Is the Label Design of Your Beer More Important than the Beer Itself?
As craft beer brewers fight for the attention of the beer drinking masses, label design has reached incredible new heights of creativity. Purchasing an evening’s supply at a craft ale shop now has more in common with wandering round a gallery space with all the artistic talent on display. Amid the carefully assembled display units you could be forgiven for thinking a simple question: has designing a striking label become more important than the beer itself?
To discover more about the importance of good design to this booming industry, as well as what it takes to create the perfect beer label, we asked the opinion of some of the true heavyweights of the craft beer world:
Co-founder of internationally renowned Scottish brewery, BrewDog, and a man on a “mission to save the world from bad beer”.
Veteran of the craft beer scene in America and national sales manager at Hawaiian-based Maui Brewing Co., the new ‘official craft beer of Hawaiian Airlines’.
Logo, corporate identity, label and packaging designer for New York-based Evil Twin Brewing.
Expert graphic designer and illustrator and creative director for Beavertown Brewery.
CEO of the Flying Dog Brewery: the brand that features illustrations from the legendary Ralph Steadman on its label designs.
1. What part do you think design has played in the recent boom in craft beer?
James: Creativity and experimentation is at the heart of the craft beer scene, and it makes sense for that to be reflected and embodied by the packaging. There are so many epic breweries from all around the world creating amazing beers, and the design of beer labels and cans is another way for them to demonstrate their personality and originality. There is such a free reign, and brewers really harness that opportunity. I don’t think any other products are packaged as boldly and daringly as craft beers.
BrewDog’s new ‘Headline’ range. Image courtesy of BrewDog
Pete: Label design has played a large role in the growth of craft brands. If you went to the liquor store, bottle shop, grocery store (wherever you buy beer) about 20 years ago you saw virtually the same package everywhere. Large format boxes with little or no graphic design and a beer name on it. Even the brands that are known for their creative marketing schemes like Bud Light were boring old blue boxes with no real hint at the creative powers they unleash on your television sets. That’s where craft beer came in and took over. Brands like Magic Hat #9, New Belgium’s Fat Tire and the bright green of Sierra Nevada started catching people’s eyes. Granted, people’s pallets were changing too, but these approachable logos made the beer move off the shelf. Now, if you walk into a large box liquor store, there are hundreds of unique, colourful and creative logos.
Martin: Design has definitely played a part in the craft beer boom. New craft beers emerge every week and each brewer tries to stand out from the crowd and make their product noticed. The craft beer community is constantly expanding and is no longer exclusively for beer geeks, but also for a broader audience: food enthusiasts, former wine drinkers – new customers to whom the look of the beer can make the difference between picking it up from the store shelves or not.
Evil Twin use a mix of humour and simplistic graphic design to make their beer labels stand out.
Nick: A huge part. The creativity and innovation the brewers are putting into creating the beers spills and directly translates into the artwork. It’s not only a way of giving each beer a strong visual identity (think Weird Beard, Partizan, Pressure Drop) but also assigns breweries real personality. In a strange way, I think it actually necessitates having the best beer you possibly can, having strong, unique, sometimes wacky branding. People are incredibly fickle, and if they pick up something because they think it looks good, then it tastes mediocre, that’s what they will remember. It gives the smaller companies some advantage over the big boys as well, because nearly everybody has a mate or friend of a friend who is a struggling but talented artist in some capacity! A notorious corporation pumping thousands of pounds into a rebrand or swish new beer label is never going to emulate the lovingly penned piece of artwork designed specifically for a beer that the artist knows first hand is tasty!
Nick’s illustration style gives the Beavertown Brewery a distinct character. Image from Nick Dwyer
Jim: Beer label design has helped distinguish craft beer from the macro beers, but the boom is about the beer.
2. What do you think makes a good beer label design?
James: A good label should be eye-catching and unique, and communicate the character and attitude of the brewery and the complexity of the beer. It’s like looking at a person and how they dress. If they’re insane and zany, they’d dress that way. If they’re more reserved and humble, they’ll dress that way. Breweries can make the beer’s personality take on a visual identity through packaging.
Pete: I think a good label is about a few different things – some are more important than others. Ideally, you’d like to tell the drinker about the beer on the can or bottle with the logo and description. But we all know that we do not get that much of the consumer’s time anymore. So, the packaging has to be inviting enough to be taken off the shelf with a small amount of information. Bikini Blonde Lager is a great example as it’s clearly a Blonde Lager (even though it’s a Munich style Helles, but that’s splitting hairs to an average drinker) and going to be light and refreshing. That story is pretty easily told through a few lines on the can, so hopefully we’re sold. Now the drinker has the can in hand and we’ve got some more time to talk. What’s next is far and away the most important part of the label – does it tell the story of your brand and brewery? Most craft beer drinkers these days pay a good amount of attention to their labels. What else are you reading while you’re drinking? We want to make sure that you feel the connection to Hawaii, know about our sustainable efforts and give a little more information on what makes up Maui Brewing. I believe our success lies in this approach as I feel that our cans can take you back to Maui 12 ounces at a time. Which is the final point of the label – a fond remembrance. Granted, if the beer sucks and the label is great, you’ve failed. But if you can hit on both (or even close to both in regards to flavour), you’ve got a brand with legs!! Not to belabour Bikini Blonde but there’s no better experience than drinking a cold Bikini Blonde on a Maui beach then going home to Texas or California and grabbing it again – if only to remember that time in Maui.
Maui Brewing Co. employ enticing Hawaiian imagery in their beer label designs to take the drinker down to the beach.
Martin: To me a good label has to relate in some way or another to the beer style or the brewery it is representing. The label has to work on two levels. From a distance, as an eye catcher that stands out in the shop or in the bar. Up close when the consumer holds the bottle in their hand to inspect it closer.
Nick: A balance of innovation, clarity and consistency make a good beer label design. Beer labels don’t have to contain a myriad of psychedelic colours to be effective and infinitely recognisable. Notable examples would be Brew By Numbers and The Kernel. Simple information laid out clearly but really quite stylishly. I’m not even sure that was the intention with The Kernel as they are notoriously function-over-form all the way, and almost everything seems to happen in-house from start to finish, but it’s so easy to spot a Kernel beer in a fridge. Then on the flip side of that, if you are going to go big then go big, but make sure it’s clearly a beer. In the same way, beer is constantly evolving and morphing from what was arguably becoming quite a stale industry, so is the artwork, but the one thing you have to maintain is a strong brand. It’s a bit of a dirty word in such an artisanal industry, but even if people are fawning over a wildly bizarre, interesting label, it’s not going to do you much good if it’s not recognisable as your brewery. That sort of design involves building up a reputation of doing things like that through making beer people want to drink!
Jim: Beer label design is very subjective. For us here at Flying Dog, it’s original art, and we’re grateful to Ralph [Steadman] for the art he does for us. Ralph is a brand unto himself. Hunter introduced us to Ralph, and Ralph has been doing original art for us since 1995.
Flying Dog have a long-standing relationship with legendary illustrator Ralph Steadman. Image from Flying Dog
3. Do you ever feel the label is more important than the beer?
James: Absolutely not. Never. Beer is king.
Pete: Unfortunately, yes. I used to work for a brewery in Colorado and joked that if you put Fat Tire in any other bottle, it would be a flop. New Belgium’s ability to market their beers is far and away their forte (don’t get me wrong, they still make some great beer). I can say the same for some other brands where they caught lightening on a label more than in the bottle. With that, if the beer is drinkable and ties the consumer to a feeling or a moment (i.e. – that powder day in Vail where you finished up with several Fat Tire bottles) then the label has far outweighed the liquid. Success, but only for a short period as craft beer drinkers are a promiscuous breed. Which is probably why you’ve seen the iconic Fat Tire label face lifted four times in the last ten years.
Martin: For some people, I’m sure it is. Like with all other packaging design or design in general. To be associated with a certain brand or look, which becomes and extension of one’s personality or the image they want to convey.
Nick: No, absolutely not. Even our names come after we have tried the beer. In fact, we wouldn’t be so bold as to conceptualise a design and name before we knew if the beer was what we were aiming for or not. Like I mentioned, it doesn’t matter if the packaging was done by Van Gogh, if the beer is bad or even boring, it will be discarded. Flying Dog have nailed this with their packaging designed by Ralph Steadman. Great beer, great (fitting) design, job done.
Despite Nick’s excellent illustration work for Beavertown Brewery, he still maintains that the taste of the beer is the most important factor
4. What are your personal favourite beer label designs?
James: Brew By Numbers – intelligent, functional, simple; Mikkeller – funky (like the beer!) and eye–catching, their characteristic, iconic design shows Mikkeller’s unique and eccentric personality; BrewDog – Black Jacques. Wicked and striking, hinting at the dark monster of a beer inside.
Pete: This is a tough one and it factors largely around sentimental beers and how I’ve changed habits as I age. Fat Tire was one of those great labels that drew me in. As was Arrogant Bastard. I love the Odell Brand family because you can tell an Odell beer from a mile away the way they’ve built that brand family – same with Deschutes (but they were designed by the same group, so I guess it figures). Anchor Steam has stayed close to its roots and is an iconic brand with no need to change its labels – I respect that. Hop Slam from Bell’s is a great label. 21st Amendment has creative logos but they don’t always tell the story. Oh, and Polygamy Porter, with the tag line “Why Have Just One?” – brilliant!!
Image courtesy of New Belgium Brewery
Omnipollo design by Karl Grandin
Nick: 21st Amendment’s labels were a huge influence on our designs, we all love them. I haven’t tried the beer as it’s US based, but I really want to. I’ve heard great things from so many people, though. (See! The beer, not the label sells this stuff. The labels are a bonus.)
21st Amendment’s label designs are some of the most influential in the industry. Image from 21st Amendment
It seems that to be successful, craft beer must work on two levels. While good design can be a huge factor in persuading people to buy a beer and connecting them emotionally to a brewer, if the beer doesn’t taste right, then all is lost. Beer might still be king, but the design of the label is sitting pretty close to the throne.
Are you interested in learning how to become a graphic designer? Why not consider an online BA (Hons) Graphic Design or MA Graphic Communication course from the University of Hertfordshire, delivered to you anywhere in the world by IDI.