‘No Rulebook Anymore’: The Art of Beer Label Design

Red beer can with draft lines around it
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A beer’s label is one of the truest ways that a brewer can grab a prospective customer’s attention and ultimately, their purchasing dollars.

“When you have that snap few seconds that a customer is looking at the shelf, you want them to quickly ingest the vibe and what’s inside the container,” says Tara Hankinson, co-founder and co-CEO of Talea Beer Co., based in Brooklyn, New York.

Fifteen years ago, an industry trade group, the Brewers Association, documented 1,460 craft breweries in the U.S. “To create something unique [then] was an easier task,” says Keith Shore, art director for Danish craft brewer Mikkeller.

In 2021, that number ballooned to more than 9,000 breweries. So, how can businesses develop packaging that attracts consumers in such a crowded marketplace?

“It can be quite intimidating,” says Matt Burns, founding partner and creative director of Thirst, a Scotland-based design agency that creates brand identities for beverage producers throughout the world. “All these breweries, they essentially do the same thing, right? They make beer. And everyone uses the finest ingredients and the most amazing hops and the beer tastes great.”

Find What’s Unique

Burns starts the design process by asking, “What’s the one thing they’re doing that no one else can do? What’s their purpose in the world?”

Once that’s established, the task is to convey that message visually. That can take many forms.

One of the Thirst’s first U.S campaigns was for Commonwealth Brewing Company in Virginia Beach, in 2017. The region’s laidback surfing culture became the force behind Commonwealth’s labels. Their design sought to visually interpret the flavors of Commonwealth’s beers through a fluid exploration of textures. It consisted of photos that depicted interactions between oils, vinegars and inks.

For Brooklyn Brewery, Thirst aimed to “capture the essence of Brooklyn as a place, making sure that Brooklyn edge and creativity and personality is always coming through,” says Burns.

Send a Message

Talea Sour IPA
Image Courtesy of Molly Tavoletti

For Talea, Hankinson and LeAnn Darland, the brand’s other co-founder and co -CEO, wanted package designs that reflect their belief that craft beer can appeal to a broader audience and be more inclusive.

Hankinson and Darland reached out to London-based designer John Gilsenan of I Want Design for a fresh perspective. Gilsenan also designs packaging for Wölffer Estate Vineyard on Long Island.

A playful, colorful direction emerged, reminiscent of minimalist approaches embraced by Montauk Brewing Co., Maine Beer Company, and San Diego’s Modern Times.  The aesthetic varies from can to can, but it’s “always recognizable as Talea,” says Hankinson.

Talea’s four different sour series, for example, have unique designs with color variance based on fruit combinations. Shore says that seeing a colorful collection on a store shelf is impactful.   

“At the end of the day, if you’ve never had a hazy IPA or a fruited sour, we want you to feel comfortable buying it, even if you’re just buying it for the label,” says Hankinson. “That’s one way to invite customers in and indicate we’re an inclusive brand.”

Tell a Story

Mikkeller can of beer on a tabletop
Image Courtesy of Mikkeller

In Tennessee, according to the Brewers Association, the number of craft breweries has increased more than sixfold since 2011.  As of 2021, there were 141 breweries in the state.

Angela Ballard, managing partner of ChattaBrewTour in Chattanooga, Tennessee, says that breweries gain a foothold by committing to “a clear, consistent story.”

Many Chattanooga brewers create a dialogue around local history and partnerships. For example, Chattanooga Brewing Co. opened in 1890, and its labels preserve the brewery’s original graphics.

Naked River Brewing centers its designs on local waterways. Labels depict paddles, water and marine life like Tennessee River sturgeon, catfish and turtles.

Be Recognizable

Shore has created more than 2,000 label designs for Mikkeller, many alongside Philadelphia-based designer Luke Cloran, the craft brewer’s head of design.

Sally and Henry, iconic characters on Mikkeller labels, took shape in Shore’s notebook. “I was younger and not overthinking, not really knowing a lot and just going after it,” he says. “My drawing style was raw and loose.”

Shore’s work has evolved into a graphic style with flat, bold colors.

What is Craft Beer, Really?

“I think because I loved it so much, it clicked that people would begin to recognize them, and associate them with the brand,” he says.

Burns credits craft beer with setting a precedent for achieving brand recognition through creative design that wine and spirits producers are now emulating.   

In the past, Burns says, beer behemoths like Heineken and Budweiser, as well as many spirits producers, opted for formal design elements to signify a premium, high-quality product. These might include quality “cues,” like a crest or signature, or lines, text or other visual details that frame the brand name. 

Craft beer has since paved the way for differentiation from a packaging perspective, says Burns.

He adds, “All bets are off, really. There’s almost no rulebook anymore.”

Published on September 14, 2022
Topics: Beer