Feast your eyes

Lily Waite asks whether real art has a place in the attention-hungry world of craft beer branding


I still remember my first trip to a bottle shop. Walking into Favourite Beers in my hometown of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, was like walking into an obscure sweet shop: so many brightly coloured bottles and cans, each bedecked with a vivid label, and many proclaiming words I didn’t understand. A few years later, I’d say I understand most beer labels (though occasionally, I’m stumped), but the sea of beer artwork has grown only more vast.

In the past five years or so, we’ve seen beer labels turn from simple logos and slogans to close to signed and numbered editions, with breweries working with illustrators, graphic designers, and fine artists to create everything from abstract oil painting to minimalist collage for labels. Some breweries curate a series of works by different artists and designers for a certain series of beers, some simply stick with one they work well with, and others simply design everything in house. 

But is it simply a very aesthetically pleasing, and actually rather delightful keeping up with the Joneses that’s driven this development in branding? Faced with a fridge of beers displaying kangaroos, anthropomorphised hops, or portly gentleman proclaiming to enjoying ‘moobing it’, what choice do new brewers and brand managers have other than to slather their packaging in the most eye-catching, exciting manner possible, so as not to fall by the wayside? That’s one way to look at it, though a cynical one. Another is to look at the wealth of creativity inherent within craft beer: the innovation, expression, and idiosyncrasies prevalent within modern brewing easily translate to other creative media. Vibrant, expressive artwork is a natural fit.

“It makes sense that a quality product that people have spent time and care making should have a label that reflects that,” says Tida Bradshaw, an artist who’s worked alongside the beer industry for several years, designing for breweries such as Affinity Brew Co. “Most people shop with their eyes, especially if it's a product that you're not a total expert on, or know who the producer is, so it's incredibly important that the first impression you have of a product is positive. If you've gone to the effort of making a quality beer, why slap a cruddy, half-arsed label on it?”

Oh, grow up

“I think there has definitely been parallels with the evolution of craft beer itself,” says Sienna O’Rourke, Sales and Marketing Manager at Pressure Drop Brewing. “If you look at the development of craft beer and branding in places where there is no cask tradition (like Australia, NZ & the US) it was big and bold right from the get go - both in flavour and design. Here in the UK we’re lucky to have a strong, traditional brewing culture, but I think it impacted the pace of development in both the beer and design during the early days of the craft beer ‘revolution’. In the last few years it feels like the door is open, that the people of the UK are ready for that fluorescent pink can of Triple IPA. We’re also starting to see label design as a valuable creative expression in line with the work of brewers.”

Pressure Drop, based in North London, were one of the first breweries I remember really visually standing out. With beers such as Pale Fire and Alligator Tugboat—and their Hockney-esque and neon pink labels, respectively—the brewery have long employed variation amongst their beers’ artworks, as opposed to labels being created by the same artist. 

“Our brand foundation is built to be like a frame for any artwork to sit within, so we love to make every label as different and unique as possible,” says O’Rourke. “Graham [O’Brien] and I design a lot of stuff in-house, but we also work with photographers, illustrators, painters & visual artists, the variation in styles is part of our aesthetic.”

Dublin’s Whiplash Brewing, on the other hand, prefer to employ a more uniform approach. “The definition of quality in brewing, to me, is the reduction in variance or consistency in the product,” co-founder Alex Lawes tells me. “I think it’s a natural extension of that, when you look at all aspects of your delivery from the beer to the packaging, having a single artist or theme to your work.” All bar one of Whiplash’s beers are designed by mixed media designer Sophie De Vere, and predominantly feature colourful collages on a plain white background, a strategic choice made by Lawes.

“When we’d decided to launch Whiplash, I’d been pretty much suffering from eye fatigue visiting beer shops, with the same 10 brands all lashing straight primary colours at you in this wash of a visually polluted beer fridge,” he says. “At that stage I kind of just wanted to throw a bomb in the whole thing, so we put out the most They Live looking label that sat in the middle of it all, with text on a bare can saying ‘Surrender to the Void’ complete with Sophie’s artwork of an elderly woman on her knees holding a mirror up to the world. We’ve lightened up a bit since then.”

Though Whiplash packaged into cans from their outset, Pressure Drop only recently switched from bottles. With a larger working area upon which for designers to work, cans seem like the obvious choice, from a visual perspective, as opposed to bottles. “The big change for us hasn’t been so much about the move to cans but in the way that we release beers, we make a lot of new ones—all needing artwork,” says O’Rourke. “Most of our labels were artist commissions back in the old days, but we were producing a much smaller range. We still are collaborating with artists regularly, most recently with Kasper Swierczynski for our Beer + Art label, it’s a really important part of what we do, but now makes up a smaller proportion of our labels.”

“The advent of the larger format there has really helped,” says Lawes, on the other hand. “In our case when we first began packaging our beer we were initially in plain silver cans but quickly made the move to all white to help give a clearer canvas for Sophie which she agrees has really helped. We’re on the lookout for massive 1L or 2L cans, now—perhaps for a Rauchwine just to see what Sophie could deliver.”

Unfined art

Pressure Drop and Whiplash were among the eight breweries exhibiting at Tate Modern at the end of November, as part of Tate’s Beer + Art series, a collaboration with beer distributor Pig’s Ears. A set of one-off beers from some of the UK’s best breweries, and accompanying artwork, Beer + Art aims to celebrate this relationship between brewing and art.

The series, which launched in 2018, isn’t the first time beer’s found its way into the Tate Modern – far from it. “Since 2016, we’ve been doing meet the brewer and tap takeover events; we’ve had a beer event going on on a monthly basis since then,” says Operations Director Andrew Downs. We were into craft beer and we wanted it to be a large part of what we did at Tate, so we got some great breweries in to start with to talk about beer, and we had the kind of ‘meet the brewer’ series going on, which was brilliant. The breweries were quite excited about being at Tate as a venue, and we started talking more and more about introducing those elements into the beer events. We’ve asked people to come and bring their art and really celebrate the design, the illustration, and the creative process that goes behind packaging.”

Though my cynical art-school brain wants to question whether beer and beer branding stands up alongside historically important fine art, the rest of me is quick to quash that thought. The application of artwork to a consumable beverage doesn’t in the least undermine the artistic integrity, and nor does it if created for a beer label in the first place. 

“It’s a crafted, independent product, where we at Tate champion creativity, independence, and quality—particularly with what we do around food and beverage, and, some would say, art generally, as well,” says Downs. “Craft beer was always the kind of thing that we wanted to do next to the beverage sector, because it celebrates all of those things that we love about independence and creativity. It’s such an amazing product. Why wouldn’t you love it?”

Tate aren’t the only institution to embrace craft beer and work with breweries. Further down the Southbank, the National Theatre’s Understudy is a surprisingly good craft beer bar, and in New York, MoMA PS1 has run beer events with local breweries. As craft beer continues to break into the mainstream, cultural institutions with a discerning palate will continue to embrace the creativity within modern brewing.

The relationship between beer and art—arguably my two greatest loves—has long fascinated me. Seeing breweries eschew more conventional branding in favour of ‘higher’ art forms (take a look at Simon Gane’s illustrations for Burning Sky, or John Robinson’s Abstract Expressionist paintings for Boundary Brewing, if you want to know what I mean), for me only further cements the creative integrity of current brewing, and with it, my love for it. Seeing this artwork being elevated by a gallery like the Tate Modern is truly spectacular.

“I think elevation is a good word for it,” says Lawes. “We were never in any doubt of the artistic merit of what Sophie does, but it’s definitely been a positive for Sophie to show her work (and meet other artists, in that space) with an institution we revere like the Tate.”

“I think the rise in popularity of craft beer, and those breweries' use of designed labels has given such an important platform for so many illustrators, artists and designers (including myself) to create work in a different, new format,” says Bradshaw. “I think galleries that are starting to celebrate it as such aren't necessarily elevating it, but recognising it.”

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