Brew Period: The Craft Beer Labels That Are Works Of Art

With its barrel-aged stouts and gooseberry saisons, craft beer has transformed British beer. But that revolution has not solely been about flavour. It has been aesthetic, too. Beer cans are now a canvas for dazzling, cutting-edge design, and this golden age for beer art is celebrated in blogs-cum-books such as ohbeautifulbeer.com, and even at exhibitions.

This makeover of pump clips, bottle labels and packaging has been pivotal to craft’s appeal, says the beer writer and consultant Matthew Curtis: “Craft brewers needed an updated image to match the modern flavours in their beers. Breaking with traditional brewing imagery was essential.”

For Becky Palfery, the co-owner of the Leeds bookshop Colours May Vary – which in May held a beer art exhibition, Pumped – that marketing necessity has facilitated the rise of branding that can be considered art. “We wanted to see if, removed from the bottle and put in a frame, the artwork would stand alone,” she says. The beautiful, often logo-free bottles created by the revered Karl Grandin for the Swedish brewery Omnipollo, she insists, have the “aura” of artworks.

That is certainly how Textbook Studio would like its work with the Manchester brewery Cloudwater to be regarded – as art that, although shown on cans, would work in a gallery. The Salford design agency commissions and curates original art (about 130 pieces annually), which it then works into labelling for Cloudwater’s seasonal beers. It is a serious endeavour, as the notes for the current campaign explain: “Mariel Osborn worked with tactile fabrics and materials with a feminine aesthetic to create site-specific responses to the Cloudwater brewery.”

Last year, Anglia Ruskin University’s pubLAB research centre found that snazzy label designs were more important than shelf-space in catching consumers’ eyes. That may explain why craft has embraced such bold packaging. In a crowded marketplace, craft breweries want to stand out – particularly online. “A beautiful can goes a long way,” says Textbook’s Chris Shearston. “A lot of US bloggers get the cans, photograph them and it becomes part of the experience. People do collect them.”

The radical, tangential and aesthetically purist way in which many craft breweries approach branding has confounded big breweries. Larger businesses design product packaging to strict “brand guidelines” for specific demographics, whereas, initially, UK craft beer had no defined audience or marketing budget. It just made it up on the hoof, often differentiating itself not with the obvious signifiers of authenticity (retro printing styles, images of hops), but with wild, abstract designs that utilise everything from voguish hand-drawn illustration to landscape photography. When established breweries attempt to tap into this market (see the generic hipster branding for Beardo from the north-west brewery Robinsons), they often look, says Curtis, “Like your weird uncle trying to dance to Taylor Swift at a wedding.”

“The big guys are fascinated by it to the point of confusion,” says Nick Dwyer, the creative director at Beavertown in north London, where he executes all aspects of the brewery’s trashy, B-movie aesthetic. Dwyer talks of his illustrations building trust and intimacy with an audience of a similar age (he is 27) through a shared visual language of graphic novels, old Star Wars comics and cult movies: “This generation is not ashamed of nostalgia.”

Over at Partizan Brewing in south London, label artist Alec Doherty wasn’t “thinking about being distinctive. But do your own thing and you will be.” His work (a fusion of Soviet, modern European design and 1960s US counterculture influences) might reference a beer’s ingredients or its style, but obliquely (eg a wise old man to represent the herb sage). Doherty sees himself as cultivating a likeminded audience who might decode his artwork in the way rock fans once scrutinised album sleeves. Beer, he says, encourages such “nerdiness”. “We wanted to add to the experience in a visual sense. You might taste something unusual, look at the label and it would have these reference points.”

“If a product makes you feel sophisticated, you’ll keep buying it,” says Palfery. “In a way, it’s a clever strategy.” But, says Design Week editor Tom Banks, there must be an essential truth to such marketing: “Craft breweries see themselves as anti-establishment agitators, and people are buying into that. I don’t think that branding is disingenuous, and if the drinks weren’t nice they wouldn’t be selling.”

Naturally, a hardcore of drinkers regard any sharp design as suspect – a gimmick to shift substandard beer. But craft is a flavour-focused scene. A cool label may get a beer noticed, but if it is a lacklustre liquid, interest will wane. Conversely, says Curtis, an “awful” label (“It even uses the dreaded Comic Sans”) has not stopped Russian River’s Pliny the Elder from becoming one of the world’s most sought-after IPAs.

Nor is every new brewery compelled to spend big on design. The Kernel’s vintage labelling (black type on brown wrapping paper) is simple, instantly recognisable and conceptually fitting for a brewery obsessed with historic beer recipes. In Yorkshire, Bad Seed brewery’s inexpensive branding – a DIY effort based on the swing tags homebrewers use to identify bottles – works for a brewery pushing a handcrafted ethos. “It’s unique and comes from our story,” says co-owner Chris Waplington. “You need something eye-catching but it doesn’t need to be perfect. An honest reflection of you is more important.”

“There are a lot of old farts out there who don’t like change and complain about anything,” says Doherty. “Essentially, the label is inconsequential.” Except that this new wave of design is not entirely frivolous. Rewind to 2007 and real ale packaging was, as Palfery recalls, “ludicrous”. Its lingua franca of craggy moors, steam trains, adolescent fantasy imagery and lazy sexism (blond pinups on blond ales etc) defined good beer as a middle-aged, male pursuit. In contrast, craft beer’s aesthetic is asexual, inclusive, urban. “With skeletons and aliens you don’t have to think about gender, race, age,” says Dwyer. “It is what it is.”

Craft beer may look cool, but that stylistic shift is cultural, too. Beer is now in a far more progressive place.

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