How Next-Level Design Is Driving the Beer World

As American beer shelves become ever more crowded, standing out is the new fitting in. Veronica Meewes on the new generation of eye-catching label design depicting everything from dreamscapes to heavy metal iconography.

Blood orange gose? Gin barrel-aged saison? Watermelon hefeweizen? Having a preference when faced with your average convenience store cooler of beer is hard enough. Not having one is the equivalent of staring directly into Magic Eye without the aid of a hallucinogenic.

What should I choose? In a market where more than 4,000 American breweries are competing for your next move, this is the primary question that a new generation of craft beer label design is trying to answer for you, and in new ways.

“Now that craft beer is an expectation in the market, label art has gotten braver,” says Tim Breen, Off Color Brewing’s designer. “Attempting to set a product apart, people will do a lot of crazy things. It’s all just a reflection of the counter-culture leanings beer brewers have always had.”

A keen attention to design is by no means a new concept. Anchor Brewing began working with artist Jim Stitt in the 1970s, and, to this day, the 88-year-old still hand illustrates their labels. Brooklyn Brewery brought renowned graphic designer Milton Glaser on in the 1980s by offering him a share of the company, and Flying Dog Brewery partnered with sensational gonzo cartoonist Ralph Steadman in 1995; both artists still collaborate with their respective breweries.

Today, however, breweries’ label designs draw from a far wider range of influences—from anthropomorphic animals and dreamscapes to visual representations of things like gender stereotyping.

Jam band poster artist Jim Pollock uses linoleum printmaking methods to create psychedelic labels for Magic Hat Brewing Company, while Uinta Brewing Company’s bold, vibrant renderings resemble the vintage linen postcards that celebrated the American West. Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Company even works with different artists to create each of their unique labels, which look like pages torn from graphic novels and comic books. Though the bottles themselves are only available for a limited time, the labels are immortalized in collectible 16-by-20-inch posters.

The can renaissance has also provided new possibilities for eye-catching design. Instead of working within the confines of a label, breweries have an entire 360-degree canvas to tell each beer’s story—or more, in the case of Noble Rey Brewing Co, whose stackable cans fit together like nesting dolls.

“The package’s number one job is to get the person to pull it off the shelf and try it,” says Dave Wilson, president of 21st Amendment Brewery. “It’s the beer’s job to keep them coming back and, if they do, that’s where they build the relationship and a deeper understanding of your brand through your design.”

Here are five breweries that have achieved just that, and the inspiration behind the labels that have become their visual calling cards.

Beer Label Design

Prairie Artisan Ales

As Art Director for Tulsa’s Prairie Artisan Ales, Colin Healey says nostalgia plays an important role in his work. “I want them to look at the bottles while they enjoy the product just like I used to love looking at the back of cereal boxes,” he says. “If I can give the consumer something to relate to, then the drinking experience becomes more memorable.” While a member of their team typically dreams up a style of beer for him to visually represent, they also occasionally work “backwards” if Healey realizes the composition or theme first.

TRVE Edition: “The intention of this label was to evoke memories of Mortal Kombat. The character on the left represents Prairie and TRVE Brewery Company on the right. The images above their heads are their selected weapons. I was especially proud of the brass knuckle pizza cutter. I gotta try to patent that.”

Prairie Ace: “The flow of this label is reminiscent to the TRVE collaboration label. It’s sort of a mini comic depicting a disc golfing getting a hole-in-one. The challenge here was to communicate what an ace is to those that maybe aren’t golfers. The center frame was made to look like a golf video game with the power meter at the bottom and hole layout on the left.”

Coffee Okie: “Cowboy boots seemed like an obvious way to embody Oklahoma. A few elements of this label that I love: the repetition created by the boots and wood floorboard and the smoke from the cigarette. The guy appearing on the small TV is supposed to be Garth Brooks and the knife is a reference to The Outsiders, a teen fiction novel set in our hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Apple Brandy Noir: “This is one of my all-time favorite labels. It’s a beer we made nearly two years ago which was just recently re-released. These types of illustrations are known as Rube Goldberg machines—ridiculous contraptions that execute simple tasks. This one required a lot of extra thinking, as I had to consider whether it could actually operate.”

Beer Label Design

21st Amendment

“We like to have fun with beer and not take ourselves too seriously, but at the same time we want to make sure our graphics speak to the quality of our beer,” says Dave Wilson. Riffing on the 21st Amendment, they visually represent their motto to “celebrate the right to be original” by infusing iconic Americana imagery with humor and playful, bold design.

Brew Free! or Die IPA: “The creative process always begins with the beer—what’s the story, what attitude or mindset does this particular style resonate?” explains Wilson. “This West Coast-style IPA represents freedom from the notion that IPAs should only assail you with bitterness.” In this comic depiction of Mount Rushmore, Abe Lincoln breaks the mold with a smirk and a triumphant raised fist.

Hell or High Watermelon: This summer seasonal wheat beer gets a kiss of watermelon from a secondary fermentation using the quintessential summer fruit. “Like Lady Liberty, we stand for independence and perseverance,” says Wilson. “In the pursuit of innovative beer, there is no obstacle too great, no journey too long, no fruit too gigantic.”


Off Color Brewing

When designing Chicago-based Off Color Brewery’s whimsical labels, owner John Laffler, illustrator Nikki Jarecki and designer Tim Breen find collaboration is best. The hand-illustrated scenes often feature animals and characters in esoteric renderings that are based off both real life scenarios and dreams. ”Art in the craft beer world, like any other industry, relies on personal creativity to tell its brand story,” says Breen. “Sometimes the work is very literal and sometimes it’s all about subtext. In the best case, it’s a slow unveiling of the makers’ various personalities.”

Troublesome: “The first piece of art with a new brand is always a heavy experience,” says Breen. “Troublesome was labored over for a while, but it really set a precedent for everything after by keeping the labels mostly black and white, using the reflective substrate of the label, animals playing dress-up, etc.”

Space Tiger: “When The Apex was made, we had this idea for something bigger to match the beer’s character, and the idea of a lion strutting around a farmhouse trying to catch mice seemed funny,” explains Breen. “At that point, we just decided to stick with big cats for our farmhouse variations. And once you have conquered earth, the next stage is obviously space.” 

Blueberries Feel Pain: “Nikki and John may or may not have said this to a small child who was smashing berries while picking blueberries for this very beer,” says Breen, referring to their blueberry gose fermented with Brettanomyces. “I kept thinking of that scene in Alice in Wonderland where the flowers start calling Alice a weed and chase her off, but of course, in the mouse’s world [reflected on the label], it ends differently.”

Wunderkammer: For this blend of barrel-aged beer, fresh beer and fruit, “wunderkammer” (translating to “cabinet of curiosities”) seemed like an appropriate name. “All of these things in one bottle seemed reminiscent of a collection of oddities, or other bizarre novelties like the House On The Rock,” says Breen. “We talked about that for a while, then Nikki drew this on one bus ride. Apparently, it’s her dream apartment.”

Beer Label Design

Jester King Brewery

As the artist responsible for the intricate illustrations representing each farmhouse-style brew released for Austin-based Jester King Brewery, Josh Cockrell says his inspiration begins with the brewers’ creations. “Sometimes it is a linear connection from imagery to the geographical or historical connection with a style of beer,” he says. “Other times the ties can be more abstract, such as visual interpretation of the gustatory stimulation created by the given beer.”

Detritivore: “Having an affinity for the elegance of nature’s design and growing up with an appreciation for the works of naturalist illustrators such as Albertus Seba, James Audubon, Ernst Haeckel and Walton Ford, I often looked to the animal kingdom for inspiration,” says Cockrell. “The beetle in the design is [a] ‘beer bug,’ [which is known] for its attraction to the natural fermentation of spoiling fruits. It parallels the process for [this] beer, which involves re-fermenting cherries that had already been used once before in another fermentation. I worked with an entomologist to create a name for our new beetle. It was dubbed Carpozymus erythronotus, ‘the red-backed fruit fermenter.'”

La Vie en Rose: For this unfiltered, unpasteurized farmhouse ale fermented with raspberries, Cockrell used the beer’s pink hue to explore gender equality. “‘La Vie en Rose,’ which translates to ‘life in pink,’ is a common French colloquial phrase meaning, essentially, life as seen through rose-colored lenses. The artwork calls out the ignorance of prematurely assuming that the struggle for gender equality is over or nonexistent (i.e., viewing the current gender equality climate through rose-colored lenses). The color pink itself is a great and obvious example of gender confinement. The character [on the label] is intended to prey on the initial visual expectations for ‘feminine’ beauty, only to draw the viewer into a discomforting realization of her [situation]. She is present as a construct of the ideals of men, but is reclaiming her identity with a tool of her own that is unfamiliar to her creator—the seam ripper. She looks at you sardonically, as she begins to free her voice from her oppressor. The poem on the left panel reflects this idea of oppression, consumption and self-liberation.”

Beer Label Design

TRVE Brewing Company

When choosing a name for his heavy metal-inspired, Denver-based brewing company, proprietor Nick Nunns chose TRVE (pronounced “true”), an inside joke in the metal-community poking fun at people who take themselves too seriously. When choosing an artist, Sam Turner was a no-brainer. He’s had a long history of doing work for heavy metal bands and, as such, he was the perfect person to collaborate with for our design aesthetic,” says Nunns. “From day one, he’s designed amazing labels for us that could easily be mistaken for album covers.”

Cursed: “[The label design] for this mixed culture pale ale is based off of the iconic guitar pedal that arguably spawned an entire subgenre of heavy metal.”

Life’s Trade: “A farmhouse ale fermented in large oak barrels called puncheons, the artwork depicts the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a famous sculpture. The band Samothrace also used an image of this sculpture [in the] artwork of their album after which this beer is named.”