Guest blog penned by Jason Leta
For craft beer, the packaging is now just as important as the product itself. And as a beer-sipping designer I’ll tell you why.
My mouth is dry as an angry blast of Georgia Avenue bus exhaust side-swipes me. I slip into the local grocery to seek some relief. Slowly I am lured past the produce by the whirling freezers towards the glow of newly minted aluminum in the beer aisle. I pause. Do I need some beer? The colorful packages beckon to me as my eyes dart from label to label. I think I do need some beer. But what do I want? Sometimes I know the style of beer I’m after, but more often than not I have no idea when walking into the grocery store beer aisle. I just go with what catches my eye.
I can’t help it, as a designer I am naturally attracted to good beer packaging. Well designed packaging is literally a brand’s first impression. With so much visual noise out there sometimes a brand has to use every method in the design book to yank people’s eyeballs and get their attention.
Design packaging: beyond the label
There’s a beer for every occasion and an occasion for every beer. From slugging back PBRs at the college dive bar to sipping a lambic sour in a 3-Star Michelin restaurant (Oui Oui!), beer can span the spectrum of experiences.
And for any occasion you might have, there’s no shortage of choice. These days you can find an almost endless variety of beer styles. Session beers, lagers, chocolate stouts, pumpkin ales, kolsches, marzen’s, grapefruit IPA’s, sour ales…there is no end to the ever-growing litany of beers out there. As a consumer who can have any number of these at your local grocery store, it takes more than just a novelty flavor (hello glitter beer!) or clever name (looking at you “Hoppily Ever After”) for us to pick up a beer off the shelf and make that sale.
From left to right: Evil Twin’s “Big Ass Money Stout” brewed with frozen pizza and actual Norweigan cash, Smartmouth’s “Saturday Morning” an IPA brewed with brand name Lucky Charm marshmallows, and Twisted Pine’s “Ghost Face Killah” beer brewed from 6 different chilis including ghost pepper.
The craft beer market as a whole is now more insanely competitive than ever. In a lot of towns, it seems every month there is a new brewery opening their doors to the world, or a new experimental beer being announced as an entirely new style in official craft beer guidelines. No longer can craft beer brands just crank out a new beer and hope that it magically resonates with their beer drinkers because it’s “craft.”
So how exactly does a brewery lure us in at the grocery store to pick up their beer? The answer: good design. Especially when a word of mouth reputation or internet recommendation doesn’t yet exist for a consumer, good design is what makes the sale. It’s the difference between someone stopping to pick up that six-pack versus them walking past it, only to move on to the next item on their grocery list.
Real talk: Good beer design creates conversation
Beer packaging should be fun and make us want to enjoy it and our lives. I want to be transported to a better place if only momentarily. Take me back to that beautiful Alaskan alpine lake I visited with crisp cool air to soak in the sunshine and snow capped mountains running straight towards the heavens. Ahh, my lungs feel better just thinking about it. Or challenge me to contemplate a trinket of American life from that brilliant William Carlos Williams poem “To Elsie.”
Beer brands who do this well relate to the consumer and express their unique brand personality. Perhaps you secretly want to be a pirate sailing in the salty carribean air of the 1700’s? You can get briny-deep in a barrel of Coast Brewing’s “BlackBeerd”. Maybe you’re a stone cold motorhead who only enjoys steel and hard rock. Roll on down and pick up a pack of Anarchy Brew Co’s “Flat Out”. Do you hate fascism and want to make a political stand against neo-nazi’s? Grab a fistfull of Omnipollo “Anniversary Coward” . Perhaps you are lured by long days on the lake, bad jokes, and the fresh scent of mango? There’s plenty of Harpoon’s “Camp Wannamango” to fill your canoe. Or could it just be you love the warmth of a sunny summer day and the taste of cucumber while waiting for the hors d’oeuvres to arrive? Contemplate your afternoon with some Brouwerij West “Strange Beautiful.” Qualities like this are transmitted through the brand personality by good design. They represent more than just the individual flavor of the beer, they show the attitude of the company, and the very occasions it was brewed for.
Beer is a liquid luxury that any doctor would tell you to go without, but it sure makes starting conversations with a bunch of strangers a lot easier and as a designer, it makes me appreciate packaging as the first introduction to a brand’s personality. From highly unusual containers to challenging the perception of what a “beer label” should be, here are five beers who have inspired me with their unique designs.
1. Bernie’s Brewing Co.
I love it when a brand thinks about their packaging as more than a “label” that is slapped on a product. For Bernie’s Brewing Co. the bottle is also an experience in itself that is incorporated into the design solution. I acknowledge that for manufacturing reasons, there are some limitations in size and shape for beer cans and bottles, but when the material and container is given extra care and consideration, the experience for the consumer is always elevated.
In the case of Bernie’s Brewing Company of Australia, a lot of thought was put into the form of the container that holds the beer itself. This beer feels like it can clear the oil lines in your steel pony. It feels heavy duty with purposeful utility. The shape of the container is unique, harkening back to the “conetop” designs of beer cans from the 1930’s. It immediately stands out from every other beer can on an aisle.
Like a metal-tin with embossed type to run your fingers across, the bottle allows you to drift back to some olden industrial era long gone. Even the six-pack container was given consideration with smoked plastic like a frosted shower door to allow just a subtle hint of the bottles’ form to be visible, yet dark enough to provide good contrast behind the logo mark. Even though this is a special first edition can, what better way to announce your brand to a crowded market loud and clear?
2. Pi Beer for Ostrovica Brewery
Since craft beer has an endless variety of flavors, what better way to express this than the never-ending mathematical constant ”𝝿” number? By using the Pi as his concept, designer Daniil Shumakov is able to pluck particular sets of numbers to use as descriptors for each style of special beer available by the small Ostrovica brewery.
Each beer style adheres together to his typographic first, minimal art direction. The black-glass bottles provide a stark code interface background for the beers to be assembled into the ultimate Pi-number sequence. The concept works both with bottles together as a set and also as a beautiful single bottle of minimal design. The tall condensed numerals over black really stand out in contrast for drawing the beer drinker’s eye to them on the shelf.
3. Minister Brewery
Illustration is widely used on beer packaging. A lot of times this is to position a brand as young and hip to urban city dwellers. Some beer brands use illustration better than others. Minister Brewery (“Browar Minister” in Polish) uses illustration in a hilarious way to establish the world that their brand lives in. Whether it be a beach laden full of sunburned thong-cladded couples and inflatable rafts or the underground graffiti-covered breakdancing streets of Berlin. The older bearded fellow acts as our guide helping to tell the story of each beer style.
Each of Ministry Brewery’s beers allow us to enjoy them like reading a graphic novel or comic strip. By partnering with the fun, off-beat illustration style of Kinga Offert, the visual identity stays consistent across all of the brand’s beers and makes them easy to spot. Ministry Brewery doesn’t take itself too seriously and in doing so the brand allows us to laugh and relate with contemporary culture.
4. Stillwater Artisanal
Speaking of not taking ourselves too seriously, this special batch brew by Stillwater Artisanal and designer Mike Van Hall brilliantly pokes fun at labels themselves while also commenting on our throwaway culture. The “Shelfie Set” as Mike calls it immediately looks like some type of generic product left behind that has been marked down several times, but draws you in closer to examine it out of confusion.
By leaving the bare aluminum exposed and using generic grocery store labels for symbolism, they become a statement on their own about how quickly useless labels can become. Mike cleverly weaves in the brewer’s identity into the generic labels only to be recognized as the last piece of upside-down visual info. In this sense, Stillwater’s brand has the freedom to transform itself into anything they wish to joke or comment about while simultaneously standing out from every other beer on the shelf. Stillwater challenges the consumer to consider beer from a completely different perspective that not many brands are willing to do. This is truly a more thought-provoking way to elevate the dialogue with beer drinkers.
5. Red Button Brew
First impressions matter. And for beer, packaging is that first impression. It’s make or break. The outward packaging is what sets the initial tone, and gives the first dose of information about that beer and brewery. Red Button Brew went above and beyond by not just using playful illustrations for their bottles, but designed them for interaction.
By thermochromattically printing directly onto the bottles, beer drinkers get to enjoy the act of revealing the illustrations by chilling the bottles in their fridge. This causes some anticipation and curiosity on behalf of beer drinkers to see how things will turn out. Piquing curiosity can be just enough to get that thirsty person to pick up a pack.
All of the fun illustrations center around the giant candy-like “red button” daring you to activate it, afterwards revealing a different story or activity on each bottle. Thermochromatic printing has been around for awhile, but this is just one fun example of all kinds of potential design-mischief craft beer labels could unleash on the world…
Good Design Matters
Designs like the above set the tone without having to say a word. A six pack for sitting around a bonfire with some old friends is a different beer than that fancy-pants esoteric beer you’ve been saving to pair with that special anniversary dinner.
By recognizing the value that design can bring to craft beer brands beyond just a label to slap on, and by making design discussions central to the creation of new beers, a greater connection can be made with beer drinkers everywhere. No beer brand wants to be invisible on the veld of a beer aisle. Now more than ever, especially for a craft beer brand, well designed packaging is key to luring new consumers in and keeping current consumers coming back. Good design matters and helps thirsty beer drinkers quickly make up their mind in the beer aisle, stopping them in their tracks to find their next favorite brew.