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Brian Kellett Has an Eye for Beautiful Beer

March 22, 2017

By Sarah Freeman, March 22, 2017

Rockmill Brewery’s Cask Aged Triple is more than your a typical Belgian beer. It has all the spice and dried fruit flavors one would expect from the genre, but it's also full of oak and smoke from time spent in local whiskey barrels.

Its bottle is just as striking. Capped with a cork-and-cage enclosure, the thick glass is adorned with the dark image of a metal horse on charred wood. They say you eat with your eyes first, but this beer suggests you drink with them too. The red-orange edges of the silhouette and woodgrain appear hot to the touch – maybe it smells like ash and burnt sugar – but this image was taken six-years-ago by Brian Kellett, the 31-year-old designer and photographer responsible for the Ohio brewery’s aesthetic.  

“I don’t know why I had it, but I had a metal cutout of the horse,” Kellett recalls, over pints at East Street Café in Columbus, Ohio. The horse, of course, is Rockmill’s logo, which was created by the brewery’s original designer Aaron Leu.

“I hadn’t even tried the beer," admitted Kellett. "I just knew the story and met the guys from Middle West Spirits. Conceptually, I was thinking about how to include the horse and the story of these smoked whiskey barrels. How can I bring these all together in one image? So, I ended up taking this piece of metal, held it down and burned around that. And then I was going to photograph that without the piece of metal. I ended up keeping the metal, took a photo, and that was it. That’s the first label.”

It may have been his first label, but it was far from the last. While Rockmill’s beers don’t drift far from their Belgian-inspired center, the style on their labels traverses the globe, inspired by anything from American photography to French paintings.

When it comes to each label’s unique look – before Kellett came on board, beers were marked with the same image of horse in a field, printed in different colors – Kellett lets the story of the beer speak to the aesthetic. Upon hearing the description of Saison Super, an intense farmhouse ale, Kellett saw the image of Jean-Francois Millet’s painting “The Sower.”

It, with the absence of any text or graphics, is the label and is one of several fine-art-inspired bottles that sit on the shelf like they should sit in a gallery. Kellett’s design process, however, does not stop at inception.

“I took photos, would buy wine and beers and line them up. Look at them in low light; look at them in bright light. Look at them across the room; look at them close up,” Kellett recalls. “This is how obsessive I was, I would take a photo of the beer section and Photoshop the labels on the shelf.”

With other labels, he'd take a more literal approach. They Ran in the Fields, a rye saison, reminded Kellett of trips to a wheat-covered hill south of Rockmill’s brewery and tasting room in Lancaster. The label captures those same stalks of wheat. Saison Noir, a rich saison that pours black as tar, pays tribute to the original label design. However, Kellett altered the color palette so the horse appears to glow golden and the background looks like a stormy night sky.

The thoughtfulness of the labels reflects their corresponding beers. Founded in 2010, Rockmill is the passion project of Matthew Barbee, with the help of his mother Judy Jones. The brewery is built into the stables of a 1870s horse farm. It sits on the crest of a hill overlooking a sprawling field and still pond. The tasting room occupies the former farmhouse. It’s filled with lofts and alcoves, fireplaces and leather furniture perfect for curling up with a snifter of saison.

Kellett and Barbee met at a party for the brewery, shortly after its opening. The former was completing his MFA in Photography from the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California and the latter was finishing the aforementioned tasting room. “I came across a series of his work that told a story,” Barbee says. “Shortly thereafter, he helped with a project at the brewery and I knew he was the artist to tell the story of our brand.”

At that time, Rockmill’s beers were all organic, brewed with whole-cone hops and served in Reidel stemware. The beers were sexy; the website was not so much. “It sucked,” according to Kellett. After graduating, Kellett moved back to Ohio to not only overhaul Rockmill’s website, but also come on board as its designer. “Barbee knows how to choose the right people to do the right thing,” Kellett says, referring to Barbee’s background as a talent scout in Los Angeles. “Over the course of the last six-and-a-half years, Barbee always values and listens to my opinions in a way that his taste doesn’t hamper my ability to try different things.”

Graphic design isn’t the only way Kellett leaves his mark on Rockmill. He and his father, a drafting design teacher, fabricated the furniture in the tasting room, from the reclaimed wood bar to the custom steel stools.

Rockmill BreweryKellet's woodworking in action.

Several years later, Kellett’s vision for a wood-paneled escape in the heart of Columbus – about thirty minutes away from the brewery – became the interior for recently opened Rockmill Tavern. A grueling eight-month build-out transformed part of the historic Worley Plumbing Building, which, coincidentally, also once housed horses, into a multi-level restaurant and bar.

“I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t go out to eat without measuring things to figure out how people moved within a space,” Kellett says while reminiscing, perhaps not nostalgically, about the stress-filled months leading up to the October opening. His commitment paid off in the form of a reclaimed barn wood-paneled tavern named the Best New Restaurant of the Year by Columbus Underground.

Guests are greeted by an oversized version of the same metal horse that adorns every bottle of Cask Aged Triple. Other highlights of the space include a living wall made of hundreds of individual plants, glass-encased foeder and a damn tasty spicy chicken sandwich. If the devil is in the details, then Rockmill Tavern is Satan’s beer-snob uncle.

The living wall was no happy accident. When he’s not acting as Rockmill’s keen eye, Kellett is co-owner of STUMP – Columbus’ one-stop-shop for all your succulent, air plant and cacti needs – with his girlfriend Emily Brown. The couple’s first airy plant shop opened in 2015 and their second opened in February of this year.

Sarah FreemanKellett, in his element: succulents, air plants, and a bottle of something on a fine wooden table.

He also teaches racecar driving for the National Auto Sports Association and races in time trials around the country – a modified BMW 3 Series is his vehicle of choice. Modified because he is paralyzed from the waist down. A bike accident in 2003 took away his ability to use his legs and also access his family’s basement darkroom.

“When I hurt myself, I went from film to digital. In grad school, I went from digital back to film,” Kellett says. “I learned a lot about letting things happen and not being in control. Digital teaches you to control everything and film teaches you to let go of everything.”

Like he did with the label of Cask Aged Noir – a frame filled with orbs of yellow and white, the visual effect that happens when photographing lights at night – Kellett finds beauty and simplicity in the the chaos of his, ahem, driven lifestyle. So, don’t think that, after successfully opening two businesses in the past year, he’s going to sit back with a glass of Rugged Expanse – Rockmill’s stout and one of Kellett’s favorite beers – and let his life slow down.

Next is yet another venture with Brown called Rugged Modern. It will take advantage of his stepfather’s machine shop to produce custom screws for architects and woodworkers, providing a design-forward alternative to conventional screws. The storefront will also showcase furniture, probably a plant or two and maybe, if you look closely, a beer.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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