Val Ruby-Omen and Alex Dakoulas of Strange Ways and Armada Brewing Founder John Kraszewski. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
Cold, berry-kissed pours of Queer Occult flowed across 190 River St., drawing smiles and raised glasses on the first sip. Vendors laid out earrings, pins, patches, and stickers, beaming as a sea of new and familiar faces came to check out their wares. Friends posed with miniature rainbow flags and perused the bright artwork around them, in no particular rush to get anywhere.
There were no aliens. There was no devil worshiping. And despite the clouds and unexpected chill, the mood remained buoyant and warm.
That was the scene Saturday afternoon, as Strange Ways paired up with Armada Brewing for the release of Queer Occult, a new, pink-red fruited sour that is now available at the 190 River St. brewery. A celebration of queer art and artists, the event included an LGBTQ+ vendor fair with over a dozen shops and social service organizations, as well as buzzing conversation and a chance to fête Pride Month in New Haven.
The event marked the first weekend of National Pride Month, which runs June 1 through the 30. It is the first of five Pride Month events that Strange Ways is hosting this month, from a queer mixer in the store to an open mic night for people with social anxiety. All of those events are on the store's social media. It also marks a break from tradition: New Haven often reserves its celebrations for September, while the rest of the country rings in Pride Month in June.
Top: Neon Forest Design by Alvarado Luis (@neon_forest_design on Instagram). Bottom: Representatives of A Place to Nourish Your Health (APNH), formerly AIDS Project New Haven. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
"I'm so passionate about art, and being queer, and the Connecticut queer community, especially New Haven. It's really a wonderful community," said artist Val Ruby-Omen, who works at Strange Ways and designed the bright, eye-catching can for Queer Occult. "We want people to feel included. We want people to feel like they have a place to express themselves as queer people without feeling like they have to fit into a box."
"New Haven kind of skips out on doing Pride in like, the month that it's supposed to be happening," Armada Founder John Kraszewski said, referencing the fact that New Haven often celebrates Pride in September. "So we said, we're just going to throw our own Pride thing. Why the heck not? Why not celebrate it when it's supposed to be celebrated, and why put it off? It doesn't make sense that we skip out on that."
As they buzzed around the space, both Strange Ways founder Alex Dakoulas and Kraszewski praised the collaboration as one they hope to grow in the coming year—perhaps at Halloween, Dakoulas hinted. The beer is a fruited sour, brewed with blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. It comes out of the can in a color that hangs between garnet and watermelon, with a tidy, fizzing line of white foam across the top.
Top: Work from artist Finn Lockwood, who runs The Strangest Places (@thestrangestplaces) and is Ruby-Omen's sibling. Bottom: Val Ruby-Omen's design for Queer Occult, which uses humor to address harmful stereotypes. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
The can, which Ruby-Omen designed, shows dozens of satanic worshippers in a wooded clearing, some in leather and bondage, waving rainbow flags as ghosts rise against the thick pine trees in the background. At the center of the group, a figure (Dakoulas joked that it was him) spreads his arms out to his sides as a rainbow-colored beam of light lifts him off the ground.
Saturday, Ruby-Omen said it is meant to address the most outlandish, misleading and incorrect stereotypes of LGBTQ+ community members that she's heard this year, from a constant and pervasive othering to the (erroneous) belief that queer people worship the devil and the occult more broadly. As states increasingly mount attacks against queer people, and particularly trans youth seeking gender-affirming care, the work strikes a chord, using Ruby-Omen’s sleek style and cheeky humor as a balm.
"I feel like there's a lot of talk now, with like, 'Oh, they're satan worshippers. They're heathens. They're this. They're that,'" Ruby-Omen said. "We kind of took all of those things and were like, 'All right. Sure. That's what you think we are? Here you go. Happy Pride Month.' It's kind of reclaiming all those things that people try to levy against us, and just kind of celebrating the uniqueness of our community."
Top: Makers from Joan of Art (@joanofArtShoppe on Instagram). Bottom: Art from Chasing Westphalia (@chasingwestphalia). Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
Dakoulas said that he’s thrilled with the collaboration, which came out of a queer mixer that Strange Ways hosted in February at its 151 Orange St. store in downtown New Haven. At the time, "I wanted there to be beer and I wanted it to be local," Dakoulas remembered with a laugh, noting that he keeps it local whenever he can. He reached out to Kraszewski, who was happy to oblige—and let him know that he also had a very soft spot for the store.
It was the beginning of Queer Occult, although neither knew it just then. In March, Kraszewski reached back out with the idea of working on a beer together in time for Pride Month. Dakoulas was initially cautious—Armada isn’t queer-owned, and Dakoulas is no stranger to rainbow capitalism—but open to the idea. He pushed Kraszewski to think about a beer, but on Strange Ways' terms.
For him, that meant a brew that embraced the store’s quirky, weird, and sometimes macabre personality. He also wanted something that he would want to drink. A fruited sour fit the bill.
“He [Kraszewski] was very open, he was a really good ally,” Dakoulas said. “It was like—can we make this weird? Can we make this strange? And he was so for it. Which is very refreshing. You don’t want to water down our message. You don’t want to water down Pride. It’s like, we want to speak for ourselves … it felt very freeing, actually.”
Top: Rainbow Resin Qweens Savannah 'n Melissa (@RainbowResinQueens). Bottom: Queerly Departed (@queerlydeparted on Instagram). Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
Across the fair, vendors from Wrap Artists Gems, Your Queer Plant Shop, Hanfran Art and over 10 others set out their work, which ranged from delicate earrings to snarky patches. At a table for Queerly Departed, co-owners Andy Mincey and Jack Walters (Mortimer Darcy is also a co-owner, but was not present at the time of the interview) showed off the shop’s pins and patches, including a pronoun-themed pin shaped like a cartoon ghost.
“It’s really great to have a Pride event that’s all queer artists, as opposed to like, there being like banks, or like corporations who are trying to get in on Pride,” Walters said. Both added that it’s a joy to continue collaborating with Strange Ways, which they have done for years.
At her booth, F.E.M. Shop’s Heather Wiik said she was thrilled to see the hoppy, literally bright collaboration between two small New Haven businesses—and the support of queer artists that they welcomed during the kickoff for the beer. F.E.M. Shop is a women-owned, queer-owned sex shop that seeks to take back sex positivity for women and nonbinary folks. Wiik joked that she would do the event again without hesitation—as long as the free beer remains part of it.
“I love that New Haven has such a strong queer small business community where everyone knows each other,” she said. “It was fun to talk with the brewers. With so many makers, it’s like alchemy. It’s magic when you can take all these things and make a product for the community.”
Top: F.E.M. Shop’s Heather Wiik. Bottom: Armada Founder John Kraszewski and Elm City Games' Matt Fantastic. Linda-Cristal Young Photos.
Strange Ways will host four more events for Pride Month, all at its 151 Orange St. storefront in New Haven’s Ninth Square neighborhood. They include a queer mixer on Thursday June 8 from 7 to 9 p.m.; a market with queer crafters of color on June 17 from 1 to 5 p.m.; a “Drag & Draw” on June 24 at 2 p.m.; and a “Queer & Quiet” open mic night on Thursday June 29 from 6 to 8 p.m. More information is available on their Facebook and Instagram pages.