Design Notebook: Craft Beer Label Artwork

One of the things that we like to do is to go into our friendly neighborhood liquor store and browse the shelves and shelves of microbrews. We might pick up a bottle to share, we might get ideas for our next trip, we might just be acquainting ourselves with available local brews.

What is fascinating about this process is the truly stunning design and variety of beer labels. Some are bold, flat, and graphic. Others are intricate, psychadelic. Some reference stories, art, music. Some are named after inside jokes of the brewers.

My favorite of these labels from Left Hand Brewing, in Longmont, CO, is the cow on the Milk Stout label. It's got purple left hands on it! I'm easily amused.

My favorite of these labels from Left Hand Brewing, in Longmont, CO, is the cow on the Milk Stout label. It’s got purple left hands on it! I’m easily amused.

Here are a lot of labels, many of them from local breweries, that feature artwork that captures my attention and my imagination. I realized after collecting these examples that it was really the artwork that was the star of these, rather than the overall packaging or the graphic design, both of which can contribute amazingly to the presentation of a product as well.

Here's a selection from everyone's local go-to favorite, New Belgium Brewing, in Fort Collins, CO. Notice how their overall look has a lot of consistency, but not only do the drawings change for each brew, but so do the hop borders. All of their artwork has a light, hand-drawn, carefree feel.

Here’s a selection from everyone’s local go-to favorite, New Belgium Brewing, from Fort Collins, CO. Notice how their overall look has a lot of consistency, but not only do the drawings change for each brew, but so do the hop borders. All of their artwork has a light, hand-drawn, carefree feel.

I debated whether or not to include these images per label, or to group a bunch from a single brewery. I decided to go with the brewery approach, to show design decisions across a wide variety of their artwork. Creating artwork in series, designed to be appreciated side-by-side or singly, can be an impressive achievement in itself. What decisions go into creating a theme? How does that brand or limit the brewery as a whole?

Lost Abbey, from San Marcos, CA, uses different imagery from Christianity, possibly inspired by the monastic history of beer. Their iconic label shape is paired with intricate paintings for each brew.

Lost Abbey, from San Marcos, CA, uses different imagery from Christianity, possibly inspired by the monastic history of beer. Their iconic label shape is paired with intricate paintings for each brew.

While putting together these compilations for this post, I notice a few trends that have caught my eye on beer labels. I notice that a strong border design, either one that is bold and consistent, or intricate and recognizable, can really help draw the eye in as well as bring together diverse artwork into a recognizable brand. I also recognize how important a consistent theme is within the artwork itself. Sometimes this is achieved using consistent thematic elements, such as the religion-themed names and artwork of Lost Abbey, or consistency of artistic style, as in the flat but intricate style of Odell Brewing. This helps me enjoy the artwork as part of a set, and it helps me locate the beer on a busy shelf more easily. And most importantly when designing my own labels, I realize that I really like some kind of in-depth artwork that catches my attention and sparks my imagination.

Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, in Michigan, has a definite story theme going on. I haven't tried any of their beer yet, but it has definitely caught my attention on the shelves. I wonder what i going on with all those ships and ocean.

Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, in Michigan, has a definite story theme going on. I haven’t tried any of their beer yet, but it has definitely caught my attention on the shelves. I wonder what i going on with all those ships and ocean.

Obviously, all of this is inspiration for our own beer labels. What will Neeland Cottage beer be all about? Do we need a good brewery name, or just slap the Neeland name on it and get creative with the different brews? Do we need a theme? We really enjoy steampunk, and I like drawing strong and attractive characters, which could be a good combination for beer labels.

Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, located in Loveland, CO, has a very focused theme going on with their beer. I love the whimsically dark artwork on these.

Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, located in Loveland, CO, has a very focused theme going on with their beer. I love the whimsically dark artwork on these.

Another thing to consider, besides consistency of theme, is consistency of style. I have a particular style to my artwork that will inevitably come out on any beer labels that I design. Flowing lines, some measure of cartoonish whimsey, large-thighed women, and a generally happy feel are all elements that have repeated in my own artwork over the years. Yes, as an artist, it can be good to push myself, but sometimes it’s also good to build on one’s strengths, too.

I just really like all of these labels from Odell Brewing, in Fort Collins, CO. They have a soft, old-fashioned edge, with a sort of woodcut quality to them. They are varied, but there is a clear hand of the artist shining through all of them.

I just really like all of these labels from Odell Brewing, in Fort Collins, CO. They have a soft, old-fashioned edge, with a sort of woodcut quality to them. They are varied, but there is a clear hand of the artist shining through all of them.

The beer that we are currently brewing is an imperial stout called Winter is Coming, a recipe from Barley Haven, our local homebrew supply store. They have a whole list of recipes, many of which they write out on their giant wall chalkboard. Since this isn’t a recipe of our own invention, and it is our first attempt at beer, it may be less important to have a vibrant, themed beer label than it will be to have something colorful and recognizable to help us get our bottles back from our friends.

We won’t be selling our home brew. There are laws against that. But we will want to celebrate it, and mark clearly what it is, and what better way to do that than a little artwork?

It will be in color, of course. Brace yourself.

It will be in color, of course. Brace yourself.

So here’s what I’ve come up with so far. With a little color added via Photoshop, I don’t think it’s too bad for our first attempt at labeling. We’ll also find some way to print it on labels, hopefully in a way that isn’t too expensive and doesn’t run with condensation as soon as we pop it in the fridge. We’ll see.

Inspiration only takes us so far. We’ve got to do the rest on our own.

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  1. Love how the Left Hand, Grimm, and Odell, mix simplicity in with their intricacy that my eye is more attracted to than the overwhelming detail of say, the Jolly Pumpkin. Winter Is Coming seems like a lovely blend of simplicity, whimsy, and lore! Can’t wait to see the final product

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