The Fine Art of Labeling Beers

If your job involves tasting beer and a visual mood board, you might be part of the fortunate “storytelling team” at Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland. They are the in-house graphic designers and communicators who work with Darren Booth, an award-winning illustrator, to come up with GLBC’s striking labels. Communications Supervisor Marissa DeSantis explains the team – with input from brewers and sales staff – develops concepts based on style, seasonality and ingredients. They also draw inspiration from the people, places and history of the Great Lakes region.

Dortmunder Gold is still GLBC’s best-seller, but some designers have their own favorites that often coincide with their go-to selections. Graphic designer Gavin Thompson likes the Cleveland brewery’s Alberta Clipper porter label that incorporates elements of their brewpub sign, pink and chocolate, representing “gusts of tart raspberry and bittersweet chocolate,” plus snow.  Thompson thinks this beer and its label are “true to the spirit of Cleveland winters.”

“It’s really hard to name a new beer,” says Britt Freeman, design manager for Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, Colorado. There are so many craft beers, it’s difficult to find something no one’s thought of or riffed on. So Freeman loves it when a new beer is already named. Then she and fellow designer Kearby Milliner work on images based on the name and ingredients.

Although Left Hand’s best-seller is its Milk Stout Nitro, Freeman explained the process for one of the brewery’s newest porters: Death Before Disco. It references the infamous Disco Demolition night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979. Hoping to promote attendance, the White Sox encouraged fans to bring disco records for an explosion on the field. Some 50,000 jammed the stadium to watch the vinyl detonation. A riot ensued, and the team was forced to forfeit the second game of a double-header.

“I ask our design team to come up with a new concept and I let them know when they’re done,” quips Harry Kahn, brand manager at Magic Hat Brewing in South Burlington, Vermont. Magic Hat’s fanciful labels express the brewery’s commitment to Vermont artists and performance art. “Everyone who buys Magic Hat or comes into our tasting room comes into contact with our team’s performance,” Kahn said.

Kahn detailed the process of naming and labeling Magic Hat’s “Taken for Granite” IPA. Magic Hat’s designers tasted the beer and collaborated around two ideas: “This beautiful backdrop we live in (Vermont, which has lots of granite quarries) and not taking our customers for granted.” The brewery prematurely released a selection, and the results were disappointing. “We decided we’d never let an imperfect beer out of the brewery before it was ready again.”

Mira Lee, co-founder of The Actual Brewing Company in Columbus, describes her unusual approach to creating whimsical labels. She meets with brewers to learn about the style and process, conducts “witheringly dry” research and then moves towards a fevered “Wikipedia dream…It’s utter madness really,” she wrote in an e-mail.

That may shed light on how Actual Brewing’s Photon Light Lager label evolved. It features a lady riding on a jellyfish through rays of light. Lee says the rays reference Thomas Young’s double slit experiment proving photons display characteristics of particles and waves. And the jellyfish are the bioluminescent kind from which scientists first isolated green fluorescent proteins. Lee doesn’t think samplers necessarily need this information, but she enjoys the imaginative process.

Regardless of the design approach, it seems creative names and artistic labels are de rigueur for craft breweries. And most brewers and designers agree: The amount of thought and care that goes into eye-catching beer labels cans is often indicative of the quality inside.

Label photos courtesy Great Lakes Brewing Company.

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