everything we needed we either had in-house or, like in the case of malt extract, we could get at King Soopers.”
Ok, so maybe the book wasn’t a book of spells, per se, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t magic. In short order, our heroes were making up their own recipes and batches of homebrewed beer. That’s when the rituals began. “Every time we brewed something together, we had to listen to ska music,” says Dave. “Then drink the previous batch of whatever we’d made.”
Not content to just brew, the two used an old Apple Macintosh computer and printer to create basic black-and-white logos for their bottles – a notion that actually lends itself very well to ska music, as it turns out. Black-and-white logos were prominent in the British ska subculture known as “two-tone.”
“The labels were pretty simple,” Dave said. “This was in the days before sophisticated home technology. We’d put something into a word processor and tag it with ‘Brewed and Bottled by Ska Brewing Company. Dave’s Kitchen. Denver, Colorado.”
Fast forward a few years to 1995, a time which may ultimately be remembered as the Golden Age of Colorado Craft Brewing. Thibodeau and Graham, now experienced, lifelong lovers of the homebrew scene, and fellow co-founder Matt Vincent, decide to look into opening their own full-scale brewery. A lightbulb went off.
Wait. Scratch that. Lightbulb went off? Let’s go with “on a foggy night the Commissioner flashed a Beer Signal in the sky.”
“We knew we wanted to open a brewery. But we weren’t quite sure what to call it. We thought about local Durango names – Animas River, that kind of thing. And at the time it was kind of big to name beers after dogs,” Dave relates. “But the jinx factor was just too high for us to move away from the established ritual.”
Ska Brewing Co., it seems, would stick. “The college kids in Durango got it, but the name kind of made other older locals scratch their heads,” Dave says, then adds with a laugh. “They didn’t know what Ska meant. So we told ‘em Ska stood for ‘Shit Kickin’ Ales.”
So even though the name did not change, Dave, Bill, and Matt did recognize that they would need more sophisticated branding than what they could print off of a “Stranger Things” era printer. Enter their second (or is it third?) love: comic books.
“In the beginning, we wrote a comic book,” Dave says. “It took us nearly twenty years to publish it, but it was there. The characters on our flagship beers all come from that story. After all, it takes great characters to make
The comic book, lightly drawn in black-and-white is a tribute to their “origin story.” In the pages of “Tales of the Legion of Ska - Issue 1,” the three owners take the battle to global beer conglomerate, Rotgutzen. The skeleton in a Quentin Tarantino suit you see strutting off the label of Modus Hoperandi? That’s Pinstripe, CEO and chief Global Domination Officer at Rotgutzen. The betty on True Blonde? That’s Lana, the ass-kicking corporate secretary and metaphorical Swiss Army knife at Ska. But fans already know them well. The suited skull and the bodacious blonde dancing together on a duochrome dancefloor remains an iconic and popular image for Ska.
One size doesn’t fit all with branding beer, though. With the advent of the Mod line of ales, Ska chose to incorporate another iconic image, the scooter culture of Mod England, into its labels. The new look is thematically similar to the motifs of their other lines and ska culture, generally. In short, it works. Look for that imagery on the new Grapefruit Lager, Rue B. Soho.
All of the beers, though, still carry the signature black-and-white checkerboard logo from way back, a tribute to how far Ska has come, sure, but also as a sincere tribute to the music that meant so much to young Dave and Bill. “That music was fun. It was a mostly positive message and mostly meant for working class kids,” Dave says. “It promoted unity – black AND white, right? – and it just ties everything together.”
Unlike the old Batman show, it seems that the story of the comic book heroes at Ska will never stop with “THE END?” So, with apologies to pioneering ska band Bad Manners, this writer will just “Lip Up!”
Kyle Kirves is a solid dude who believes drinking beer should be a five-senses experience.