In 2012, Brad Shaffer and Jason Klein founded Chicago’s Spiteful Brewing on a budget as tight as the lid on a jar of peanut butter. They maximized scant square footage by installing both brewhouse and packaging line on wheels for simple swapping, as they didn’t have enough space to do both simultaneously.
The buddies brewed and self-distributed endless distinct beers, from the mango-infused Whale Tickler double IPA to God Damn Pigeon Porter, a porter flavored with peanut butter, raspberry, maple syrup and more. The beers were packaged, not kegged – a more profitable path. However, bottling and canning a constant stream of beers requires labels, and that’s where they hit a speed bump.
“We could do a lot of things to get the brewery to run, but neither of us can draw for shit,” Klein said. Swift label creation and approval was paramount. “There’s nothing worse than a double IPA sitting there without a label.” They hired artist and illustrator Luke Snobeck as Spiteful’s first employee, who gave comical beer names (Group Texts Are for Wieners, Can’t Someone Else Do It?) a consistent underground-comic look, evocative of Adult Swim on ‘shrooms. “We wanted an element of recognition, but we wanted the labels to be captivating at the same time,” Klein said.
Today, Spiteful’s cans arrest eyeballs at beer stores, separating themselves from the visual pack. That’s no easy task. Store shelves are mobbed with fruited IPAs and funky beers overrun with feral yeast. Deploying eccentric ingredients is no longer a novelty meant for standing out, especially with quality beer everywhere. So the next great differentiator is the package, and specifically the can.
“It’s a blank slate that you can wrap 360 degrees,” said Christian Helms, owner and creative director of Helms Workshop, an Austin-based design firm whose work has driven the aesthetic of breweries such as Modern Times Beer, Fullsteam and Boulevard Brewing Company. “You can’t interact with a piece of brand messaging more intimately than a can.”
Beer cans have become premium visual currency, the markers of good taste. Scroll through a beer-focused Instagram feed, and you’ll likely spot Other Half IPAs outfitted in bold, geometric cans; the acid-tripped sci-fi and fantasia of Pipeworks cans like Lizard King pale ale; or Modern Times’ gorgeous typographic treatments twinned to a vibrant color scheme. What’s inside the can might ultimately matter most, but the outside is dang crucial too.
“The cans allow for the exposure of our values and ideology.”
In the past, many breweries treated beers as individual elements instead of part of a design system. But repetitive elements can be a boon for the bottom line. “You’re helping brewers create an opportunity where customers say, ‘I loved that other beer. I’ll try this one too,'” Helms said.
The Minneapolis-based brewery Fair State Brewing Cooperative has a similar mission with its can design. “We want you to walk into a liquor store and know exactly what you’re looking for,” said Fair State President and CEO Evan Sallee.
Fair State accidentally stumbled into its superb logo. After finishing the business plan, Sallee knew he needed great design. He just didn’t know where to look. He canvassed friends who suggested the local agency Little. As luck had it, one designer there became a member of the cooperatively owned brewery. “He really took a strong hand and helped propel the design forward,” Salle said. Today, the “infinity pint” design is steadfast across every Fair State can and bottle, be it a pilsner or hefeweizen. “It’s super-important for your brand to catch your consumer’s eye,” Salle added.
Recently, Fair State started partnering with area artists to design labels for an irregular series of sours, an idea catching fire countrywide. Hardywood Craft Brewery‘s Brewer & Artists series decorates small-batch experiments with one-off artwork, while Great Divide highlights a different artist annually on its Denver Pale Ale can. Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Beer & Ales began canning last year with local-artist labels, part of brand and design director Josh Whitehead’s plan to gussy up the look and feel.
“The brewery was suffering from an identity crisis,” Whitehead said. He built the brewery’s identity by tethering it to the community, right down to the green tint taken from the G subway line. Since then, Whitehead has worked closely with brewers to create designs based around beer names, a process that has steadily evolved.
Given the lead time for label approval — at least a couple months — and a small brewery’s uncertain hop availability, Whitehead has assumed a more proactive role. “The artwork now drives the naming and packaging of the beer,” he said. The brewers have more leeway for recipe formulation (go on, use those rare hops you can’t grab next month), and Whitehead can cycle through themes. For example, politics played a large role in spring IPAs like Resist and Bathmophobia — alluding to President Trump’s fear of stairs.
“We feel as if we’re contributing to the cultural conversation,” Whitehead said. “The cans allow for the exposure of our values and ideology.”
Creating a cohesive brand identity can have negatives, too. You can pick a brewery out of a crowded cooler, but what happens when a brand blurs together like a kid’s finger painting? The same-same are skipped over for the spanking fresh, leaving brewers with a dilemma: kill darling brews or give ’em a makeover?
Stillwater Artisanal has been synonymous with farmhouse-inspired beers garlanded with gothic-Victorian labels since it got its start in 2010. Lately, founder Brian Strumke has been creating modern IPAs and hop-packed pilsners, new-breed brews with a new look. “I felt like the brand was becoming schizophrenic, and it was messing with my creativity as well,” Strumke said. So he overhauled old favorites, sticking many in 16-ounce cans, tasking Washington, D.C. artist Mike Van Hall of Opprobriatons with delivering bright colors and a striking geometric look for each release.
“These beers needed a new breath and a new aesthetic,” Strumke said. “We haven’t sold this much Stateside and Cellar Door in seven years.” Now the mission is to make every beer individualized, a distinct brand in a time of short attention spans. “I want to make every beer look like its own product,” he added.
In a world where shiny objects soon gather dust, chasing trends (hazy IPAs! dry-hopped sours!) is no guarantee of success. Today’s breweries need labels as unique as signatures, as memorable as witnessing the aurora borealis. Doll up cans with cartoons, map out a geometrical grid, loop-de-loop typography like a roller coaster — whatever the method, we all win. “Beer looks cooler than ever,” Strumke said.
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