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A designer judges beer labels with rusty art history

Tatiana Mac
Art Director

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.

Ancient Beer Jug
Ancient egyptian beer jug. No labels for discretion.
Bavarian
Weihenstephaner adorns the Bavarian crest—übertight.

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).

Coors
Anchorsteam
Budweiser
Budweiser set a style guide of sorts for beers to come, such as oldie favorites Coors and Anchor Brewing. Many long-standing breweries maintain and revisit these labels year after year as sources of inspiration for rebrands and special releases—doing so reinforces brand recognition and historical tradition—and makes the labels really freakin’ hip.
Hefeweizen
Widmer extrapolates some classic elements for a recent Hefeweizen rebrand.
Bauhaus Sensibilities of Type, Form and Function
Redhook
We can thank the Bauhaus movement for the first use of letters as visual elements (rather than just information carriers). Strong type-driven labels evoke a bold, no-nonsense modernism. Textures and illustration take a back seat to oversized names against solid backgrounds. To everyone who says design is just picking out fonts and colors, well… you’re still wrong. (What did you think I was going to say?)
Great Divide
Bellingham

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.

Cool Beer Designs
Tarantino
Sometimes breweries will commission artists to create a series of labels for special releases (such as in the case of Deschutes Brewery Jubelale). Commissioning artists is not only beneficial from a community building perspective, but establishes a context of collectability.
Jubelale
Beer nuts will want to collect them all, and compare tasting notes from year to year. A special painting gives a face to each beer. And, let’s face it, this holiday message is a delightful reprieve from those braggy family cards about how your cousins are saving elephants in Uganda.

A return to Minimalism

Kagua
Though the illustrative, classic, and bold styles epitomize most of beer trends to date, we on rare occasions see beer take a classy stance and try to play on the same field as beer or wine. Minimalistic labels, as Kagua does here with a nod to sake stylings, can evoke a sense of class and refinement to this paltry beverage. (Paltry only to the purple mouth-stained bourgeoisie housewives/husbands of [insert city here] and to the spirits-measuring bevested bartenders). Beer is the beverage of the working class—Homer Simpson, eROI creatives—but minimalistic labels like this share that beer can be on the same par as any wine or spirit.

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.”

Twofaces
21st Amendment Brewery cans combine some of the best of label trends: the boldness of typography paired with the descriptive nature of illustrations. The label tells me that this beer is likely as nuanced and detailed as the designs that wrap it.
21st amendment
Fort George Brewery (one of my personal favorite breweries) color codes its beer, and plays with the horizontality of its tall boy by turning the type on its side. The colors evoke the mood—Sunrise OPA is perfect on a balmy Indian summer day, whereas Vortex IPA is the bevvie of choice for all-night Street Fighter II marathons.
Cider
Tempt Cider (my gluten-free friend insists that cider counts as beer…Whatever, Holly!) alludes to the Gilded Era touches—gold accents and detailed foliage, with a serif that evokes hand-drawn dropcaps of old Biblical texts. Feminine details, like jewels, roses, and gloves, tell me that it’s safe for me, a woman with a weak stomach lining, to drink. (Can somebody open this for me? Don’t wanna ruin my #YOLO manicure.)
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.

Coors Light
Alu bottles allow labels to extend beyond the edge and onto the caps, providing a fully-immersive brand experience. For the indecisive, there is the added bonus of not forcing you to decide if you’re a “bottle guy” or a “can guy.” Coors kept its iconic Wilson Peak, but added a dynamic powerplay by enlarging the label to a point where you could identify that it’s a Coors can from the top of a Sochi ski slope. Bud Light maintained a nod to the ovular labels, but used the shape to illustrate how the spins feel after thirty of them.
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

Tatiana Mac
Tatiana Mac, Art Director at eROI.