Arts & Design

Canvas on a can: The art of designing craft beer labels

Small and independent breweries work with artists and graphic designers to create visually stunning products that stand out on the shelf.

By Garage Staff — December 5, 2018

If you’ve strolled through a gourmet beer shop or down a craft beer aisle recently, you’ve no doubt seen the colorful rows of labels that practically jump off the shelf. IPA cans that could double as comic book covers. Sleek silver tallboys speckled with digital gemstones. Jagged medieval typefaces promising the Goth-est of stouts. It’s a master class in graphic design that would look right at home on your cool friend’s Instagram or in an arty print magazine.

Today’s craft beer labels are more than just mere identifiers. The innovative designs often tell their own visual stories about the beers and the breweries themselves. And much like the dankest Citra hop, they’re designed to grab your full attention, whether it’s on your tongue or on a crowded shelf.


A collection of craft beer cans from brewers in Brooklyn, Vermont and Denmark.

The new beer boom

Craft beer is experiencing, well, a bit of a bubble. The Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade group, defines American craft brewers as small, independent and traditional. To meet these criteria, a craft brewer must produce 6 million barrels of beer or less annually, not be more than 25 percent corporately owned, and produce beverages that are mostly brewed from traditional beer ingredients like hops. This includes some of the biggest players like New Belgium and Cigar City, as well as pint-sized nanobreweries, which produce fewer than 10 barrels per batch. These American craft brewers infused $76.2 billion into the U.S. economy in 2017.

The Brewers Association reports that around 6,500 craft breweries are currently operating in the United States. Consumers seem to be craving the more authentic vibe that craft beers — and their warehouse-style brewpubs — offer. And from Hawaii to Vermont, small-batch brewers and barrels are booming. In a 2018 survey, 49 percent of men and 31 percent of women said they drink craft beer. Consumers today know the difference between a witbier and an English brown ale, and breweries are focusing on catering to a discerning craft beer drinker who knows her hops inside and out.


Future Glow Session IPA from Burlington Beer Company in Vermont.

The art of the label

How do you differentiate between all those microbrew batches and special releases? Craft brewing transformed the landscape of the beer industry, and it’s also changed the way beer is marketed. Craft beer labels have become an art form in and of themselves, with fervent fanbases to boot — unopened bottles have even become in-demand collectors’ items. There are Instagram accounts devoted to the art of the coolest beer packaging. Sleek coffee table books brimming with close-up label portraits. And even a bonafide beer-label art show.

Brewhouses are hiring professional graphic artists to design unique, exquisitely crafted labels for their products. Artists interpret the beer’s ingredients, name and style into a work of art that can be printed and placed on a can or bottle to entice consumers and communicate what they’re about to drink.

“Craft beer has taken beer labeling and design into a new place,” says Julia Herz, program director of the Brewers Association. “Before we just had the big global conglomerates with their spin on product marketing. There's a lot more authenticity going on in the craft beer labels that we see now.”

“A good label is something that someone would want blown-up and framed on their wall.”

Keith Shore, Art Director, Mikkeller Brewing

For breweries who serve draft beer from taps, packaging is often the only visual opportunity to showcase their brand.

“A lot of breweries are draft-centric,” Herz says. “If you're packaging your beer into a can, a bottle, a growler or a crowler [a 32-ounce can], that's a place that craft breweries absolutely do much of their marketing. The biggest opportunity to share your story and showcase your personality, and to stand out, is that beer package itself.”

And even with smaller distribution circles, competition is steep. Think about the last time you went beer shopping and surveyed that seemingly endless aisle. To stand out, you can’t just put out decent beer. You need to get people interested in tasting it.

“On the liquor store shelf, if you have to choose between two beers that you've never seen before, I think that the more attractive label will always get people to buy in,” says AJ Keirans, the founder and host of The 16-Oz. Canvas project, a podcast and website devoted to the art of beer labels. This summer, Keirans hosted a two-week art installation featuring beer designers and breweries to highlight the medium.

An IPA label designed by Earl Barrett-Holloway for Kings County Brewers Collective.


An IPA label designed by Earl Barrett-Holloway for Kings County Brewers Collective.

In Brooklyn, a can made for Instagram

A few blocks from the L train in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, the Kings County Brewers Collective (KCBC) is known for both its award-winning beers and its inventive, art-driven labels that resemble comic book panels. The brewery posts some of its most innovative cans on its Instagram, like the hellfire-and-brimstone Phantom Overdrive IPA.

Zach Kinney, one of KCBC’s co-founders, has a background in advertising and says the brewery wants its labels to be instantly recognizable to build its brand.

“Shelves are really crowded,” he says. “I think most craft beer consumers want a lot of choice. They like variety, but it can also be overwhelming. We try to have some consistency and make sure that people know that, ‘Oh, that's a KCBC can.’”

Most of the brewery’s signature cans are drawn by artist and comic book creator Earl Barrett-Holloway. Barrett-Holloway’s dark aesthetic, plus KCBC’s frequent collaborations with heavy metal bands, continue to inspire their seriously distinctive beer.

“He’s a local artist, a comic book nerd and a long-time friend of my partner Pete [Lengyel],” Kinney says. “When we were looking into packaging, we started to approach the question, ‘What's the visual identity of this beer?’ We wanted to really have a unique look and personality to our can label art to convey energy and other qualities that we think fit with who we are.”

Where art meets draft

Keith Shore is the Philadelphia-based art director responsible for the visual world of Mikkeller Brewing, based in Copenhagen. You might have had their beer in the U.S. though — perhaps at Citi Field, where the New York Mets play, or in their regional breweries — and you’ve likely seen their wacky, Cubism-influenced cans lining store shelves.

“A good label is something that someone would want blown up and framed on their wall,” Shore says. “I always lean on loud colors, clunky shapes and friendly faced characters.”

Shore says his colleagues at Mikkeller will give him the name of the beer and the desired style of the label, and the rest is up to him.


Mikkeller Brewing's Beer Geek Breakfast oatmeal stout, designed by art director Keith Shore.

“We produce upwards of 200 labels each year, so I tend to go with the gut and dive in deep on the first concept that hits me,” he says. “A quick pencil sketch, and then the rest is done in [Adobe] Illustrator.”

Mikkeller uses two of Shore’s signature characters in its label designs, the colorful and playful Henry & Sally figures, which Shore says always give him a solid starting point.

How do all of these labels go from creative gleam in the eye to actually covering beer cans? Mikkeller and KCBC both work with an Ohio-based company called Blue Label Digital, which uses HP Indigo digital presses to create the perfect labels. The printers can achieve up to 98 percent of Pantone colors and print on a variety of materials from paper to foil, which lets designers and beermakers get exactly the high-end look they want.

How the Other Half designs

Other Half Brewing Co., in Brooklyn, where people wait in line for upwards of eight hours to try a new brew, recently took their label design work in house and also collaborate with different designers who create different looks. The brewery, which has over 130,000 Instagram followers, announces its weekly releases on its IG feed and beer aficianados line up early on Saturday mornings, well before the brewery opens its doors at 10am, to get their hands on the cans. "There’s an interesting challenge in disposable design — you know you’re designing something that’s a one-off and eventually is going to get thrown away, but it still has to be cool and fit into the brand’s overall visual story," design director Megan Penmann says. "Ideally the design conveys how great, complex or unique the beer is." Her design for the Dream Layers and Daydream Layers cans was meant to convey the name visually. "When you’re up close it’s not super legible, but when you're farther away the letters come into focus. So the typeface translates the way that dreams and daydreams can be hazy yet specific at the same time."


Other Half Brewing's design director Megan Penmann created the label for Daydream Layers Imperial Oat Cream IPA.

More than a trend

Artistic labels look cool in your fridge, but are they a fad, or will breweries keep soliciting the talents of design professionals? Keirans, for one, thinks the creative label trend is here to say.

“Art and design is a key piece in the spirits game.” he says. “I think that in a hyper-competitive space having a vision that reaches all aspects of your brand, from labels to the physical space and everything in between, is very important.”

The growing cottage industry of craft beer labels is providing a lot of opportunities for nascent breweries to get in the game — and demonstrate the art of their brand.

“I think that craft beer happens at the intersection of art, science and business,” the Brewers Association’s Herz says. “That art aspect is not just about what's in the glass. I think the label is a really solid place for seeing a lot of art come from these small brewery businesses. They make liquid art, and it's really cool to see how they flex their muscle via the label and the packaging.”


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