Heidi Geist doesn’t have what people would typically refer to as a home base. This has always been true.
As a kid, her family bounced across the American West. When she finally landed in Maine as an adult, she found herself seeking a new horizon about once a year.
“I’m not attached to anything,” she says over beers at Trillium Brewing Co. “I don’t develop attachments. Relationships, yes, to people and places, but not attachments. I find it claustrophobic. I tend to panic if I’m in one place too long.”
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Geist calls herself her “own home base,” but she also has an appendage in an 18-foot, solar-powered, repurposed school bus. For the next year, Geist will travel across the country, living in the bus while she visits breweries and designs labels for them (Geist, an artist, has created beer labels for American and international breweries).
The adventure is called the 48 Beer Project, and it comes with its own Instagram (@48beerproject) and hashtag (#48beerproject). Future collaborators include Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis, Lexington’s Against the Grain, and Jackie O’s in Athens, Ohio.
“It’s a really fresh idea, and I think that’s so important these days, in a beer world that gets more homogenous every year,” Peter Bissell says. Bissell Brewing Co. has commissioned a number of labels from Geist and is now one of the sponsors of the 48 Beer Project.
The project is a perfect marriage of Geist’s itinerant roots and adult profession. It’s about counteracting the negativity Geist sees in the beer world, and connecting with strangers, like-minded and not. She wants to foster far-flung beer community, be it through art, personality, or some combination thereof.
Can one person change the dialogue of an entire industry? Probably not. But 48 beers just might.
Geist, 38, was admittedly “slow to beer,” as she historically associated the industry with generic macro lagers and mass marketing geared toward a different demographic. She credits Dogfish Head, Founders, and Saison Dupont with turning her on to craft beer, calling them “a big leap” for her palate. Eventually, she found herself working at a small Maine beer store.
“I made it a goal to learn beer and talk its language,” she says. “I started drinking good Belgian beers, and tried and true German beers. Around that time I started doing beer labels.”
Bissell found Geist on Instagram in 2015. An artist himself, he appreciated Geist’s work, and wanted to integrate her into the Bissell Brother’s brand. Her first label for the brewery was Diavoletto, an American pale ale, the label of which is an intricate, geometric image.
“The first drawing of hers I saw was a bio-mechanical type piece depicting a skull fused with a boombox,” Bissell says. “I was struck by how original the style was, and also immediately thought it would integrate well with our brand. I design many of our packages and other media we put out into the world, but I definitely can’t draw, and had been looking to factor hand-draw-and-painted aesthetic into our brand for a while.”
Geist has since created almost a dozen labels for Bissell. Those creations brought her recognition within the industry, and her work has also appeared on cans and bottles at places like J. Wakefield in Florida and Fieldwork in California.
“What’s great is that the artwork is being seen by thousands of people,” Geist says. “It’s literally in their hands.”
The 48 Beer Project’s promotional material states: “Consuming massive amounts of art and culture may lead to impaired ignorance, changes in perspective, or strengthened and enhanced relationships. Participate responsibly.”
Bissell sees the adventure as possibly uplifting the craft beer industry. Other sponsors include the world-renowned beer bar Novare Res in Portland, Me., plus Portland brewpub Liquid Riot, and Willamette Valley Hops.
“I think her goal of traveling the country making connections based solely on the art of beer packaging will lead to some really great things,” he says.
“So much of the beer world has been super negative,” Geist says. She believes that brewers, many of whom launched their breweries as a “passion project,” have gotten detached from the people who consume their products — not by choice, but because of the demands of the job. It’s not like a food truck, she says, where “the guy who cooks is the same guy who hands you the food” with well-earned gratitude.
“I hope people can see this and remember that it’s not just beer,” she says. “It’s a culture. It’s a new culture compared to what they have overseas, but we can dictate where it goes.”
The 48 Beer Project is already underway. The farthest mileage-wise from Portland she’ll get, incredibly, is Portland, Ore., where she will visit Great Notion. The project will conclude in September of 2019 at Northwoods Brewing in New Hampshire, a brewery that hasn’t even opened yet.
The first label Geist designed for the project was, appropriately, the re-release of Odyssey, Allagash Brewery’s dark wheat ale aged in oak barrels. She held her 48 Beer Project send-off at Allagash’s Portland, Me., facility at the beginning of September.
Her second stop, a couple weeks after departing Portland, was at Foam Brewers in Burlington, Vt. The brewery let her park her bus for five days in its parking lot, the sun setting over Lake Champlain her night light. After designing a label at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.’s Plan Bee, owners Evan and Emily Watson sent her off with a homemade breakfast.
Along the way, Geist hopes to jump into a brew day. She plans to incorporate blogging, photography, interviews, and social media into the 48 Beer Project, too. She hopes to write about any interesting person or conversation she has while meeting beer drinkers and designing labels.
“It’s not just wanting to do stuff for myself,” she says. “It’s me wanting to elevate myself as a person and try to offer the same to other people in whatever way possible: learning from one another and putting ourselves in positions where we’re uncomfortable and unfamiliar, so that we can grow as humans.”
Geist believes that traveling alone across the country as a woman is going to promote dialogue more than dissent.
“I spent my whole life traveling,” she says. “I’ve spent time hitchhiking. I’ve met all these people and I’ve taken rides with them. Some of the people that are Trump supporters, sexist, whatever, are the same ones who have picked me up and given me a ride when I needed it then handed me 20 bucks and wished me good luck … Having conversations [with people you disagree with] is what elevates us as humans.
“It doesn’t matter how educated you are. If you’re not interacting then you’re not doing anything better than anyone else,” she adds. “If you can listen and be kind without being judgmental, that might break them down a little bit over time.”
The bus is hard not to notice in the parking lot of a suburban brewery outside Boston. It’s pink and adorned with stickers from breweries she’s visited, and the back window is decorated with a black-and-white image of Geist peering out.
On the inside, it’s a makeshift home/art studio, with industrial shelves and cabinets. There are pictures of people she knows and Mr. Rogers magnets. There’s a small refrigerator. There may or may not be a gun that may or may not work.
Even this early in the trip, Geist has already become a bit of a celebrity in craft beer circles. Fans approach her with beer or just to talk, sometimes apprehensively, she says. She finds this puzzling, saying she doesn’t see why anyone would be nervous to approach her.
“I’m just a weird artist with a dirty bus,” she says.