The story behind Rogue’s most iconic beer.
One of the most recognizable faces in craft beer has no eyes, nose or hair. His toothy grimace and crossed arms might seem foreboding, but the Dead Guy has friends all around the world who proudly toast him with clothing, costumes and tattoos.
The iconic character came from humble origins: He was part of the branding for the now-defunct Portland Tex-Mex restaurant Casa U-Betcha.
“We put him on a barrel,” said Penny Muire, Rogue’s original graphic designer responsible for the classic Dead Guy label in 1990. She used a stylized version of the Día de los Muertos-inspired Casa U-Betcha image plus bare-bones clip art to put together the simple image of a cross-armed, beer-clutching skeleton sitting on a cask.
It was a hit.
“It really took off — the packaging was very successful,” said Penny. “Almost immediately, we took it to the shelves.”
Once outside of Casa U-Betcha, the Dead Guy and his beer became popular with a variety of crowds. It became a go-to beer for everything from Halloween to Colorado’s Frozen Dead Guy Days (celebrating a DIY cryogenically preserved man in a shed). It also gained a strong Grateful Dead following thanks in no small part to the tie-dye effect of the original “rainbow run” silkscreened bottles.
Using a silkscreen on bottles wasn’t a common technique at the time, but Rogue started doing it to save money while borrowing Portland Brewing’s bottling line.
Until now, that original silkscreen process is one of the few things that has changed in Dead Guy’s design. For the first few years, every bottle of Dead Guy was unique because of color variations resulting from how the ink was applied.
“It just looked so distinct on the shelves because nobody was doing it,” said Penny.
There haven’t been many changes to the bottle art over the last 25 years. Eventually, 22-ounce bottles switched to a red background instead of rainbow. In the mid-1990s, Dead Guy became available in 12-ounce bottles with paper labels. Since 1996, seasonal bottles and growlers with glow-in-the-dark labels have been released for Halloween.
Last year, Rogue graphic designer Hagen Moore decided the time had finally come to freshen up the Dead Guy’s look.
“I think everybody was ready for a change after so long on that barrel,” he said.
Beginning in March 2016, Hagen led the way in reimagining Dead Guy’s packaging. It was important to him and Rogue to celebrate the essence of the Dead Guy and his storied history.
“There were a number of iterations, but the idea came out pretty quickly,” Hagen said of the design process.
The new Dead Guy label features the same skeleton icon with his beer, but no barrel, scroll or oval. Hagen noted that what people really connected with in the first place was the eye-catching icon, so it made sense to strip away the distractions.
“The idea was to make the Dead Guy icon bigger than life — to have him stand out in a unique way on the bottle,” Hagen said. “It’s not very complicated, not grabbing your attention with big, loud graphics.”
The new design is black, white and silver. Hagen says this makes the Dead Guy both tougher and more elegant, conveying grit and glamour at the same time.
One of the biggest changes to the label — and something that sets the new Dead Guy Ale apart from other craft beer packaging — was removing the beer name and other words from the front.
“He’s such an icon in the beer industry. If someone knows Dead Guy, they know what it is. If they don’t know Dead Guy, they’re probably curious enough to pick it up — it works both ways,” Hagen explained.
This redesign also marks the first time Dead Guy will be available in cans thanks to Rogue’s new canning line. In addition to 22- and 12-ounce bottles, Dead Guy now comes in 12-ounce cans for better portability and stashability.
Longtime fans will be glad to know the beer inside is staying the same: a Maibock-inspired ale that came about when Rogue Brewmaster John Maier brewed a traditional Maibock with what is now Rogue’s signature Pacman yeast.
“The Dead Guy we drink today hasn’t changed in 25 years,” John said.
He is excited that this redesign might bring some more attention to what he describes as a “great, solid beer.”
“You need to look at this beer again and try it. A lot of people haven’t tasted it in 10 years,” John said. “They’ve forgotten about it. This is going to be like, ‘Try it again!’”