Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians were the first to make beer. Bros and sises alike have been known to say “serfs up” and down a jug after a long day building pyramids or farming the Fertile Crescent. Those jugs were usually unadorned, with the rare exception of hieroglyphics or drawing of Ra (because nothing says refreshing beer like the God. of. the. Sun.).
In the Medieval times, people opted to drink beer instead of the sketchy water (as beer was boiled and thus free of contaminants). Germans, specifically Bavarians, established many of the parameters for beermaking, resulting in one of my all-time favorite words: Reinheitsgebot (say it with me: Rine-hides-gah-boat. Picture Ryan Gosling hiding in the Notebook boat). Reinheitsgebot essentially ensured that all beer was only made from water, barley, and hops.
The Gilded Age: Classic and Traditional
THE RULES AND TRADITION SURROUNDING BAVARIAN BEERMAKING PERMEATED THROUGHOUT THE REST OF EUROPE, SETTING THE PRECEDENCE FOR ELLIPTICAL IMAGERY ON STEINS, WHICH WOULD LIKELY DEFINE THE FIRST POST-INDUSTRIALIZED BOTTLED BEERS WITH OVAL LABELS.
Weihenstephaner epitomizes this OG style: Regal banners don the beer’s origins and tout that it’s produced in Germany’s oldest still-running brewery. Gold accents, wheat sheaths, crests, banners, and handwritten type are common elements, touted by other old German breweries like Hofbräu and Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu.
When Budweiser came to America, it brought many of its Germanic stylings—the first Budweiser label was even written in German. Then we said, “no, this is ‘Merica, we must write labels in ‘Merican. We also must acknowledge great things ‘mericans did on our labels.” (Important: Native Americans made a variation of beer long before Budweiser arrived. To acknowledge this historical fact, make sure you have beer on Thanksgiving).
Bauhaus Sensibilities of Type, Form and Function
The Impressionistic Years
Beer labels are canvases for some amazing illustrations, paintings, and drawings. Giving the labels a more human and imperfect edge reminds you that a real bearded human made this beer for you, not a robot and a conveyer belt.
A return to Minimalism
Arts and Crafts: The We Can Do It Attitude
THOUGH GLASS BOTTLES PHYSICALLY PUT BEER ON THE SAME MATERIALS MAP AS WINE AND SPIRITS, MANY BREWERIES ARE NOW OPTING TO CAN RATHER THAN BOTTLE TO STREAMLINE SHIPPING AND PACKAGING COSTS. ENVIRONMENTALLY THIS IS AN EVEN GREATER MOVE SINCE THE METAL CANS REQUIRE MUCH LESS ENERGY TO RECYCLE THAN GLASS.
The tinny echo and overtly cylindrical shape of the can has in the past lent itself to a cheapened feel, but product designers have found a way to innovate and elevate the canned beer experience. Think of these cans as having “embedded, full bleed labels.”
Cans now are not just reserved for your Walgreen’s billboard advertised 24-pack, but are a viable vehicle for some really excellent boutique breweries (who care about aesthetics) to get their stuff to you economically.
Post-Modernism: The Aluminium Bottle
WE ALWAYS WANT THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS—THE AGILITY AND PRACTICALITY OF A METAL CAN, BUT THE COMFORT AND HEFT OF THE BOTTLE—SO I GIVE YOU THE FLASHY ALUMINIUM BOTTLE.
Whereas traditional labels allude to the ingredients and process, modern labels reinforce that you’re going to want to get this beer to subarctic temperatures before you drink it, or else it’s going to taste terrible.
The alu bottle really is the future, today. Until the next big idea comes out, you’ve reached the end of the beer label history.
Now you are well equipped to sounding cool at any party in Portland (because, what’s more Portland than microbrews and design?). The next time you’re at a party and go to grab a beer, I encourage you to pause before shotgunning it. Look at the label. What does it say about the beer? What does it say about you, the person drinking it? Also, what are you wearing? Because that, coupled with your beer label, is going to give everyone at that party their first impression of you. If you’re wearing a triple layered polo with all three collars popped, with a silver chain, and you’re reaching for a Coor’s Light in an aluminium bottle, maybe opt to surprise instead. Grab the the Anchor Steam beer and talk about the label’s wheat imagery—how you can’t drink an Anchor Steam without remembering John Steinbeck’s honest portrayal of poverty and the American Dream through the Salinas Valley in the 1940s.
Because, my friend, like your beer, we know there’s more to you than the label you wear.
This is just the tip of the Natty Iceburg.
If I’ve piqued your interest in beer, check out Tyler’s post on how email marketing is like craft beer. If you want to geek out on more about beer labels, visit some of these well-curated blogs and blog posts:
Oh Beautiful Beer
The Dieline: 25 creative craft beer packages
Creative Bloq: Inspiring Beer Label Designs