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The craft beer market is booming, and beer shelves and coolers carry more brands these days than ever before. So standing out from the crowd is more important than ever – and that means label design is key. Beer labels need to be clean, clear, and scannable. Bottles have limited space to work with, and complicated designs can look muddy and unattractive from a distance.

Beer enthusiasts want to try different brands and different styles of beer, and when they’re trying something they don’t know anything about, a label can catch their eye and lure them into a purchase. Of course, the beer has to be good for them to buy it again – and the label can help there, too. Give your labels a memorable, recognizable look. “Can’t remember the name of the brewery, but the label had two crows in an autumn tree” – that’s going to help them find you on the shelf again. (It’s one fine label.)

I love beer and graphic design, so we’re going to talk about four different companies and how their beer labels differentiate them from the rest of the pack. In this case, we’re not talking about one stand-out label, but rather a series of labels all using a common theme. (Special thanks to Oh Beautiful Beer for showcasing many of these labels.)

Alaskan Brewing: Pilot Series

Honoring Alaskan bush pilots, this limited edition Alaskan Brewing series started as an in-house, single barrel program, called Rough Draft, for staff to brew their own ideas. The beer that “makes it past the staff room” into their 10-barrel system becomes available in the Pilot Series. Alaskan does a beautiful job of pairing these labels with both the local natural environment and the beer inside the bottles. It’s poster-worthy art. To make it even more interesting, each beer has a “Behind the Label” story to go with it, tying the beer to both the label artwork and the local environs.

I particularly like the Double Black (those two crows I was talking about) and the Imperial Red with the king crab. The Raspberry Wheat bear and the Birch Bock moose are pretty cool, too. And the volcano for the Jalapeño Imperial IPA is both funny and right on target. (More about the artist.)

Double Black “The Story Behind the Label”

Found in creation myths and folklore from all over the world, ravens are woven into the history and culture of Alaska. Seemingly impermeable to both blistering heat and blinding cold, ravens are comfortable everywhere from the rainforests of southeast Alaska to the dry extremes of the northern latitudes, making them the most versatile songbird in the Northern Hemisphere. Big, loud, and powerful, the resilient raven is not too unlike our big, bold and boundary-challenging Double Black IPA.

Upland Brewing: Sours Series

Upland Brewing considers their sour beers to be blended works of art. I say they have labels to match. The labels for their fruited sours are splashy modern art. Artistic and colorful, Upland’s Hopsynth label was recently recognized by USA Today as one of the Top 10 Best Beer Labels in a public vote. The Hopsynth label clearly depicts the piney, citrus flavor of the beer inside. Personally, I prefer the blue and splash of green on the Blueberry label, or the bright greens and salmon of the Pawpaw, but they’re all beautiful.

We’ll let quotes from the brewery and their agency speak about these labels. We couldn’t agree more.

“As we learned more about the brewing process, it became evident that a crucial part of what makes Upland’s sours so good is the careful blending of different batches to create a complex, yet balanced flavor profile. And so the idea of “blended works of art” was born—brought to life in packaging, print and collateral featuring artwork by Michael Cina.”  ~Young & Laramore

“Michael Cina’s style depicts a beautiful blend of science and art, each resulting in a stunning visual experience. And it emphatically communicates the level of not only craft, but artistry, present in every bottle.”  ~Doug Dayhoff, President, Upland Brewing

Barley Forge

The labels for Costa Mesa, CA’s Barley Forge Brewing Co. were inspired by the Mexican card game Loteria and designed by brewery co-founder Dave Stolte. They have a quirky, retro appeal. “We think of them as more like playing cards for life, steeped in a surreal and funky aesthetic based on our many adventures.” ~Greg Nylen, co-owner and founder

Loteria originated in Europe and was brought to Mexico in 1769. Often called Mexican bingo, it is more visual and creative than “American” bingo. It also relies more upon the inventiveness of the caller than bingo does. It is played throughout a good portion of the southwestern USA, including Southern California. (More on the art of loteria.) Like the game, the Barley Forge labels are fun and engaging.

Note that each beer label has a number in the upper left. Mary Ann Frericks, co-owner of BarleyForce, explains, “All of our labels include a different number in that position and all of the numbers relate to significant events that hold meaning for us.”

Vocation Brewing

If I saw these Vocation Brewing labels on a shelf in a beer store near me (they’re in Yorkshire England), I’d have to come closer. I’d have to pick one up. I’d have to look at all the tracery and the descriptions. And then I’d have to buy at least one – and maybe more. And isn’t that exactly what a label should do? Pull customers right in, engage them, make them want your product. (Label design by Robot Food – check out some of their work!)

I love everything about these beer labels. The black background. The thin white lines that just look like a design at a distance, but resolve into a series of different images up close. The font and colors used for the beer names. It’s a very clean label totally unlike anything I’ve seen on the shelves. Those labels are so much more detailed as you get closer, and they pull you right in.

A little humor rarely goes amiss, either – their Christmas chocolate stout was named Naughty & Nice. There’s one named Life & Death that has a “smooth malty backbone” along with an image of the Grim Reaper. And I’d love to try their oatmeal stout, Cloak & Dagger.

A tip of the beer stein to these designers, beer companies, and labels! Want to get started with your own beer labels? Let’s get “hopping”!

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