Limitation by design

Is modern beer branding alienating potential customers? Matt Curtis finds out.


Even before I was a beer drinker I was fascinated by its branding. The allure of the green glass and the similarly verdant brush script that adorned my dad’s swing-top bottles of Grolsch – beads of condensation running down them on hot, sunny days – still sticks in my mind. At the time I didn’t know what it was, but hot damn, I wanted it. 

These days of course I know that no matter how nice it looks, green glass is bad for your beer. When you leave it in the sun, it will taste like skunk spray (and believe me, having seen a skunk in the wild on a trip to the US, the aroma is uncanny.) Although, despite any misgivings you may have about this particular beer, its branding has lost none of its previous allure. 

I have a thing for good design – especially typography – and legacy beer brands offer this to me in spades. From classics I enjoy like Pilsner Urquell or Duvel, to those I don’t like Budweiser, one thing’s for sure: these brands are unmistakable, and that’s because so much thought went into these labels. Put simply, their branding is timeless, and instantly recognisable by millions of people around the world as a result. 

The fascinating thing about beer branding is how it shifts with each new generation of breweries. Following the many years of gorgeous typography came more colourful, modern yet somehow still old-timey style labels that emerged from the 80s in the United States. Simultaneously looking fresh, but as at home on the shelf as it ever has been. American craft beer has since made its mark on the world. The label that adorns bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which combines a beautiful typeface with an idyllic mountain scene will forever hold a place in my heart. It’s also unmistakable, and often copied, but never bettered. Others like New Belgium, Allagash and Deschutes followed suit. There’s a good reason why these brands have become so familiar to beer lovers. 

Now, however, trends have changed again – perhaps spurred on by a shift in available can real-estate. Gone are stubby, 330ml bottles, and here are wide and free 440ml cans. That extra space gives designers room to play with colour and form. And whereas previously beer design was about getting across the idea of brand and developing loyalty, now young, modern breweries can do this through tools such as social media. Plus, by selling beer direct there’s no direct need to develop brand identity via branding in the way breweries used to rely on, as all this information is on the can.

But here’s where I get a bit worried, because – especially as newer breweries expand and put more beer into the market – a lot of modern brands are starting to look quite, well, similar. Stood in a Manchester-based bottle shop recently, I stared at a shelf of cans that were familiar to me, but thought “what if I wasn’t” and I watched as coral pink and powder blue hues merged into one complete, muddled whole. When you add in the fact that many of these beers were hazy, yellow, 6%, and hopped with Citra and Mosaic, the problem begins to compound.

I watched as coral pink and powder blue hues merged into one complete, muddled whole

This issue continues to exacerbate itself when searching for key information on said cans. Important stuff like beer style and ABV is too often – in my opinion – printed in a tiny font to make space for more artwork, or isn’t even featured on the front of a can at all. And while this isn’t an issue for most hardened beer fans, for those who exist outside of beer fandom's bubble (and let’s be honest with ourselves here, that’s most people) it’s actually making it more difficult for people to differentiate between brands. The result of this? Consumers turning back to old, faithful brands – probably owned by big multinational corporations – and turning away from craft beer. 

Although this may be subconscious, and not at all intentional, I do worry that the obfuscation created by the similarity between so many of-the-moment beer brands, combined with the lack of clear, easy to read information on the can, could be seen by some as a form of gatekeeping.

“When it comes to stuff like font size I try very hard to make sure that the most important information, such as name, style and ABV is all very clear and bold,” James Yeo, who works as the in-house designer for Bristol's Left Handed Giant, tells me. “I would like to hope that our labels were accessible to everyone... I guess a good way forward would be to ask for consumer feedback on design work.”

James admits to me that he’s actually red/green colourblind – a condition that can make it difficult to distinguish between reds, greens, browns and oranges. This informs his own design work, where he tries to make his striking artwork and the text that sits upon it as readable as possible. Since Left Handed Giant opened its city-centre brewpub in June 2019 he’s also had to work with effectively two different brands within one business. While the original brewery that opened in 2017 is pushing more experimental beers, often with higher hopping rates of ABV, the brewpub is working to make more accessible styles such as pale ale and lager. 

“I definitely look at what a lot of other designers are doing,” he says of his approach to can art. “I think one of the things I take notice of more than anything with regards to what other people are doing is interesting finishes on labels or use of materials. The thing I wouldn’t want to do would be to make changes based on what others were doing. I think it’s good to try and not second guess yourself.”

Up in Leeds, James Ockelford (I promise you not all beer label designers are called James) of design studio Refold has developed the striking and award winning branding for North Brew Co. I should know, I’ve been on one of the judging panels at an awards where we gave his art the best brewery design award. I remember enthusiastically throwing my hat in the ring for it at the time, because it was so unique. But while a few years ago North's brand proposition was utterly its own, a lot of newcomers have since entered the same space with what some might consider to be a similar design strategy. 

“I’ve been very interested in the visual culture around beer and have been for many years, so I am conscious of what’s being done,” he tells me. “I keep a track on what’s happening and what trends are developing within different strata of the beer world but I don’t let this unduly influence my style of design. It’s important to do work you really believe in rather than replicating styles in the hope of accessing a market.”

it’s important to do work you really believe in rather than replicating styles in the hope of accessing a market

When it comes to displaying information like style, ABV and the like, James prefers to keep this off the front of the can to “allow for maximum art. The approach may seem counterintuitive to some but it’s working well at the moment,” he continues. 

A little reluctantly I’m inclined to agree, North’s branding differs from many in its innovative use of line, colour and typeface. And it doesn’t end with its cans. Visit one of its taprooms, or the legendary North Bar on Briggate in Leeds, and you’ll see the very same design. It’s as though you’re actually sitting in one of James’ designs, and it feels very permanent – as though it’ll be around for a while. 

Differing somewhat from North’s designs is another Northern brewery, this time on the other side of the Pennines at Manchester’s Cloudwater. You won’t miss its cans, mostly due to the fact they use a very large, easily readable typeface, often adorning some of founder Paul Jones’ own photography. The core range is a little simpler, using soft, yet distinguishable colours which ebb and flow from style to style. They’re designed by Chris Shearston at Textbook Studios, also in Manchester. 

“If I’m generating artwork for the label I’m aiming to have a colourful textural piece that sits within a set,” Chris says. “If I’m working on a new design [there’s] a lot of conversations with Paul [Jones] about what should or should not be presented on the can and where, then a discussion with the wider team, then time spent squirrelled away in the studio developing new options, working through what feedback should or should not be implemented.”

He tells me that when putting together a new label he considers the overall “hierarchy” of the information in order to make it as accessible as possible, with the style presented in the largest typeface it can be before it starts to bend around the can. “We have full wraps with quite a lot of description text, so I do concede that some of that can become challenging to read,” Chris says. “Important info sits within a white information bar on the side to avoid any difficulties there.”

When considering the art of these three particular breweries, I find myself at odds with my initial thoughts. Especially when I start to think of other designs too. Am I being too harsh? Possibly. The 440ml can as a canvas is still relatively new, these breweries are quite young – and in fact some of them were bottling, not canning, when they were finding their feet. The old school brands I know and love have had decades to perfect their brand – it’s not something that happened overnight – and as younger breweries become more established, so too will their identities.

However, it’s vital that key information is presented clearly to customers. I’m not just talking for the benefit of people that don’t know about all the lovely beers that present themselves on bottle shop shelves, with labels of varying styles and shades. I’m talking about those that don’t find it as easy to make out smaller text or particular colours when put together. Accessibility is key when it comes to making the exciting world of beer more open to all. In an industry that is constantly talking about diversity, inclusion and equity, this feels like a small change that prevents some people from being turned away at the gates, so to speak. 

Accessibility is key when it comes to making the exciting world of beer more open to all

On a more positive note, if we consider that this sort of beer design is only just getting established, where does our group of designers see it heading? Chris at Textbook studios thinks that there will be a balance between brand building with core ranges, while breweries will also continue to have fun with special releases. “I’m hoping that with Cloudwater we are striking a balance between a nice recognisable brand with our type lockup,” he says. 

For James Ockelford at Refold, there’s a consideration of how the lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will influence breweries' decision making when it comes to design. 

“Developing core brands may be the key to some breweries long term survival so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more energy going into this. The rise of supermarket Craft beer sales may also be a factor,” he says. “That said, I think specials will be around for the foreseeable future. The appetite is definitely still there. It keeps beer drinkers engaged with the breweries and gives brewers the opportunity to try new techniques, new styles, and new ingredients.”

At Left Handed Giant, James Yeo agrees that the multitude of specials we’re currently seeing won’t be going away anytime soon, and as such, there’s lots of opportunity for new and exciting can art. He also feels positive about the direction beer branding is heading in, allowing for what he calls an “interplay between art and beer.” And perhaps, as it evolves, it will find ways to bring more people into the fold, without alienating those outside of beer’s growing sphere. 

“Obviously I have a vested interest in that continuation of art-led branding within the beer scene so I’m 100% biased,” he admits. “But I do believe that if done correctly it can create recognisable brands and be accessible to people with additional needs as well as people who aren’t familiar with the multitude of choices within beer.”

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