If beer labeling began its life around the mid-1800s, then beer packaging had its tricky adolescence at the dawn of the 21st century – when mass-production, global marketing, and certain associations had made the beer bottle or, more often, can, a totem of the “lager lout”.
Like a stroppy teenager, beer back then “Just wanted to fit in!”. So now, perhaps, we’re witnessing the maturing of beer packaging design, with a refreshingly thoughtful new aesthetic that could have probably only come about through the craft beer revolution, limited resources and boredom with the beer of old.
According to figures provided by CAMRA in 2013, at the cusp of the British micro-brew boom, 187 independent breweries launched across the UK between Dec 2012 and Dec 2013.
Fast-forward three years and it feels safe to say that the trend is showing no signs of slowing. In fact, with SIBA (The Society of Independent Brewers) citing more than 800 members across the UK (nearly 50 of whom joined in 2015 alone) beer is big business. The burgeoning culture surrounding the microbrewery movement; craft pubs, festivals, street-food and, of course, art, suggests that beer is becoming more than just a social lubricant.
So how do you claim your slice of a market that is becoming ever more saturated – if you’ll pardon the pun?
Well, whether we care to admit to it or not, consumers have a tendency to judge a book by its cover, so it pays to consider the clout of your packaging when starting up… and the emerging stars of the craft brew scene are making bigger waves in product packaging than most.
“There are so many epic breweries from all around the world creating amazing beers, and the design of beer labels and cans is another way for them to demonstrate their personality and originality. There is such a free reign, and brewers really harness that opportunity. I don’t think any other products are packaged as boldly and daringly as craft beers.”
- James Watt, Co-Founder of BrewDog
Although a familiar presence in most of our lives, beer has had an uneasy history. With a Post-Prohibition market heavily administrated, and dominated by a few key super-breweries, it all began to feel very… same-y.
The can, in particular, gained itself a bit of a bad rep, due to its visibility in often “heightened” social situations that came about through mainstream marketing and accessibility. Now, however, it appears to be experiencing something of a renaissance – the “stubby” an increasingly favourable canvas for the craft-brewer and a key differentiator between the independents and the mainstream UK breweries.
Consider some of the most popular beer brands; Carlsberg, Carling, Heineken, Grolsch, Becks etc, and it’s apparent that the offering is not hugely varied, nor has it needed to be. The big hitters have had relatively consistent demand on their side, largely thanks to the power of their marketing campaigns, and have gained themselves a large and loyal customer base. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard the tagline; “If Carlsberg did…”. Even more importantly, everybody recognises those colour combinations when they see them.
With the household names, you know what you’re getting.
This isn’t to say that mainstream players are not also innovating, within their market – which admittedly feels like a different one to that of the micro. They have all tweaked their designs over the years and Carlsberg even introduced Limited Edition collectors bottles in 2014 – as a celebration of the brand’s Nordic roots.
If one of the big names were to drastically alter the look of their beer now, though, that would possibly be a large bone of contention for consumers.
With less reach, and with a focus on authenticity, the micro-brewers have had to be inventive. In a way, the craft scene has an advantage over the Carlsbergs of this world, because the microbrewery movement was founded on experimentation. So, whilst being careful to develop a strong underlying identity, they’ve afforded their imaginations the luxury to run wild (or be beautifully modest) with the supporting design. Think Beavertown – one of the most popular craft beer brands to emerge in the UK since the boom and, certainly, one with a very definite style of its own. Nick Dwyer has been creating original artwork for the Beavertown Brewery since 2012 and testifies that;
“In the same way that beer is constantly evolving and morphing from what was arguably becoming quite a stale industry, so is the artwork, but the one thing you have to maintain is a strong brand”
- Nick Dwyer, Creative Director, Beavertown Brewery
Whether it’s stripped back minimalism (The Kernel), hand-drawn (Beavertown/ Meantime/ Camden Town) or geometric (Evil Twin), craft beer packaging has begun to gain recognition and is, arguably, becoming as much of a talking point for consumers and industry alike as the beer itself.
Without the financial firepower of the giants, and with an increasingly time-poor consumer to tempt, the best vehicle that you have for delivering the experience of your beer is your packaging, so make it stand out. Call on the resources that you have; a struggling artist/ designer friend, perhaps. Someone who knows you and has experienced your beer and hopefully, your journey. Don’t dwell too much on what others are doing, you’ll only stunt your creativity.
As long as you produce something authentic, in reflection of the authenticity of your beer, it doesn’t need to be highly polished either. In fact, lo-fi lends itself very well to the attitude which seems to be shared amongst the new breed of beer producers and drinkers – that these lovingly crafted beverages are something really special.
“Craft breweries have set out to change people’s views on how beer should taste, so why not do it with packaging as well?”
- Alex Troncoso, Head Brewer at Camden Town