City Built Brewing Co. came out like a lion in March when USA Today published its 10Best Readers Choice Awards for 2021. The Grand Rapids-based brewery known for its experimental, funky brews and Puerto Rican-inspired cuisine won Best Beer Label for Prague Underground Czech Pilsner.
City Built Brewing also won third place for Best Brew Pub 2021, coming in behind HOMES Brewery in Ann Arbor and The Brewery LBK in Lubbock, Texas.
The notoriety from Best Beer Label drove up sales of Prague Underground, which is good news for City Built Brewing and owner Edwin Collazo, because it’s a beer his team is excited to continue brewing. Depending on tank space, Prague Underground will be brewed two or three times a year, he said.
The iconic Bohemian lion emblazoned on the can is reflective of a lot of strategic changes over the past year. Late in 2019, the brewery made changes to its brew team, and in early 2020, the brewery made specific changes about what it was going to brew, how it was going to brew and how it was going to package beer. All of this, of course, was being decided before City Built knew it was walking into a pandemic.
“What COVID did was just fast-forward our idea,” Collazo said. “We were having a hard time making the beers that people did want fast enough, so we took a bunch of beers we were making and stopped making them, and we were able to focus on this new brand of beer.”
The COVID-19 pandemic led to more sales of packaged beer, so to spice-up the can labels, City Built tapped on the shoulders of local artists Elliot Chaltry and Kyle DeGroff.
“We seemed to be attuned to the same things as far as our place in the community, so it was an instant match,” Collazo said.
The first project DeGroff did for City Built was the labels for a new stout series based on different boil times.
“For us, we were just trying to learn about different boil times,” Collazo said. “So, we did three, six, 12 and 24 (hours) … when Kyle came back with his art, the thing that drove the idea for the art became the branding for the beer. Every time we get art from him, he tells us why he drew it.”
DeGroff ended up creating art based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, where the subsequent number is an addition of the last two numbers. The art in turn influenced the boil times, so the brew team changed the boil times to three, five, 13 and 21 hours.
“Boiling a beer for 21 hours is cool, but I think you can achieve a lot of the same things in six,” Collazo said in hindsight.
Because the state executive orders at the beginning of the pandemic meant City Built wasn’t serving customers in its taproom, the brew team ended up pumping out brand after brand, leaving DeGroff to pass some of the work onto Chaltry, who would be the artist behind the Prague Underground cans.
City Built’s Prague Underground is an herbal, spicy take on the classic Pilsner, a beer style that originated in what is now the Czech Republic. Chaltry began doing research on Prague and the Czech Republic to develop imagery that would pay homage to the Pilsner’s origins.
The lion on Prague Underground’s cans comes from the heraldic lion featured on the coat of arms for the former Kingdom of Bohemia, now the modern-day Czech Republic.
In 2020, DeGroff and Chaltry collectively did 17 different art projects for City Built Brewing. Good art comes with a steep price tag, though. With all the projects the two artists had done for City Built over the last year, the company was looking for ways to offset the cost.
Collazo contacted Middleton Printing, which the brewery utilizes to print its beer labels, to print a coffee table book featuring the can art of DeGroff and Chaltry and telling the story of City Built’s challenges and triumphs over the past two years.
“My goal is to print that book and have it available for sale on Black Friday,” Collazo said. “You could come in, pre-order it as a Christmas gift, and then we’d send it. We want to make it a big deal.”
Collazo said the lion is here to stay, and it already made a second appearance on another beer. Krewe de Rex is a roasty, dark Czech Lager, featuring a black, horned version of the lion on its cans. Collazo said the plan is to seasonally rotate Krewe for the fall and winter and Prague for the spring and summer.
Chaltry’s Bohemian lion also can be seen on City Built glassware, hoodies and t-shirts on sale at its taproom. The brewery also plans to feature it and other iconic faces on the cement barriers dividing its outdoor seating space from Monroe Avenue.