If you happened to drive by a bright pink bus covered in brewery logos and bumper stickers in the past several months, you may have wondered what exactly the words “48 Beer Project,” which were painted above the rear window, were all about.
Last fall, Maine-native Heidi Geist started traversing the United States in a converted school bus with the goal of visiting 48 breweries in 48 weeks, creating a new label for a local beer at each stop. “The idea for the 48 Beer Project was conceived as a culmination of a lifelong passion for travel, especially solo, meeting strangers, creating, beer and craft culture at large,” Geist said. “It was mostly, however, a challenge to myself-to push the envelope of art, of my own abilities, to follow through with a great concept, give it life, and share it with people.”
Before boarding the bus, Geist was designing sets for music videos and live productions as well as produced custom artwork, murals, and exhibitions for restaurants in Maine. Geist was around beer, but her drinking experience was limited to domestic lagers. Then, when she took a job at a bottle shop in 2015, and her palate evolved as did her interest in learning about the craft beer scene in general. Later that year, Bissell Brothers approached Geist about designing a label for Diavoletto, a super ale, and Geist began designing beer labels for breweries in the U.S. as well as Costa Rica.
The 48 Beer Project project started in her hometown of Portland, where she received sponsorship from local breweries including Bissell Brothers, in addition Liquid Riot, Boothbay Craft Brewery and the Novare Res Bier Cafe. As she traveled farther from home, Geist turned to customers and local communities for inspiration, occasionally spending several days at a brewery. “Sometimes I plan special events or I sit in on trivia and comedy nights at the breweries,” Geist said. “This allows me to absorb the unique energy of each stop.”
At the end of the night, no matter where Geist was, she would return to the sleeping quarters she built into the 1999 bus that she purchased on Craigslist. The 15-foot vehicle, which was painted pink because, as Geist said, “Pink is a catalyst for curiosity.” It had a white interior, giving it the airy charm you’d expect from a beachside cottage. The artist’s workspace was just big enough to fit her Macbook, and was set up next to an equally quaint kitchen, equipped with not much more than a Coleman cooktop. The bed in the back of the bus was big enough for Geist, her pup, and an assortment of decorative pillows.
The tight quarters were the least of her challenges. Within the first 5,000 miles, she was towed three times. In Arizona she had to stop to crowdfund a new vehicle, a CRV, after the pink bus was beyond repair. To pay homage to her bus, she painted the car pink, orange, and yellow like a sunset and named it Sonni. The car forced Geist to change the trajectory of her project a bit, using Arizona as a homebase and taking road trips to the final breweries on her list.
“Quitting wasn't in the books for this project,” Geist said. “I’ve poured way too much of myself into this to ever consider turning back.”
Geist received a surprising amount of support along the way, which helped her keep going. She has been invited into strangers homes, approached at the laundromat by folks who just want a picture with her, and dozens of people donated to a GoFundMe campaign to keep her dream (and her vehicles) moving.
“The project is as much about the human connection as it is anything else,” Geist said. “My respect for all people, including those whose opinions are so vastly different from my own, has grown tremendously. This is as much a learning experience for myself as it is an opportunity to make art.”
Each collaboration on this particular journey has required a different approach. Some breweries have a clear vision of how they want their new beer to stand out, while others leave that up to Geist offering her only logistics like the name, size of the label, and whether it will appear on a can or bottle. Usually, Geist’s design process begins before the beer has been made, which is where the culture of the brewery comes into play, providing Geist with the design inspiration. Her bright, eye-catching images are all hand-drawn and visually carry a mystical vibe. Skeletons, swirls of the galaxy, and Medusa-esque goddesses have all made an appearance on various labels. Geist’s love for nature is also apparent in several labels, like the lake hugged by pine trees and mountains for Tumbledown Brewing and the iconic scene of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin for Bissell Brother’s Protect and Preserve IPA.
As of May, Geist has visited more than half the breweries on her map, but even when the travel aspect is complete, the 48 Beer Project will not be done. She is already making plans for a tap takeover party with participating breweries and is busy organizing an exhibition that will showcase the work from the tour.
“I have so much to share,” said Geist, who also hinted at writing a book. “About the strangers I met, the kindness I was shown… the hard times, the good times, all of it.”