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Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

Will Coldwell

Selecting an unknown beer to try can be a difficult business. But when the pumpclips run the length of the bar and the fridges are cluttered with colourful bottles competing for your attention, sometimes that decision can be a shallow one. Sometimes – and I hate to admit it – the beer with the prettiest label is the one that will first fill my glass for the night.

Whether we like it or not (although I’m sure some of the brewers featured in last week’s blog would beg to differ) packaging plays at least some role in our purchasing – and drinking – decisions. One person who really understands this is Harvey Shepard, a US graphic designer who runs the blog Oh Beautiful Beer; a site that showcases the finest creative design done in the name of beer. “Brewing beer is an art,” he explains. “You would never hang a Picasso in a lousy frame, so why put great beer in a terrible package?”

But producing a beer label that truly works is a significant challenge for designers. As Harvey points out: “Brewing is an art; a craft that dates back 7,000 years. It is forged by community, collaboration and celebration. The designer has to create the label that goes on all of that history, artistry and passion.”

One example of how this has been done to fantastic effect is by Partizan Brewing – a craft brewery based in south London – who commissioned illustrator Alec Doherty to do some designs for them. The result: beautiful avant-garde, constructivist styled labels that make you want to buy the beer simply to get a closer look. I got in touch with Alec to find out more about his creative process.

Partizan BrewingAlec Dohert Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

“The brewers talked about each of their beers having its own unique character, so I came up with some characters that illustrated the style and personality of the beer in each bottle,” he tells me. “They never brew the same thing twice so each new beer has its own set of characters. People study beer labels as part of the ritual of drinking the bottle, so the names of each of Partizan’s beers is spelt out by the body shapes of the characters, (the letters aren’t always obvious) hopefully this provides a bit of fun for the observant drinker.”

Another brewery that boasts labels worthy of gallery walls is the Rebel Brewing Company – a microbrewery based in Cornwall. Rebel’s intricate labels were designed by Daniel Gradwell and Jonathan Paton from the design company Kingdom and Sparrow. They looked to the flavour of the beers to inspire their designs. The Nightshade beer, for example, is a dark, cloudy wheat beer and Daniel and Jonathan were inspired by the “dark colour and menacing name”.

RebelBrewingCraft Range 5 Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

“We decided to explore a mischievous and menacing take on the deadly nightshade plant,” they said. “With inspiration coming from horror literature and 1950s B-movies we focused on a stylised poster homage.”

For Ilkley Brewing, who went through a rebrand last year – the process involved looking back at past imagery and artefacts associated with the brewery which they then gave a modern twist. Art and design aside, the rebranding has helped them boost sales (they doubled during 2012) and increase their profile. You can now find Ilkley ale in Chile, as well as Yorkshire.

Other British beers I find particularly easy on the eye include the futurist circus styling’s of Magic Rock’s range, the bold typography of Camden Town and the minimal brown paper stickers of Kernel. Of course, a beer with an attractive label will never be enough to keep me drinking it, but it can often be enough to persuade me to give it a try. As Harvey says, it’s “a foot in the door”.

As more independent brewers emerge, the need to define themselves visually has become crucial. The variety in styles across the craft beer scene, in flavour as well as design, is immense. I see no reason not to celebrate both.

I asked Harvey to pick out five of his favourite UK beer designs. His selection is included below.

shepherd neame 02 Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

Shepherd Neame IPA, designed by SAA Design (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

otley lineup Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

Otley Brewing, designed by Smörgåsbord (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

hoppinghare02 Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

Hopping Hare, designed by BrandOpus (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

worthingtons Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

Worthington’s, designed by Landor (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

Harbourbrewing Dish of the Day: The art of beer labels

Harbour Brewing Co, designed by A-Side Studio (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

For more fantastic beer art visit www.ohbeautifulbeer.com

Follow Will at @will_coldwell

Shepherd Neame IPA, designed by SAA Design (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

Otley Brewing, designed by Smörgåsbord (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

Hopping Hare, designed by BrandOpus (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

Worthington’s, designed by Landor (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

Harbour Brewing Co, designed by A-Side Studio (Image: Harvey Shepard/Oh Beautiful Beer)

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