Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Favorite Beer Label Designs - Brewery Power Rankings 2013

For years, craft brewers just tried to earn the attention of the mainstream consumer. And for the most part, now, they've gotten it. What comes after attention? Respect. While Beer has often been looked at as the fun, unsophisticated sibling to monocle-wearing Wine, that perception is finally starting to change. And presentation is no small part of it. Labels, more than just looking cool, reflect the personality of a brewery (or brewer), and provide a window into their intentions and passions. And after all, isn't a sense of personality and individuality — more so than how many barrels you brew per year — what ultimately separates "craft beer" from "focus group formulated Beer Brand X: now with cross-demographic market synergy!"?

To celebrate those breweries that go above and beyond with their beer, wrapping it in packaging every bit as appealing as the liquid inside, here are Bear Flavored's Favorite Beer Labels and Bottle / Can Designs for 2013 (presented in alphabetical order). These are breweries with a sense of purpose and place, and the creativity to express it.

A couple ground rules:

1. The beer has to actually be in stores now, available to the general public for purchase. No conceptual designs.

2. Weight was given to breweries with many good designs across multiple beers, rather than a couple stand-out labels or one-offs.

3. Presenting pertinent information clearly on the label is a plus. 100 points for "bottled on" dates.

4. Negative 100 points for tacky sexual imagery.

5. Negative one trillion points if a label for a "blonde" style beer incorporates innuendo and sexual imagery referencing aforementioned style. I'm looking at you, Every Brewpub in America.

Alright, here we go! Let me know what you think in the comments below, and please do share any breweries or labels that you think I may have missed. What are your favorites? I'd like to make this a regular series, so there's always next year.

Anchor Brewing
San Francisco, CA

Of course the first entry on my list is the one that bends my own rules a bit: Anchor earns its spot partly because of its label designs, but also because of the bottles themselves. Does Anchor have a patent on this bottle shape or something? Streamlined and unique, it's eye-catching on its own, yet no other brewery I've seen uses them. And Anchor has certainly been around long enough for everyone to notice how good this style of packaging looks. As one of the original craft brewers, Anchor put out beers 30 years ago that remain top examples of their respective style today. Their labels respect that history with understated, vintage simplicity, more like classic wine labels in their design than many of today's clipart aesthetic label designs. Anchor's annual Christmas beer ("Our Special Ale") is especially notable for its changing art year to year, each vintage designed by artist Jim Stitt.

Anchorage Brewing
Anchorage, AK

Sometimes the best label is no label at all. Screen printed bottle labels — ie, the paint is right on the bottle; no paper — have long been the style of choice for a few nationally-known breweries, like Stone. And while I certainly enjoy Stone's designs, Anchorage Brewing, a relative newcomer to the scene, takes the cake and then bakes it up into an even bigger, badasser cake. The designs are swirling, intricate, borderline-chaotic, somewhere between a comic book and trippy gonzo art. Being printed-on, the bottles allow for some effective usage of negative space, while still jumping out at you with vivid colors. And — as is ultimately most important — the art itself is classy, creative, and beautiful. Anchorage Brewing is a one-man operation, the mastermind of brewer Gabe Fletcher, but whoever he went to for these label designs, he made the right move. And as with any attractive bottle, it helps that I love the beer inside, too.

21st Amendment
San Francisco, CA

The first beer I can remember buying based on the coolness of the packaging alone was 21st Amendment's Back in Black IPA. (Shortly followed by Bitter American.) Packaging may not be the best reason to blind-buy a beer, but it's not the worst, either. Especially when it's so detailed and eye-grabbing, effectively utilizing the built-in extra space a full-can design allows. Even the typography on these things is top notch. A unique sixpack "sleeve" holds the beer and extends the canvass, making 21st Amendment  one of the most distinctive brands on the shelf. At the time I discovered them, "good beer in cans" was also a new concept for me — I believe 21st Amendment played an important part in pushing that whole trend, nationally speaking. They seem to be doing pretty well since that day I discovered them, to the point where I think most casual craft beer drinkers know them as "the brewery with the awesome cans." And while they may be more than that, these guys could give lessons on how to effectively grab a consumers attention.

Bend, OR

Via OhBeautifulBeer
You may notice a trend with many of the following breweries on my list — larger breweries with pleasingly low-key, consistent packaging on their primary year-round beers, but exceptional, unique designs for their specialty series. As a general trend, it makes sense — larger breweries have more resources, and are more likely to have defined "series," or tiers of beers. It's effective, and I have no doubt we'll begin to see this branding strategy used even more, as more breweries gain the resources for revamped label designs. Deschute's Bond Street series features labels that would stand out on any shelf, with big, vivid, eye-catching artwork, and the name of the beer cleanly incorporated into the design. But Deschute's regular lineup beers are deserving of praise, too, for some of the best "pretty painting in an oval" approach I've seen. It helps that I'm a sucker for landscapes, and Deschute's beers employ them well, with an art style that's warm and appealing without seeming kitschy and rehashed.

Hill Farmstead
Greensboro , VT

Hill Farmstead Everett porter
I almost left Hill Farmstead off this list for fear that I was too biased by the contents inside their bottles. Was I placing Hill on here just because the brewery is, perhaps, my favorite? But the other nine decisions on the list were also influenced by the quality of the contents — these are breweries that I believe all make great beer. After more consideration, I decided that the elegant simplicity of Hill Farmstead's logo-based labels was too indicative of my ideals to overlook. Hill's bottles illustrate that which I find most important in a craft brewery, second to the quality of the beer itself: personality.

Hill recognizes the strength of his logo, and bases each label around it, changing little but the color and the name. And the names of Shaun Hill's beers also hold a lot of significance, with references to ancestors and philosophy. No cheesy puns or innuendos; these beers are literate, thoughtful, but never too clever for their own good. Shaun Hill doesn't need gimmicks to get your attention — knowing that his beer is good enough to stand on its own, he instead uses packaging to tell a story. The story of his family, his ideals, and the farm that is the namesake of the brewery. Simple, honest, and timeless.

New Belgium
Fort Collins, CO

New Belgium's whole lineup of labels is elegant, and artistic — an impressive feat for such a large brewery with such an eclectic range of beers. With their main lineup and seasonals — their sixpack beers, in other words — the labels feature original artwork that's understated and rustic. Fitting, given the brewery's origin story and image. But with New Belgium's more experimental "Lips of Faith" series, they push label art to impressively creative lengths with wrap-around designs printed directly to the glass of the bottle. Many breweries take advantage of the larger 22 ounce format their specialty beers arrive in, but this series is particularly eye-catching with its sprawling, seamless designs that blanket the bottle.

After visiting and touring the brewery last year, New Belgium's commitment to beautiful packaging doesn't surprise me in the least — despite their now-huge size, they've remained a great company with an admirable aesthetic.

Night Shift Brewing 
Everett, MA

Night Shift's logo absolutely dominates in the simplicity corner. If it were just an owl, it would be a cool enough logo already for its simplicity and clever ties to the brewery's name. But... it's an owl that's also a hop cone! Brilliant. And when your brewery's logo is that good, of course you're going to slap it on all your labels. More than a few points of this design recall the clean layouts that wineries favor, enhanced by their 750 ml bottle format. This type of design doesn't work for every brewer — you have to be exceptional, otherwise it's just boring. Night Shift's bottles demonstrate a marriage of unique branding with commonplace industry iconography, and beyond the cleverness, they look super duper classy. (A word I'm forced to throw out a lot in these descriptions). Taking advantage of the stripped-down super-simple look, Night Shift also manages to cram a ton of pertinent information around the corners, for which I applaud them. 

The caveat: I've never actually tasted a Night Shift beer. In fact, I've never even seen one in a store, since they are a hyper-local nanobrewery based in Massachusetts — I'm well out of their distribution range. They're one of those breweries that I've been following for a while based on the strength of their personality and obvious potential; and so, they are the only brewery on this list whose beer I have never experienced. Hopefully I'll be able to change that some day soon.

Odell Brewing
Fort Collins, CO

Vaguely-rustic woodblock images. Old-world inspired artwork. Odell's labels are another perfect example of the way to my heart — with unique, original artwork that looks beautiful on its own, and totally cohesive when viewed as a full line-up. Odell's labels manage to balance their art and their typography so that each becomes a part of the other, with the added benefit that these beers really "pop" off the shelves. It's hard to hit that sort of middle-ground — they're more complex than logo or typography-based labels, but more uniform than labels which simply change the layout for new artwork each time. The resulting coherency is impressive.

While some of the brewery's specialty releases follow their own separate aesthetic, the "Woodcut" series, in particular, stands out as equally beautiful and coherent.

Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project
Cambridge, MA

I guess one should expect that a brewery calling itself "Pretty Things" would take aesthetics seriously, but the consistent quality of their designs is almost unrivaled. Pretty Things opts for the original artwork angle across every beer in their lineup, giving the bottles both pleasing consistency and beautiful individuality. No amateurish clip-art here. They're certainly not the only brewery to use original artwork like this, or even this extensively, but other breweries seem to design their labels as labels — Pretty Things are seemingly designed as art. Craftsmanship and individuality are what good beer is all about, right? With their story-book charm and whimsical quirk, the aesthetic of these labels are uncannily well thought-out.

Three Floyds
Munster, IN

Three Floyds is metal, and they know it. Their labels walk the fine line between badass and dorky in a way that no other brewery I've ever encountered has managed. Generally, labels this over-the-top would strike me as... garish. They're there, they're inches away from it, and yet they're executed so brilliantly and confidently and boldly that instead, Three Floyds is just pure awesome. The flair of a comic book without the ham-fisted dialogue. The anarchy of an intricate sleeve tattoo without the regret. And it helps that their confidence is matched in the quality of their beer; Three Floyds makes some of the best stuff out there, regardless of style, and their graphic design matches this adaptability and variety. Their labels cover a number of art styles, yet each is distinctly "Three Floyds." Of course, with such a huge variety of labels, I don't love all of them — but the many that I do love, I really love.

Now if only I could track down some goddam Zombie Dust.


  1. Just a real quick FYI: Anchor brewing is up in San Francisco

  2. You have to find a way to try some of Night Shifts beers. They are absolutely incredible..

    1. I know, I know, they sound incredible. I've been following them online for a while and everything they release sounds right up my alley. I'll have to take a trip to Massachusetts soon.

    2. It will be totally worth it.

  3. Uinta's bottles are very close in shape to Anchor Steams. Their labels aren't too shabby - their bombers (Crooked Line) in particular - are pretty fine, too.

    And, as a Bostonian: what D. Fay said. Night Shift's doing some great stuff, and they're great guys, too. While you're up here, hit Mystic as well - great Saison focus - and Jack's Abbey (all lagers, and amazing to boot). Then, hit Deep Ellum, in Allston. Draft Magazine rates them one of the best beer bars in the country - amazing rotating tap of all craft beers from around the world, Zagat rated excellent for their food, cool people working the taps - you'll thank me later :)

    1. Yeah, Uinta was actually very close to making the list. Their Crooked Line labels are awesome and very deserving of praise. If/when I do this again in a year or two, they'll probably make it on here. And yeah their bottles are the closest to Anchor that I've seen. They add that little "cardinal directions" embossment, which is kind of cool too.

      And great suggestions, thanks. I'll definitely keep Deep Ellum in mind, it sounds awesome. Mystic too. Jack's Abbey is definitely on my list to check out as well, I've read about a number of their beers that sound quite tasty.

  4. Great picks. I've always been a fan of the labels for the "-tion" series of beers from Russian River. However, there's very likely a bias there, similar to the one you mentioned for Hill Farmstead.

    Do you get all those breweries (aside from Night Shift) in your area? I'm insanely jealous... then agai, I'm insanely jealous of the beer selection in every state, compared to New Brunswick, Canada!



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