For more than 30 years, Bill Stein spent much of his days drawing the Hamm’s bear.
The North Dakota-born Stein presided over the goofy, portly icon, designing most of the print ads, memorabilia and television commercials of the bear’s Northwoods adventures from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
The animated bear, an avid sportsman and outdoorsman, was commonly shown dancing around in rural Minnesota while the “Land of Sky Blue Waters” jingle played in the background.
The Hamm’s bear was the first of its kind in the beer industry, and Ad Age in 1999 named it the key element of one of the best ad campaigns in the last 100 years.
Stein, a World War II veteran and 1948 graduate of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts (now known as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design), signed on with St. Paul-based Hamm’s Brewing Company in 1954 and immediately took over lead designer duties for the bear.
Now in his mid-90s, Stein lives in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, where he’s still illustrating. Over the past couple of years, he has teamed up with his son-in-law Craig McNamara on a children’s book called “Before the Reindeer.”
Stein sat down recently to talk about his shared history with the Hamm’s bear.
Q: Where did you cut your teeth as an illustrator?
A: I’m a veteran of World War II, and I was in the 9th Air Force in Europe. When people found out that I was artistic, all the pilots wanted me to do a painting for the back of their flight jackets. When I got back to the states, I knew I wanted to study, and at that time it was called the Minneapolis School of Art. And so I wanted to be the best there is, and I guess I came very close to being that.
Q: How did you get involved with Hamm’s Brewing Company?
A: I was hearing about this company that was looking for national markets – the Hamm’s Brewing Company – and that was the beginning of a great, great life for me.
Q: What was your introduction to the Hamm’s bear? Did it have a name?
A: He was Mr. Bear. He didn’t have a name. Somehow the bear was a brown bear, but then we came to the horrific realization that there were no brown bears in Minnesota, so he had to become a black bear.
Q: Were you always interested in drawing wildlife? The Hamm’s bear was always involved in some outdoors capers.
A: I like doing animal life, fishes. You have to be kind of a dreamer to come up with these ideas, and I always looked upon myself as being kind of a perfectionist.
Q: And you drew him over and over and over again.
A: I started with Hamm’s Brewing Co. in 1954, and I drew him so many times that I’m almost a bear myself. Me and that bear were close friends for 30-some years. It feels great. I’m very humbled that I could be a part of something that was so successful. It was just a fantastic ride. It was my whole life.
MillerCoors continues to use the Hamm’s bear on merchandise and on advertising inside bars and restaurants. It also has played a role in the brand’s resurgence; case volume of Hamm’s is up 41.2 percent year-to-date, according to Nielsen all-outlet and convenience data through June 9.