If you've walked down the beer aisle lately, you've probably been confronted with a wall of bottles and cans from craft breweries across the country and the globe. Gone are the days when you'd simply reach for your go-to – Coors Light or Corona perhaps – from the half-dozen offerings; beer drinkers now enjoy more variety than ever.
With so many choices, a beer's label art is often the deciding factor in what goes into a shopping cart and what stays on the shelf. So what makes a beer label successful?
Three of the graphic designers behind three winning labels in our Readers' Choice contest for Best Beer Label dished on their process.
The seeds of a great idea
Madison Sternig and her winning Space Lettuce design — Photo courtesy of Erin Peterson Photography & Monday Night Brewing
Madison Sternig, the designer behind the first place winner Space Lettuce from Monday Night Brewing, first became interested in craft beer while working as a server and attending fine art school in Minneapolis. Today, she's involved with the design of many MNB can labels. So what inspired the black necktie covered in intergalactic heads of lettuce?
"Generally speaking, most of Monday Night's canned beer designs use a common layout of a necktie with a unique pattern that relates to the beer," explains Sternig.
"So once the name Space Lettuce Double IPA was decided upon, Jonathan Baker (Monday Night Brewing's CMO) and I decided to take a very literal approach. I tried to think of ways that lettuce could mimic objects commonly thought of when thinking of outer space, like an iceberg lettuce Saturn or a romaine rocket ship. My search history is full of pictures of lettuce!"
Keith P. Rein and his Manic Pixie Dream Beer #1 — Photo courtesy of Keith P. Rein
Second Self Beer Company's Manic Pixie Dream Beer #1, the second place winner, was inspired by a famous cinematic trope, the manic pixie dream girl. In this case, she takes the form of a green bow-wearing redhead gazing flirtatiously at drinkers from one of four unique labels.
"This movie trope came into vernacular in the early aughts describing a female character whose sole purpose is for the advancement of another character without any apparent goals of her own – she's often unattainable and quirky, existing to bring joy of some form to the main character," says label designer Keith P. Rein.
"The beer was aged in BLiS bourbon-maple syrup barrels, which themselves are difficult to acquire. The phrase 'highly desirable, yet unattainable' became a driving force behind our concept."
Hopsynth from Upland Brewing Co. — Photo courtesy of Upland Brewing Co.
Young & Laramore, the design company behind fourth place Hopsynth from Indiana's Upland Brewing Company, found inspiration in the brewing process itself.
"By talking to the brewers, it soon became clear that making a sour ale is very much a combination of science and art. Critically important is the careful blending of different batches and barrels to create a complex yet balanced flavor profile. From that, the idea of 'blended works of art' was born."
The company then worked with artist Michael Cina to create paintings blending color and shape in unique and arresting ways.
It's what's inside that counts
Branding a beer – naming it and creating its label art – often comes toward the end of the grain to glass process. The brewing process influences the name, and the name goes on to inform the label art. In the case of Space Lettuce, the team at Monday Night Brewing found themselves using cosmic sounding hop varieties, like Galaxy hops, seeding the idea of hops in space.
"We always try to take something from the beer – its ingredients, its history, its tasting notes – and use that as a starting point to riff on names," says Sternig.
The lettuce pattern used for the Space Lettuce bow tie — Photo courtesy of Monday Night Brewing
Ingredients played a key role in the branding of both Hopsynth and Manic Pixie Dream Beer #1 as well. A variety of green hop colors in the artwork of the former communicate the use of dry hopping and experimental hops in the final product. For the latter, four key ingredients appear across the four can designs: bourbon, maple, coffee and oats.
"The challenge was introducing each ingredient in an interesting way across four cans," explains Rein. "You can see this evolution in some of the sketches. A few of these sketches explore the hidden sexuality oftentimes associated with the manic pixie dream girl, but you can tell with the finished design, this was toned down quite a bit."
Early sketch of Manic Pixie Dream Beer #1 — Photo courtesy of Keith P. Rein
From brain to bottle: A concept becomes reality
Once the beer has been brewed and the concept decided, it's time to get down to the design dirty work. Each artist has their own process, but collaboration is always key. In the case of Hopsynth and other brews from Upland, that means the design agency and brewers work closely together to determine what elements of the beer (ingredients, taste, texture, etc.) should be included, as well as the feeling it should convey to a potential buyer.
For Rein, Manic Pixie Dream Beer #1 was his first beer label, but his design process is usually the same. First, listen to the client. Second, start sketching. Third, make sure none of the initial concepts are already on the market.
"My studio is a short walk to my local beer mecca," says Rein, "so I'll peruse the labels. When you are working on a beer label, you can't really try the finished product, so I'll also pick up a few beers of the same style to sip on while working."
While Sternig lives in a different city than Monday Night Brewing, she manages to work closely with Jonathan Baker (the owner) to bring the design to life.
"Unfortunately, I don't live in Atlanta, so I'm unable to try the beers we're developing designs for," she explains. "Usually Jonathan will make suggestions for the idea behind a beer's artwork, but I also have a lot of freedom in terms of how those ideas are translated visually. Since Jonathan also has graphic design experience, he gives me great feedback throughout the development process. We go back and forth until we settle on a design that we're both stoked about."
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Standing out on a busy shelf
With often dozens – if not hundreds – of competitors on the shelf, standing out can make or break the sales success of a beer.
"You're really creating a first impression for the beer and sometimes the brewery, so it's important to think about that the entire time the design is being developed," says Sternig. "Symbology and color are very important. Having some elements of each label that are uniform from beer to beer helps with continuity."
Rein's Manic Pixie Dream Beer #1 label is a bit of a departure from the rest of the Second Self line, but there's continuity in the brewery's iconic split label design. Designers at Young & Laramore add touches like gold foil to elevate the packaging to match the prestige of a beer like Hopsynth.
We love these labels, and we know 10Best readers do too. But what do the designers think of their competition on the winners list?
"A lot of the top 10 designs are a success because they utilize the entire can with art + design," notes Rein.
According to the folks at Young & Laramore, "They're all very well-crafted pieces of art with strong visual interest – like any successful piece of packaging, they draw you in and then reward your attention with subtle details."
We all know how much effort brewers put inside their bottles, but it's clear that these artists put just as much care into the outside as well. So, the next time you find yourself in the grocery store craving a new brew, go ahead and judge a beer by its label.