Beer Labels – Design changes overtime

They say that beauty is in the eye of the holder, but what if beauty is in the hand of the holder instead? Over the years the design of beer bottles and cans has changed quite dramatically. In this post I am going to try and unpick these changes and why I think they have occurred.

Before the explosion of craft beer in the last 20 years the market was dominated by some large global brewers such as Anheuser Busch (Budweiser) and their beer labels appeared to have a pretty generic look to them. A label with the company logo, brewery name and some wording describing the beer e.g. crisp, refreshing, light etc. Typically in only three or four colours and trying to mimic some traditional European style fonts and crests at the top of the labels. By mimicking the European styles of font and form the aim was to lend an air of quality to the product in the container.

Budweiser label pre-1990

There was nothing particularly exciting about the labels and I believe that this due to a number of reasons. Firstly, there was less competition for the big brewers with the top 10 brewers in the US in the 1980 having ~93% of the market share and therefore options were limited and there was no need from the brewers to be innovative with their labelling. Secondly, there was a large amount of brand loyalty among beer drinkers where they would typically only drink one brand whenever they decided to reach for a cold one from the fridge.

In the US this started to change with the deregulation of brewing in the late 1970s, which enabled people to start brewing beer at home without a license. This ultimately led to a number of pioneers setting up breweries with a focus on flavour, ingredients and innovation as a way of differentiating themselves from the macro brewers. One of the first to reach a broader audience was Sierra Nevada operating out of California with their Pale Ale which is widely regarded as the first mainstream craft beer.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

The differences in label design are immediately obvious. There is much more colour present and an image which evokes thoughts of nature and natural processes and ingredients which haven’t been tampered with. The company name doesn’t take up the majority of the image and there has been a change in terminology with ‘handcrafted ale’ very prominent in this design. If you look on the shelves of the stores today you will see multiple beers from craft brewers but only single beers from the big macro brewers as such one of the of the main features of the label is the beer name, in this case Pale Ale. A reason for this is that craft brewers produce multiple beers throughout the year and needed to provide an easy way for consumers to identify the beer style in the bottle. This point highlights the real use of the label in playing a key role in educating the consumer as to what the beer is, where it is produced, who has produced it and what to expect from it.

From my point of view the rise in prevalence of craft beer is directly correlated to an increase in creativity of the design now adorning our shelves. My thoughts are that there are a number of reasons for this. An increase in competition means that people want to be different to attract the consumers eye and hopefully resulting cash. People see craft beer as being synonymous with counter culture and as such attracts people who are more creative and are looking for something that isn’t generic in appearance.

A combination of these factors has now led to the new and current wave of key design features, namely brand identity and logos. These two concepts are very prominent for one brewery in particular, Beavertown in London England.

Beavertown Gamma Ray

The folks at Beavertown have an in house artist, Nick Dwyer, who is responsible for all of their artwork. When we compare the Beavertown design work we can see there are vast differences from the early craft beer labels with much vivid colours present and in the case of Nick there is a strong Mars Attacks theme throughout their core range which is immediately recognisable as being from Beavertown. Another UK brewer adopting these new trends is Cloudwater from Manchester. Their logo is a cloud which looks to be raining.

Cloudwater bottle labels

Their logo is in the centre of the label and the backgrounds are produced by local artists with new brew series having a local artist design several labels for each unique beer. I personally love this approach as it not only makes the beers look amazing but builds a community feel among local producers from a variety of different products and like the Beavertown labels can give a platform for artists to exhibit their work where they might not have had the opportunity previously.

When I compare the labels from Beavertown and Cloudwater I get a slightly different impression of the finished product before even trying it. For the Gamma Ray American Pale Ale the impression I get is a bold, brash party beer which is unapologetic for the flavour and what they have done. While for the Cloudwater I feel like the beer is a premium product of high quality and which is likely to be well balanced and something to be enjoyed with a good meal. I guess this just goes to show the importance of the design of the labels for the beer which brewers are trying to sell. As such I believe that we are now entering a phase where design is going to play an increasingly important role in the retail. Brewers are going to have to focus on a consistent product branding which appeals to the demographic of consumers that they are trying to target. Additionally, with an ever increasingly complex array of flavours and styles available I believe that the next phase of design for labels will be education. By this I believe that the labels will have to educate the consumers on the aroma, flavour, appearance to expect from the product and what it pairs with e.g. food, cigars etc. to help enhance the experience.

One thing I have not mentioned to date is the move away from bottles to cans. This is potentially a game changer for craft beer design as it offers more available space for brewers to get their message across to the consumers and for them to express their creativity and philosophy, but I think a discussion for cans will have to be for another post.

This blog post is a part of Design Blogger Competition organized by CGTrader


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