The U.S. is home to more than 8,000 breweries, brewpubs and taprooms. If you’ve been shopping for beer lately, you’ve probably found no shortage of options to choose from, so much so that the determining factor when buying a new beer often comes down to the label.
We sat down with five graphic designers, all of whom took home top honors in our 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards, to discuss the art of the beer label.
What comes first, the beer or the art?
When we go to buy beer, most of us are in it for the liquid inside. It would make sense then that most label designs take their inspiration from the beer itself.
Sean Jones and his concept sketches, finished label art for Cowboy Poet — Photo courtesy of Sean Jones / Archetype Brewing
Cowboy Poet, the beer label by graphic designer Sean Jones, is a super crushable American Lager from Archetype Brewing.
“There is something comforting and relaxing about easy drinking beers,” says Jones. “That’s why our cowboy is just chilling out in the desert. Originally I might have gotten a bit carried away and drawn the cowboy drunk face down in the sand.”
Jones has designed nearly a dozen labels for Archetype, and while he enjoys almost unlimited creative freedom, his process typically starts with a kickoff meeting with Head Brewmaster Steven Anan. “We usually brainstorm about colors and how this beer makes you feel when you drink it. This is actually one of my favorite parts of the process,” he explains.
Punchgut, the artist behind the Doomsday Device label, began with this inspiration quote from Drekker Brewing Company: “Futurama on acid with Tesla coils.”
“We have a very fluid collaborative relationship,” says Punchgut, who has designed all of Drekker’s 50-plus labels. “Sometimes the beer is complete, in the process or just floating around in one of our brewer’s brains. Sometimes they present a concept for full imagery and other times full freedom.”
For Jose Reyes and the team at Metaleap Creative, designing the label for Lord Grey was just one piece of a bigger puzzle. Georgia’s Three Taverns Brewery, best known for their dark Belgian-inspired beers and hoppy IPAs, tends to take a serious approach to their beer packaging.
Their more unorthodox Sour Asylum Series (of which Lord Grey is a part) left more room for creativity.
José Reyes, Creative Director at Metaleap Creative and Lord Grey label — Photo courtesy of Metaleap Creative / Three Taverns Brewery
“The first can we designed in the series was for a beer called Rapturous. Knowing this would become a series, we pitched the idea of representing each beer with a character that represented all of its quirks and fullness. We imagined that if you were walking in the woods and came across any one of the characters, you would be absolutely taken with it,” explains Reyes.
“For Lord Grey, our initial character inspiration was Tom Bombadil from ‘The Hobbit.’ He embodies this ethereal quirky spirit that seemed to us magical, other-worldly and fantastical.”
The Hopcromancer label from Bad Weather Brewing Company was also inspired by “The Hobbit,” but unlike the other winners, without a particular beer in mind.
“It was originally created as an entry into a beer art show,” says artist Lucas Gluesenkamp. “It got rejected, and the guys at Bad Weather really wanted it to be the name and art for the IPA they were about to release.”
Original minipainting and finished Hopcromancer beer can — Photo courtesy of Lucas Gluesenkamp / Bad Weather Brewing Company
Gluesenkamp has designed nearly every label for the brewery, each created to convey a sense of eeriness. “We decided years back that the ‘bad weather’ we were visually representing should not encompass destruction, but hint at something more ethereal or ominous.”
From idea to reality
When it comes to beer labels, the design process is as diverse as the beers themselves.
Jones takes a mixed bag approach to his label designs, each meant to reflect a different Jungian archetype to create its own surreal story.
“My process usually involves a lot of freeform sketching, brain dumps and hating myself for not having good ideas,” he says. “I do a lot of illustration by hand and refine things with tracing paper. And lately I’ve been working with an iPad, using a variation of Astropad and Fresco.”
Gluesenkamp, in contrast, hardly sketches at all beforehand. “I start out with a very open-ended impressionistic painting,” he explains. “I add in more and more details until it looks done to me. It’s just a lot of accidents that start to form into something interesting.”
Punchgut makes the process sound easy (though we’re sure it’s not). “Rough sketch, redraw finalized with clean line work, add color and POOF…art.”
The team at Metaleap Creative take a strategic approach, whether designing the Lord Grey label or a Paste Magazine cover.
“When we get on the phone to discuss, we treat those calls like mini anthropological studies, asking every possible question we can about motivation, desire, short and long term goals,” said Reyes. “We then concept and create mood boards, presenting rough ideas to the client. Once we settle on a direction, we move toward the finished piece.”
Clockwise from top left: Craft Brew Doodle Crew at work, sketch for No Bones DDH Hazy IPA, Aaron Scamihorn, the crew admiring their work, finished can design — Photo courtesy of Craft Brew Doodle Crew / Indiana City Brewing
The No Bones label from Indiana City Brewing is the result of perhaps the most unusual design process. Aaron Scamihorn started the Craft Brew Doodle Crew series to encourage collaboration within the local art scene.
“It’s essentially musical chairs doodling, where each station has a random theme that the crew submits and every 10 minutes, a new artist works on that piece. We take our best pieces, and one artist owns the final steps of refining the line art and finishing the coloring digitally.”
No Bones DDH Hazy IPA was the 22nd release, with artist Erik Lundorf in charge of the final touches.
“I love how beverage packaging has become this canvas for artwork,” says Scamihorn. “This industry has such a cool opportunity to put this beautiful work in the hands of consumers on a consistent basis.”
Next time you find yourself in the beer aisle, remember these words of wisdom from Punchgut: “Sometimes it’s okay to judge a book by its cover. What’s the worst that can happen? You get beer in your mouth.”