Even before travelling to the Springfield Museum to spend Valentine’s Day at their “Behind the Label: the Art of Oregon Craft Brewers” exhibit, I was fascinated by beer art. This is an industry generating communities of creative people who are doing creative things!
Many (most) of us have had the experience of buying by the bottle label, eyeing a tap handle, or putting a glass on a colorful coaster, but how many have actually pulled out the magnifying glass to look at it? How much can we actually see when a label is on a bottle or a glass on a coaster? Not a whole lot. But these items are conveying great meaning and attracting our attention with very little visual real estate. When you are in a brewery or store it can be totally overwhelming, like the marketing is happening all at once without you even knowing it; however, when you see it hanging on walls, it might still be in your face, but there is a distance and transformation in form and function. And when you see them enlarged and exhibited in person or online it becomes clear that the artists are very cognizant of their branding and messaging.
Store Shelf Impressions
For beer labels, flavor and messaging are in the forefront. While the label may relate to what’s in the bottle, oftentimes the art reflects the brewery identity scheme rather than just the type of beer. The modern look of a Hop Valley label might indicate their beer is clean and modern; but there is also a visual consistency to show at a glance that it is a Hop Valley beer. Tony Figoli, Ninkasi’s former art director, told me that messaging needs to be consistent and maintain its “original DNA,” but still allow for new and unique directions. Ninkasi’s “Maiden the Shade” label imagines a goddess as a hippy (with a head of dreads tipped with hops and a logo tattooed on her back), but is still very identifiable in color and style as Ninkasi. Still others provide a platform for artists collaborate with brewers to create designs for one-off brews or seasonal releases and show change over time, like the labels from Deschutes Jubelale. Designs are purposefully simple and eye-catching – more than just a logo, these labels tell a story.
What about walking up to a bar to make a decision for how to fill your glass? How is art involved in the experience? For this we turn to the tap handle. In the absence of a label, it’s a way to get you to choose a beer based on the visual. It’s 3-D, but it’s still art. Some taps give you clues about what’s in the beer and some might attract you based on the look (e.g. beautiful, funny, shaped like an ice cream cone). Advertising lore says that tap handles started to combat publicans who were advertising one thing and pouring another. The government stepped in and passed a law requiring bars to identify the beers on tap. Ball knobs? What a great new way to communicate and market!
Personally, I am intrigued by how we can preserve artistry and stories of labels, coasters, and poster art. If there just so happens to be a craft beer illustrator reading this (or someone who knows a craft beer illustrator), I’d love to hear from you. In case you doubt my enthusiasm, look at this grin as I stand next to one of my favorites “Hop Henge.”