As beers from all over the world crowd the shelves, it’s tough to stand out. Your beer might have the quality ingredients, but if you don’t have the winning typography or graphic spark, your bottle with the sunset might get passed over for the can with the leaping pigs bumping bellies.
Part commercial art/part fine art, beer labels merge with the beer-drinking experience. Mega-breweries have known this for generations: you can’t separate Coors from its Rocky Mountains or Budweiser from its eagles and coat of arms. By comparison, craft breweries are just as creative outside the bottle as in. From splashy, bold logos to arresting illustrations and photographs, these labels grab your attention and even tell a short story.
To delve into the world of beer labels, I talked to the authors of a new book on the topic, as well as some local artists whose work appears on Connecticut bottles and cans.
Beauty by design
To get an overview of the industry, I turned to “Cool Beer Labels: The Best Art & Design from Breweries Around the World” (Print Books, 2014), from Wallingford co-author Steven Speeg and Pittsburgh-based co-author Daniel Bellon. It’s a mix of stunning photography and insightful commentary from a designer’s perspective.
It covers smaller U.S. breweries in geographic chapters. Speeg writes about breweries on the East and West coasts, while Bellon focuses on the Midwestern, Southern and international breweries. Their profiles focus on the breweries, but go deeper into the packaging. Their interviews with the designers (sometimes in-house, sometimes from design firms) and brewery owners include those from BLINDTIGER Design in Seattle, Wash.; Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Brew Dog in Scotland; and 8 Wired Brewing in New Zealand.
Speeg works as an associate creative director at World Wrestling Entertainment in Stanford, but he’s also a home brewer, and even has his own line of beers from what he calls Spooky Brewery. The design for his Possession Pale, which makes an appearance in the book, reflects his love of horror movies. It’s basically a demonic woman or long-haired man who looks like he’s torn from a poster from a 1970s splatter-fest film with a thin plot and a big fake-blood budget. Does it make me want to drink the beer? Not really. But it makes me want to stare at the bottle; and while I’m staring, I might as well try what’s inside…
Speeg said he relished doing the research for the book, discovering beers from breweries he’d never heard of. “It was inspiring to see the range of art styles from all of the different regions,” he wrote in an email. “From the bold use of diecut labels of Crux Fermentation [of Oregon] to the playful graphic approach of Partizan Brewing [in the United Kingdom], I was left motivated to create new labels for my own homebrew.”
Beer label design is a bit like album design, Speeg said, drawing a parallel between buying a bottle for the imagery and taking a chance on a CD for the same reason.
“Labels sell the beer,” Bellon agreed, during a phone interview. “For example, I’m not a big IPA person. I was at the store and I saw an amazing can: it’s an IPA, and I’ll pick it up.”
Gandhi and the devil
When it comes to creating the images that inspire the purchase, I turned to Craig Gilbert, whose work appears on many of New England Brewing Company’s cans. Gilbert — an artist, author and reiki teacher – has been involved with NEBCO since it opened in Woodbridge more than 10 years ago. He’s been friends with owner Rob Leonard since they were kids and started home brewing with Leonard back in the 1980s.
Gilbert’s work is a little twisted. It is cartoon illustration that brings out the nightmare in its characters. Take his label for 668: The Neighbor of the Beast, a Belgian strong ale sold in cans. The focus is on a schlubby-looking guy who happens to live next to Satan. The dichotomy of the suburban blandness and a red, horned silhouette reflects the artist’s off-center take on life. (Gilbert works with graphic artist Russell Shaddox, who colors Gilbert’s artwork and adds the typeface during the digitization process.)
Gilbert, whose work can be found at www.thatcraigguy.com, helps invent beer names as well. Probably the name that’s on the most amount of beer lover’s lips is Gandhi -Bot, the celebrated double India Pale Ale that features, well, a robotic version of Mahatma Gandhi. There is at least one person in the world that made Gandhi-Bot a permanent part of their lives: Gilbert said it was a proud moment indeed when he saw his first Gandhi-Bot tattoo on a fan.
My favorite Gilbert creation is his darkly comic illustration for Weiss Trash Culture, for New England’s mildly sour Berlinerweiss. It features a very pregnant woman cradled by her cigarette-smoking, mulleted beaux, in front of a trailer (subtly addressed “668”) near a three-legged dog.
Leonard said that he and fellow employees love it when Gilbert comes in with a sketch for a label. “Sometimes one of us comes up with an idea or name and hands it over to Craig to bring it to life,” Leonard said. “He simply nails it. He knows just how to capture what we were thinking and it always comes out funnier and more clever than we expected.”
Speeg pointed out that a new trend in beer labels is allowing local artists to personalize each new brand of beer, instead of sticking with a similar look. That’s what Relic Brewing of Plainville has decided to do, and it has some of the most haunting and exotic labels in the state.
One of the artists commissioned to create Relic labels is Samela Aguirre, a graduate of the Hartford Art School who now lives on Long Island. Aguirre has created two aesthetically different labels for Relic. One, for Madeline – a Belgian-style blonde ale – features watercolor and an inked drawing of an aloof mermaid casually smoking a cigarette from a long holder. The other, for The Falconess, is much more ephemeral, but also features a strong heroine: this one is winged and masked for a costume ball.
“After hearing [owner Mark Sigman’s] vision for the beer and the title, the actual imagery was totally up to me,” Aguirre explained in an email. “As I sketched out possibilities I was in regular contact with him bouncing off ideas, but ultimately he completely trusted me with the labels. I had a friend pose for me for the Madeline label.”
Creating beer labels is satisfying, the artist said. “It’s a really great feeling to browse through beer at the liquor store and see your own artwork on the shelves,” said Aguirre. “With Relic especially, it’s all very personal and does not feel like a business transaction at all.”
Going whole hog
One of the newest breweries in the state, Black Hog of Oxford, hasn’t gotten into canning yet, but that hasn’t stopped them from creating the imagery for its first beers. When the partnership of owners wanted a look that fit their style, they turned to painter Maximilian Toth of New Haven (www.maximiliantoth.com).
He’s created splashy, playful labels. The most arresting is the one for Ginga’ Ninja, a red India pale ale made with fresh ginger. It’s of a beautiful, pale redheaded woman poised to double-toss some deadly throwing stars. Another, for Easy Rye ‘Da, is a portrait of a co-owner Jason Sobocinski’s 1964 Honda Superhawk.
“I love his work,” Sobocinski said. “When he has a passion he puts everything of himself into it. In his fine art work it strikes a chord with me. He does a lot of work that touches on coming of age and youth in rebellion and looking back at the wilder times of being young, and that’s just the kind of things I love.”
Toth said the “Black Hog style” is a mix of his own handiwork and the tastes of brewer Tyler Jones and brothers Jason and Tom Sobocinski.
“I’m used to working in the fine arts where I never have anyone getting much of a say in what I make or how I make it,” Toth wrote in an email. “But this is a very different product with a different audience than what I’m used to and I do want to make sure that the gentlemen that own the company are not just happy with the images but excited by and enthusiastic about them.”
There are standards for commercial art that simply don’t apply when it comes to the freedom of a gallery. That hasn’t stood in the way of Toth getting his vision across, whether it’s a frightening pig head with a grapefruit in its mouth (for Black Hog S.W.A.G.) or the silhouette of a hiker for Granola Brown Ale.
“If you look at my paintings and drawings, a lot of what’s going on there is a play between the quickly recognizable and much smaller or quieter moments of line work or innuendo and narrative,” Toth explained. “There should be details in the work that essentially are pay offs to the viewer for taking the time to inspect the work. I wanted the labels to function the same way but also had to find a way to do so while still keeping a fresh hand-drafted quality and being easily reproducible.”
With all of the cross-over between fine art and labels, there is one huge difference that Toth identified. “I need ONE person to love the paintings or drawings at a time,” he wrote. “That’s it, one person, one buyer. [With t]he cans, this is the face of a great company, great guys I believe fully in, and it’s a big part of what will make someone pick it amongst a huge sea of great craft beer being made right now.”
Judging beer by their cover
Another Connecticut beer label designer, Tim Phelps of Torrington, agreed that design for beer needs to stand out from the competition. “Effective beer labels need to be eye-catching, and stand out on the shelf in the sea of other ones available,” he said. “Having a catchy name, as well as a great label is key. For a first-time buyer, they may be buying solely on the name and/or cool packaging if they know nothing about the product or brewery’s reputation.”
Phelps, who has created labels for several breweries in the state including Thomas Hooker of Bloomfield and Broad Brook Brewing of East Windsor, said that designing for cans versus bottles brings unique opportunities for the artist. Creating for bottles brings out more freedom, since there are generally fewer restrictions on colors. “An advantage to designing for a can is more real estate than a bottle label,” he said. “There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but I’ve really enjoyed the 16-ounce can format.”
From talking to designers, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the form, and will be giving a little extra attention to the details of my next six-pack. We owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who add that extra layer of artistry to an industry already overflowing with talent.
Until next time, sip well.
A shorter version of this column was originally published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Nov. 12, 2014.