“I’ve been doodling since I could hold a pencil,” says Sean Marlin McKinney. “The margins of my notes in school growing up all turned into tiny murals.” McKinney, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based bartender and certified cicerone, has found a way to channel that passion for drawing into an artistic project called Beer Heroes. His intricate pen and ink portraits depict people who have helped shape the beer world as we know it—everyone from historical figures like Louis Pasteur to modern industry leaders like Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver. We chatted with McKinney to learn more about his artistic inspiration, his introduction to beer and how he decides who to depict in his drawings.
Imbibe: What first got you interested in beer?
Sean Marlin McKinney: When I first landed a gig behind a bar, it was a sports bar that carried 250 different beers in a bottle. This was around 2006, and North Carolina had just gone through Pop the Cap [which allowed beers above 6 percent to be brewed and sold in the state], so there was a flood of really great brews coming into the state. There’s a term I’ve bumped into in the industry called your “epiphany beer”—the beer that totally changed the game for you. Mine was the Fantôme saison. I’ve learned over the years that it is a highly inconsistent bottle. When it’s bad it’s bad. But when it’s good, it’s enough to make you chase it the rest of your life.
When did you become a certified cicerone?
SMM: I became a second-level certified cicerone last March. It was two to three hours a day of making flash cards and thoroughly and systematically tasting beers for two months. I was helping brew at Trophy whenever they’d let me, attending any beer dinner with an open seat, and disassembling and reassembling keg couplers and draft faucets every night. It was one of the toughest exams I’ve taken, but what an experience! I’ll be doing it all over again in March for the advanced level.
What inspired the Beer Heroes series and how do you choose your heroes?
SMM: Beer Heroes was a late-night drawing session. I’ve been slowly trying to find ways to incorporate my love of beer into my artistic endeavors, and that’s what came out. I’ve also always taken to history, so it seemed like the perfect marriage.
How do you choose your heroes?
SMM: It’s a mix of well-known folks who may not be associated with beer but have made big contributions to the industry. Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing; Louis Pasteur studied yeast and food stability with beer; and Catherine the Great loved big, high-alcohol stouts so much that the exporters of the style named it after her, hence, Russian Imperial Stout. I also include more obscure folks on the historical side like Josef Groll who invented the Pilsner, St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewing, and Trappist monks who have a style category all to themselves now. Then there are modern-day people who have made big contributions like Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin and Tørst fame, Ken Grossman, craft beer’s latest billionaire and founder of Sierra Nevada, and Randy Mosher who is a beer knowledge badass and hell of a designer.
Are there more heroes to come?
SMM: I’ll definitely continue the series in one form or another—there are still so many cool historical and modern characters left to highlight. For now, they’re all black and white, but I’d love to start playing with color. And if I collect enough of them, there could easily be a book in the works. I’m currently selling a small selection of T-shirts and prints on a web shop. I’ve also been toying with the idea of doing a series of modern brewers reimagined as famous hip-hop acts. Can you imagine the Brew-Tang Clan?!