The Art of the Keeper: Seattle Sounder Stefan Frei Partners with Novo Fogo Cachaca

Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei with Novo Fogo cachaça []
Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei and Novo Fogo Silver Cachaça. [Novo Fogo]
Conservation has long been at the heart of Seattle’s Novo Fogo cachaça, from carbon-negative business practices to zero-waste distillery initiatives. Since the company’s launch in 2010, owner Dragos Axinte has prioritized support of the Brazilian jungle where the spirit is distilled by enacting programs to help repopulate tree growth in the face of country-wide deforestation. With Novo Fogo’s Un-Endangered Forest project, Axinte and his team have worked over the last decade to raise funds to move thirty-six species of native Brazilian trees off the threatened list.

“Many companies in our industry claim to be sustainable, few really are,” Axinte shared with Forbes in 2018. “Most of them float at different levels than they imagine. We see a lot of superficial attempts at sustainability, which often go only as deeply as needed to create marketing claims and packaging bullet points. Unfortunately for the audience, sustainability claims are difficult to verify due to a lack of standards and accreditation processes, especially when the spirit is produced in faraway lands.”

Novo Fogo’s latest efforts include the introduction of the Tree-Keeper initiative. In partnership with one of Seattle’s top athletes, Seattle Sounders goalkeeper, Stefan Frei, Novo Fogo will donate $100 to the Un-Endangered Forest project for each save made by Frei and his goalkeeping counterparts. The company says the initiative will continue through the 2021 professional soccer season and onward, with plans to incorporate additional athletes and personalities.

Frei’s participation with the brand, however, goes beyond his trademark soccer saves. The accomplished keeper launched his own line of artwork in 2017 and was invited to help develop the packaging of two Novo Fogo products released earlier this year. Both the Brazilian Caipirinha Kit and the Sparkling Caipirinha Variety 6-pack feature designs created by Frei, with artistic references to his love of soccer and the Pacific Northwest.

I spoke with Stefan Frei recently about his work with Novo Fogo.

Stefan Frei wearing a Novo Fogo shirt
Stefan Frei, the Tree-Keeper. [Novo Fogo]
Q: How did you get involved with the Tree-Keeper initiative?

A: The first time I met Dragos was when my wife and I moved here from Toronto in 2013. We lived in Belltown and went to a bar to get a drink and Dragos was there and had his Novo Fogo brand out. Caipirinhas were quite popular back when I was in Switzerland, and I enjoy them, so right away I was drawn to Dragos, and figured out that Novo Fogo had a great product. We got back in contact toward the end of last year, discussing some opportunities with the Tree-Keeper program, for one, but also trying to get me involved on the art side, to see if I could design some packaging. We moved forward at the beginning of this year and started working on some designs.

Novo Fogo Tree-KeeperQ: What was your role in the package design?

A: They pitched that they were looking at moving forward, looking at trying to get into other markets, and it was very exciting to me. As much as I want to play soccer until I’m 60 years old, it’s not going to happen. So I’m trying to plant some seeds for later in the future because I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I’m done playing soccer. It’s just nice to get your feet wet and kind of see how the rest of the world operates. I felt with Novo Fogo expanding, maybe I could get an insight into how all this works as well.

In the beginning, we started trying to figure out how we could create a logo that people would identify with me, so that became part of the Tree-Keeper logo. It’s me making a save to my upper left side which I’ve done before [most notably, during the 2016 MLS Cup final]. It’s a recognizable image. I think the Novo Fogo branding is phenomenal to begin with, always in earthy tones and very natural. I wanted to bring a little more art to it, a bit more pop of color. To me, Brazil is joy, it’s colorful, it’s samba, it’s soccer and rainforests. It was a really cool challenge.

Q: I want to talk about your artwork, of course. You launched your brand only a few years ago, yes?

A: Yeah, this is a new one for me, and for me, it’s always been important to show diversity. In terms of what I can do to expand my portfolio, I think that the biggest push for me was to come out as an artist. I was able to pursue a passion for sports and I was very blessed with that, but I was thinking, Why not try to do the same thing when I retire? So I’m trying to transition, and lay a foundation, to be able to do something with art later on. I needed someone to just really kind of push me a little bit, so I was able to find a branding company that helped me to get the message right, to create my website the right way, and just give me that last bit of confidence I needed to to make that push. It’s been great. I’ve learned so much along the way because I came from the digital world, and the ‘Undo’ button doesn’t exist on a canvas, unfortunately. It’s a nice thing to embrace too. As you can see behind me – there are some geometric lines there – that’s totally the goalkeeper. The precision and attempts to never relinquish control. It’s helped me balance my brain a lot because I do know, as much as I want to make everything perfect, there’s nothing that’s gonna happen that’s as awful as making an error and letting go of the ball. With art, I can make a mistake, and then I can sit there and try to think, Okay, how can I make something good out of it? Maybe I’ll learn a new technique that way.

Last year, I did a lot of art to help people get through the pandemic, creating three or four pieces throughout the year in order to help get some funds into community organizations. I just completed this one behind me, the one with the lime green, one of the bigger ones that I’ve done, so now I’m trying to work with bigger canvases, and that completely changes it. I work with acrylics for the most part and you start getting the drying times down, and all of a sudden, you have this big canvas in front of you and you start running around it to make sure things don’t expire before you get to them. It’s awesome, I love it. I have a great time. First and foremost, it’s good for my soul and for rebalancing my brain.

I’ve appreciated the support, too. It’s such a nerve-wracking thing – you feel so vulnerable. I am a soccer player, and for the most part, either people are just trolls and they’ll say something negative, or they’re just nice because they like me as a soccer player, so it’s like, What is the truth? Will I ever find out? But it’s been nice that people have been super supportive, and I’ve enjoyed it. The techniques are starting to get really good – all the precision. I was very happy with this one [his latest piece] because there are almost no errors in this one.

Q: You mentioned your use of acrylics in your painting. Are you using any other materials in your work?

A: It’s mainly acrylics but I’ve started to get into a bit more mixed media stuff. The neon green lines on this one are aerosol, just because the opacity is so high and I don’t have to do ten passes as I would with acrylic to get the vibrant colors. I like figuring out these things along the way. Another thing that I’ve started doing is using gels and pastes underneath. Once you then put acrylics over them, they behave differently depending on the kind of background they have. In a weird way, I try to create my art totally as a juxtaposition, where my underpainting is as organic and as uncontrolled as I possibly can be, because the goalkeeper will come totally on top of that with the geometric shapes. It’s about trying to find new ways to surrender myself and let nature take its course with drips and washes and things like that. It’s so hard for a goalkeeper to let go – it’s almost impossible!

Q: Who are the artists who inspire your work?

A: I’m not the traditional artist, someone who went to galleries and looked at Monet, but I grew up in the graffiti scene in Switzerland. I took the train to school and to trainings early on, so I was always peering out the window of the train at underpasses and train yards. I always loved that colorful pop that served as a juxtaposition. It was always the overgrown, natural colors of train stations, and then this bright neon pink on top of that. It was so electrifying to see it, and I was always fascinated by it. I never really got into the whole graffiti scene myself because I was always too busy with sports, but that’s probably where my favorite ones are.

Another favorite artist is Nawer. He’s a Polish artist who comes from the graffiti scene, but he also studied architecture, so a very similar style to my work, but a million times better. I have two of his pieces, and I was so fortunate, because Seattle has an art fair, and the very first one my wife and I visited, we spotted a 60-ft piece of Nawer’s work. I couldn’t believe it. It truly was him, and they had smaller pieces and I was able to get one. The crazy story of it is, I’m Swiss, in Seattle, buying a Polish artist’s work through a gallery based in Japan!

Felipe Pantone is another good artist from Spain who deals a lot with the color spectrum. He has very cool sculptures where you can change the colors, and because of their transparencies, they interact with each other. There’s also Augustine Kofie from Los Angeles. So those are my top three.

Q: Are there more plans to incorporate your artwork at Novo Fogo?

A: I would love that! For me, it’s important that there are authentic relationships and partnerships. I don’t want to get into something where I just hold up a can for five seconds and that’s the end of it. I think we have some really good ideas, and I like the way we’ve been going so far. We’re in the process of getting a new office space near Lumen Field, where the Sounders play, so maybe there will be an opportunity to paint a mural or a tasting room or something like that. That would be cool. I’m just excited to see where this partnership goes. I think it’s a good fit. It’s something that’s not forced. Authenticity is always very important for me and I’m sure as well for a company like Novo Fogo. Being able to be a part of a company that’s carbon negative, that’s so engaged, that allows me to do some art stuff on the side. It was just a no-brainer.

Q: It almost hurt my heart a little when I read about the Tree-Keeper program because it’s based on goalkeeper saves, and you’ve been out of commission for the last few months! Alex Roldan stepped in when you were injured in the match, and Stefan Cleveland has been starting ever since. How has it been to watch from the sidelines?

A: It’s been a really weird one because I had a serious injury in Toronto before, one that was season-ending. You go through the different stages of coming back during your rehab process – you know, you have the surgery, then let it heal, let it settle, then try to break through scar tissue and get a range of motion back. Learning how to walk and building all those things back up, and for the most part with the Sounders, I’ve been blessed. I’ve had adductor tears, I’ve had small things like that. You know, dislocated or broken fingers, but always things that I was able to push through and fight through and then they were healed. This one was a bit more serious. We considered ourselves very lucky when the MRI came back negative because I think the first analysis was that it was going to be an ACL tear. So when it came back negative, I was so happy. I went right back into it, got off the crutches two days later, and thought, I’m going to make a comeback super fast and be good to go.

And then, unfortunately, I got blood clots. This is new territory for me because as much as my knee is recovering really well right now, it doesn’t change the protocol with blood thinners. Usually, I can show doctors that I’m superhuman, and they’re like, Well you just shaved off two weeks from your recovery. Now, it’s like, You’re doing well and you’re ahead of schedule, but we still have to keep doing the protocol. What it has allowed me to do is join the keeper sessions earlier, and I get my butt kicked by our keeper coach for two weeks more than we had originally planned. But I’m hoping that I’ll be back by the end of the month. Towards the end of the month is when I get off of blood thinners, and the transition should be very easy at that point. I will have had about 4 weeks of keeper sessions under my belt. The risk is just the contact sport side of things. If I get a concussion and need blood thinners or have internal bleeding – those things are just too risky to try to circumvent so that’s why those protocols are in place. I’m just trying to make the best of it. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life right now because I was stuck in the gym and on the treadmill and on the bike and on the rower for way too long, but I’m trying to make the best of the situation. Come back stronger, healthier, and sharper.

For the Sounders, we’ve always preached that if you want to achieve something at the end of the year, you need your whole squad – not just 11, not just 18, but 24, 25, 26 players. And for you to be able to know if you can count on those 26, you need to have difficult situations and you need to make new experiences in those situations. We’ve had good spells, and we can look back at those. We’re now having a bit of a difficult spell, but I’m confident we’ll get out of it. Then in the playoffs, when we look back and wonder if we’re ready, if we’re good enough, we’ll be able to say, Yeah, remember what we did back then?! I always think those difficult experiences are vital for you to be able to be successful down the stretch. I’m happy where we are and with the team we’ve got.

Q: One last question…




~Jennifer Matthewson
Photo credit: Novo Fogo

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