I recently found myself at Pittsburgh’s East End Brewing, drinking a cold IPA and staring deep into Christopher Walken’s frigid, unflinching eyes. His black-and-white headshot was an ominous presence in an otherwise bright taproom, the photograph taped to a stainless steel door.
“That’s our walk-in cooler,” says East End founder Scott Smith, speaking of the refrigerated room typically used for storing beer. Clad with the actor’s likeness, it’s jokingly been branded a “Walken cooler,” a nod to a familiar pun that’s spread across the brewing industry.
No one’s quite certain when breweries—plus bars and restaurants, too—started turning the utilitarian storage room’s door into a makeshift shrine to cultish actor Christopher Walken. Nonetheless, Walken is tailor-fit for this role. Beloved for adding oddball gravitas to movies ranging from Annie Hall to Joe Dirt, plus craving more cowbell in that famous Saturday Night Live sketch, Walken is a fitting icon for an often anti-mainstream industry.
“Our industry has a history of quirkiness,” Smith tells me later via phone. “Not to mention, is there anyone in this industry that does not have at least one beer that is a horrible pun? It’s in our DNA.”
East End first had the Walken idea around four years ago, when the cooler was doubling as a local CSA’s drop spot. Noticing that members tended to leave the door ajar, Smith decided to draw attention to it with the photo of Walken. “The picture has probably been up about four years, almost as long as the cooler has been up,” Smith says, noting the walk-in is the perfect place for the actor. “It’s utilitarian and cold—literally, which is not an entirely inappropriate description for Christopher Walken.”
Brewer Neil Burton first discovered the meme in 2011 during a visit to the Pisgah Brewing near Asheville, North Carolina. Its sticker-covered cooler featured a picture of the actor uttering, “I threw up,” a reference to that SNL sketch. When Burton opened Richmond, Virginia’s Strangeways Brewing a few years later, he likewise affixed Walken’s face on the cooler door beside a sticker reading, “I’ve got a fever and the prescription is more cowbell.”
At Rahr & Sons brewing Company in Fort Worth, Texas, the Walken cooler “let’s people know that we have fun,” says social media manager Alyssa Redd. “We’re just not thinking about beer all the time.” Redd adds that the cooler has become a popular Instagram backdrop at the brewery. “It has that little bit of pop culture that people are looking for when they’ve had a few.”
Why stop at a single Walken image? Craig Kinley, the owner and founder of South Carolina’s Growler Haus, a craft beer bar chain, features oversize custom stickers of Walken’s face at three of his four locations. For Kinley, the decals serve as a conversational spark. “We like to get to know what we call our ‘beer tribe,’” he says. “A lot of people will say, ‘Hey, I know that guy from somewhere. Where’s he from?’ You’ll say, Christopher Walken, and that’s our walk-in cooler. It’s a joke conversation piece.”
It took Jeremy Tofte some time to get the gag. The Melvin Brewing co-founder was visiting his buddies at Washington’s Farmstrong Brewing Co. when he spotted the actor’s photo. “I kept thinking, Why is there a photocopy of Christopher Walken? Once I got it, it made me laugh so hard,” Tofte says. To decorate his Alpine, Wyoming, production brewery (it opened in late 2015), Melvin cut a deal with the taproom mural artist. “We said, ‘We’ll give you the job if you can paint Christopher Walken on the walk-in cooler.’ It looks just like him.”
Melvin’s tour guides point out the painting, then let attendees guess what the structure is called. “It cracks us up,” says Tofte, “and it cracks everyone else up.”