The art of craft beer labels

By Daniel Wirtheim, Features Editor

Published in print Mar. 4, 2015

Photo Courtesy of steve palmer/flickr

Photo Courtesy of steve palmer/flickr

Featured above, a label from Uinta Brewing’s Hop Nosh IPA. Notice the vintage color scheme, as well as the use of agricultural elements. It’s meaning is up for interpretation, but this writer feels that the label is somehow a reflection of changing values in American consumerism, championing the handcrafted over the mass-produced.

Photo Courtesy of freezedriedpop/flickr

Photo Courtesy of freezedriedpop/flickr

Featured above, a label from Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter. Notice the Ralph Steadman-esque graphics that appeal to the heroic gonzo journalist types. A personification of death, as well as a heroic white hat, may be creating some sort of narrative in and of itself.

If you’re an above-the-legal-drinking-age student, you’ve probably seen some of Kyle Webster’s art. He’s a UNCG alumnus who’s illustrated what are probably Foothill Brewing’s most iconic labels; the Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout, the Torch Pilsner, and my personal favorite, the People’s Porter. The illustrations are brilliant, cartoonish but not over-the-top.    

When I heard Webster’s story of success in drawing up craft beer labels, it got me thinking. Could it be that craft beer labeling is one of the most over-looked platforms for visual art?

Craft beer labels just not in the same realm as say, the bland, three-toned paintings made for hotel rooms. Craft beer artwork is attractive with toungue-in-cheek messages and pop-culture references. So I sought out an expert’s help to answer my question; Why are craft beer labels such a hot spot for bold, creative designs?

Christopher Cassidy is an associate professor here at UNCG and an expertise in the field of graphic arts. Each year he has a few students who take a stab at visual identity for craft breweries, which means they’re trying to show their work on a shelf at the local craft beer store.

“Bigger corporations often develop relatively inoffensive graphics to appeal to the broadest possible market,” said Cassidy. “A brand like Coors (just as an example) is trying to sell to tens of millions of potential customers. The average craft brewer’s target audience is necessarily many times smaller than that, so they can and do take greater risks with their graphics. I think the small size of most craft brewers, combined with the target demographic (young, affluent, urban), creates greater opportunities for quirkier visual identities.”

The largest costumer base for craft beer is undoubtedly the younger, more affluent 20 or 30-somethings. Beers like Terrapin’s Hopsecutioner or Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid were obviously created for the younger drinker who wants an extra kick–the IPA was hardly a thing for anyone born before 1980. 

What we know is that the demand for craft beer is growing, and along with that, so is the artwork that decorates the bottles.

There’s a handcrafted charm that comes with craft beer art, it has to look professional, but it can’t look too professional. In a way, it becomes a paradox. If a beer label appears as though the artist knew exactly what they were doing, it may be associated with the likes of Budweiser. On the inverse, a poorly designed label will not grab the consumer’s attention. Craft beer companies know that their costumers want a product that says, “I’m sophisticated, but I’m not afraid to break the rules.” Whether or not craft beer labels are breaking new ground in the art world is up for debate. Certainly small beer companies in need of well-designed labels are giving jobs to fledging artists (three new breweries in the Triad have opened in the last year alone), but that does not mean the work is celebrated in the same way as Van Gogh’s. Still, it’s safe to say that craft beer is doing something for the art world.

“A clever broadcast ad might reach hundreds of millions of people, with the end result being that more people buy brand x rather than brand y,” said Cassidy. “That can contribute to the success of entire firms, their employees and the communities where those employees live. That’s ‘important.’ A contemporary artwork might only be seen by several hundred or several thousand people, many of whom might remember it for the rest of their lives. It might change the way they view the world from then on. That’s also “important” but in an entirely different way.”

Categories: daniel wirtheim, Features

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