A sign of the very good times

Yes, Alan Bloom admits, the 2009 downturn might have inspired him to enjoy a bit more craft beer than he had in the past. More than a tasty salve, though, the stuff also proved to be his firm’s salvation.

“Craft brewing is what kept my company alive last year,” Bloom said. So is he in the bottling business? Bar owner? Grain supplier?

No, he’s in the sign business. Louisville-based Zeon started out 30 years ago primarily manufacturing LED signs – back then they were those simple strips of red dots you’d see scrolling a message at a bank. Now his company’s work approaches the level of art, and Zeon is clearly a darling of the craft brewing world – in Colorado and elsewhere.

Zeon’s client list is a who’s who of Colorado brewers: Odell, Great Divide, Wynkoop, Avery, Oskar Blues, Boulder Beer, Left Hand, Breckenridge. Coors worked with Zeon on projects in the past, including an elaborate series of ski lodge-inspired pole signs crafted from beetle-kill pine. New Belgium has tapped Zeon for over a decade now, the longest stint of any of Bloom’s clients. The Fort Collins brewer even sells one of its Zeon commissions – the iconic neon Fat Tire bicycle sign – at the New Belgium website: The warm glow goes for a cool $350.

Beyond our borders, Zeon counts Boston Beer (Samuel Adams), Deschutes, North Coast, Lost Coast and Firestone among its craft beer clients. One of the company’s most striking creations is a recent work for Delaware’s Dogfish Head, known nationally for its extreme approach to unusual beers and for its founder, Sam Calagione, a rock star of the beer world who next year is set to host his own Discovery Channel series. His request: a steampunk bar clock.

“My first question was, what the hell is steampunk?” Bloom said with a laugh. “That was all the direction we got from them.”

After some research gave Zeon’s creative people a sense of the desired brass-and-copper, industrial age flair, Bloom’s team came up with a piece that’s all metal and gears, a Rube Goldberg-looking thing that incorporates the Dogfish Head logo and a dial with numerical nods to the brewer’s signature 60, 90 and 120 Minute IPAs. (Like New Belgium, Dogfish Head sells these time-keeping beauties via the web, too.)

Zeon’s staff of 15 manages some manufacturing in the Louisville shop, but high-volume orders are sent to China. Though Zeon can do as few as one piece per order, 25 tends to be the practical minimum, with a ceiling of several thousand pieces. Craft brewers typically order between 100 and 500 pieces, with a cost to the client of $50 to $350 each.

Permanent point-of-sale signs for walls of liquor stores and behind bars are Zeon’s specialty. Like the name implies, neon is a major component of the company’s work, but LED lighting – increasingly in favor because of its energy efficiency – also is key. When New Belgium requested a logo sign that used sustainable, recycled materials with a minimum amount of plastic, Zeon delivered a trend-setting piece made from bamboo, aluminum and LEDs.

“What we can tell these craft brewers is, ‘We design and build signs that are as unique as your beer,'” Bloom said. “Our challenge is that they’re not looking for ‘me, too’ stuff.”
Zeon does a lot more than just beer signs – other clients sell furniture, mattresses, sporting goods, clothing – even pet food. Restaurant franchises – including Colorado’s Quiznos – also are major clients. But craft brewers accounted for about 70 percent of Zeon’s total revenue over the past year, and they’re a big reason why overall revenue at the company is up 62 percent over last year.

“The craft brewers know us, and they give us great license,” Bloom said. “They have an open mind about what we can do. We can create real art for signage.”

Sounds good: For the first time, the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival will serve its own house beer. Festival bosses recently attended Sierra Nevada Brew Camp in Chico, Calif.; the recipe they come up with will be among the 150 brews at the fest’s grand tasting. For details on the Sept. 17-19 event, including concert and ticket information, go to www.tellurideblues.com.
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