Going Beyond the Craft Beer Branding Guide with Isaac Arthur
By: Julie Wolfson
When thinking about beer, what bottles come to mind first? Is it Heineken’s emerald green bottle and iconic red star? Or does Pabst Blue Ribbons’s jaunty red diagonal sash line bring back memories? Maybe Samuel Adams saluting cheers with his metal stein full of frothy beer? These visual cues, and the memories we associate with them, help us keep this brand information stored, often for a lifetime.
After brewers lovingly brew craft their beer, how will they convince customers to choose their IPA (or porter, or stout, or…) over another brewery’s? First off, of course, they need to brew some great beer. The next step is to make sure to have a focused plan for the look of the bottles: with clear branding, eye-catching design and helpful information for their customers.
As craft breweries continue to open around the country and vie for space both on and off-premise, standing out has become an important challenge. Labels help identify what to buy or what to order in a boisterous bar—simply lo
Isaac Arthur of CODO Design in Indianapolis has worked hard to make his company a go-to source with their hands-on branding and package design. Arthur doesn’t just like to design beer bottles and cans—his passion beer itself informs his design process when working with brewers.
Arthur founded CODO Design in 2009 with Cody Fague immediately after graduating college. Early on, one significant project set the tone for delving into the beer space: the Indianapolis City Market. They branded Tomlinson Tap Room—an all Indiana craft beer bar inside the City Market. “Tomtap” as it’s lovingly called by fans is part owned by the Brewers of Indiana Guild. This relationship helped CODO gain exposure in the beer industry.
“We worked with our first brewery client back in late 2011. That project led to the next one and the next one. Now we’ve worked with around 35 breweries around the country, and across the world. Beer is one of the best things you can possibly drink,” says Arthur. “We work primarily in the food and beverage industry anyway so we all love food and beer. It’s a fun way to take something we’re already passionate about and get to work with cool people. It’s rare to come across a jerk in the beer industry.”
Arthur and his team at CODO created an insightful guide for branding craft beer. When the branding is securely in place, it’s time to tackle the project of designing bottles that tell a story and stand out. Arthur now shares his advice for designing eye catching beer packaging.
Elevating the Conversation
How can a designer help a brewery elevate their design aesthetic to meet up with wine and artisanal food? “Even in 5 or 6 years of working in craft beer, we have seen the conversations change,” mentions Arthur. “They understand they need to get their branding and their story straight. New breweries, and older breweries rebranding as well, know how important this is.” Arthur recommends walking down the aisle to check out what’s happening on beer shelves. Though beer branding often thematically features blue collar, outdoorsy, and vintage themes, companies are coming out with premium beers with luxurious labels, complete with foil stamping and custom diecut labels to connote the beer’s high quality.
Everything Starts with a Glass Bottle
As cans gain in popularity, preserving the tradition of being able to hold a glass bottle (and rub your thumb over abeautiful paper label) seems more important than ever. For liquor clients, designers may have more input on the bottle for each product. With beer bottles, the situation often plays out differently because it is such a significant buying decision, from small runs to potentially hundreds of thousands of bottles. Generally breweries have chosen their bottles—most will be popular 12-ounce bottles in a six-pack carrier, while some breweries are also offering larger 750ml or other large format bottles with cork-and-cage or wax covers. “The bottles are generally a business plan decision and driven by the economics of what they want to do and the positioning they want to achieve in their market.”
How to Translate the Branding Onto the Bottle
Arthur suggests starting with these questions: “Do you want the beer to have a specific name and story or do you want to push your brewery brand itself?”
Arthur is all too aware of the small amount of real estate on a 12-ounce bottle for branding and design. The label is generally going to be around the size of two business cards and must include the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) information. “We have to get really creative with how we do that,” explains Arthur. Often designers then don't have room to put the story on the bottle. Some bottles have a back label or sometimes a carrier that can help carry a lot of that messaging because the container is so small. When working with a four or six-pack carrier, there is a larger canvas and room for more design elements and storytelling.
You’re in no short supply of beer bottles to look at. Some companies find that complementary matched designs work best for their messaging. Brixton Brewery is dedicated to featuring a large graphic B in the middle of each label and distinguishing the styles of beer by differing the color-ways. Cerveza Candelaria labels also come in similar design but with different colors for each style from a bright red for the red ale to a Kelly green for the pale ale.
Breaking Down the Design Process (Without Breaking the Bottles)
Involve the client as much as possible on front end of the process, to frame brand messaging, goals and visual inspiration. Arthur and the CODO team find mood boards and visual inspiration helpful for developing brand strategy. By the time they are ready to design beer bottles, they feel ready for design sprints and fast prototyping. “We only show collages and loose ideas if we're proposing a direction that will require a lot of time to get into a final form like custom illustration. Generally, we move straight into sketching and mocking up for internal critique,” says Arthur.
Arthur finds starting with pencil and paper helpful—but never shares those drawings with the client. “Some of the folks on our team are amazing artists, while others roughly thumbnail, often with notes and call-outs to catalogue a specific idea. Sometimes we'll critique these rough sketches as is, internally. Then we can jump on the computer to mock them up before sharing with our clients.”
Though they used to enthusiastically show a dozen or more options to the client, Arthur now realized that the process runs more smoothly if they narrow down to two or three of the strongest designs to show the client. That way, the client won’t feel overwhelmed by the design process. After the initial presentation, they refine the selected direction into a final form, getting it production-ready and prepped for submitting to the TTB for label approval.
Beer Stories: Distinguishing Brews from One Another
“This is part of the deeper brand strategy. Do individual beer names support and prop up the overall brewery story,” asks Arthur. “Or are they standalone brands that are supposed to work by themselves out it the market?” Arthur believes that while creating a larger narrative that people can understand, it is good practice to have your beer bottle designs relate to each other. He explains that when consumers know and trust the brewery itself, they’re more likely to take a chance on another one of its product.
No hard and fast rules exist here, though. “It depends on the brand strategy and how they want their story to unfold. How I shop and how a lot of consumers shop, you don't want to make that style hidden,” explains Arthur. “You can put the brewery brand name large and have the style large and maybe even the beer name. It depends on the hierarchy you work out. Just having a cool look and feel is not enough; there needs to be a deeper message and story. Helping people frame that story through the design is something that will immediately help breweries stand out.”
Recently Arthur’s work on Printer’s Ale Manufacturing Co. shows the ability for the design to relate and distinguish at the same time. The bold, comic book-inspired labels and text pay homage to CMYK with three colors and black utilized on each of the four labels varying which color is in focus.
Let’s Talk About Labels
“We push people to go with the highest quality paper,” says Arthur. He encourages the use of thick textured paper. “You are talking about the quality of the product. To make it jump off of the shelf. You want to have a high quality feel.”
Breweries need to price their paper stock out early on. A design firm can help the brewery figure out what paper they want by sharing a couple of options and working through that process with them. Neenah Paper has recently launched their Bella line of craft beer bottle labels. Breweries also use the Neenah Estate line created for wine bottles, especially for larger bottles. “It has a really great impact for a large format a 750ml or a 22oz bomber,” explains Arthur. “You get this lovely raised edge because the paper itself is so thick. We send clients few options—we don’t want to overwhelm them.”
Neenah’s new Bella label papers come 55 lb. and 60 lb. text with burlap, smooth and vellum options. The uncoated labels can be multicolor printed and applied with glue or pressure sensitive. They have the option for embossing, die-cuts, foil stamps, letterpress, offset lithography and flexographic technique, and they are made with a wet strength additive to be able to withstand refrigeration and ice baths.
“It is water resistant and takes ink beautifully with offset or digital printing. It’s a lovely textured paper that has a nice tooth,” says Arthur. “It is always nice knowing that you don't have to worry about certain production issues; ‘Will that spot varnish work?’” As Arthur works with a client through the proofing process he knows Neenah’s Bella and Estate labels are going to be good to go. He can reassure their client that their work will look good on a shelf and hopefully sell beer for them. “It is something you know is going to work so there is a level of confidence there.”
Find a Printer you can Trust
The beer community likes to…well, drink beer. They share tastings with fellow brewers and are often a jovial bunch of people. Arthur’s best advice for finding a good printer is to talk to other breweries to see who they partner with, especially the ones with great branding and packaging. “You’re looking for a few things. Is the quality there? Are they good people? Will they stand behind their product? Will they help me?” says Arthur. “You need to find a great partner.”
Follow All of the Rules for Alcohol Packaging
The importance of understanding the TTB rules cannot be emphasized enough, especially for products sold across state lines. TTB approvals need to be at top of mind during the design process. These specific rules includeclearly stating the brand name, the required type size, the need for legibility and what information must be placed on the front of the bottle. The warnings must also be displayed correctly. From a production standpoint there is a waiting period for the government can approve the label to get a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). Text can be cleverly incorporated into the design, but it needs to be legible and legal. Alchemist Microbrewery labels keep the background black and have chosen jewel toned human or creature to outline the name of the beer and artfully display the necessary facts and details.
Bottoms Up! Drinking beer to come up with sensory cues for designing beer packaging
Being a beer drinker is helpful research. Understanding how the product tastes can lead to ideas of what the design should look like. Just another day at the office!
Craft Beer Branding and Label Inspiration
CODO has identified the current beer branding trends:
● Nostalgic Regional: based on vintage appeal and evoking something classic about the region it comes from like Shiner Bock.
● Blue Collar Industrial: inspired by machinery badges, uniform patches, and timecards like 450 North Brewing.
● Premium & Luxurious: with elements in the design some with wax dip tops like Braxton Brewing Co.
● Hand-Rendered Illustrative: and drawn typography mixed with colorful illustration like Upland Brewing Co.’s Dragonfly IPA.
● Precision: clean precise lines and typography like Tin Roof Brewing Co.’s amber ale.
● Outdoor Chic: Imagery of fishing, hiking, and nature. Central Waters Brewing Co.’s Honey Blond Ale even has a bird claw on the cap.
● Grunge: “One part DIY punk aesthetic, one part grit, and a whole lot of deconstructivism,” like Backward Flag Brewing Co.’s Knife Hands.
● Wall-o-type: lots of typography no illustration. Off the Clock Brewing Co.’s Last Man Standing Lager is a good example.
● Regional powerhouse: Nostalgic with local imagery and flavor like the fish on each of the Ballast Point labels.
Printer’s Ale Manufacturing Co. (Carrollton, GA) is a production brewery that honors Greg Smith’s family story: a great, great, great grandfather opens a brewery in Germany in 1800. His son immigrates to the united States in 1911 where he opens a printing company. Several generations later, Greg runs that very printing company and is opening a brewery to close the loop on a trajectory spanning more than 200 years.
Printer’s Ale’s flagship lineup pay homage to the tools Greg uses everyday at the print shop—CMYK inks. These bottle labels will be printed on Neenah’s BELLA label stock.
Ballad Brewing (Danville, VA) wanted a beautiful, thick label stock for their large format taproom-exclusive carryout program. Building on the watercolor look and feel of their larger identity and website, these labels call out specialty tasting notes through color splashes and copywriting.
These were printed on Neenah's 60# Estate 8, lending a nice, hefty tooth to the label.
Children of the Bourbon Barrel
Children of the Bourbon Barrel is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed by 450 North Brewing (Columbus, IN) for their inaugural corn maze beer festival. Combining their family farm heritage with the spooky month of October, we worked with them to create a diecut, metallic print that reveals eyes peering out at you through the corn as you rotate the bottle.
These were digitally printed on a 70# Bright White Felt stock with a hot foil stamp.
Midnight Mauler is a Russian Imperial Stout from Wood Bear Brewing (Greenfield, IN). The label is framed by large fangs telling the story of the Midnight Mauler that roams the cornfields around central Indiana.
These were digitally printed with a subtle gradient, a matte overcoat and metallic pops to make the stars shine.
Knife Hands DIPA
Knife Hands is a double IPA from Backward Flag Brewing (Twisted Fork, NJ). Veteran-owned and operated, this overtly hoppy beer draws its name from the proper military way of pointing (basically a karate chop, for us civilians). The label was printed digitally and hand applied to stay within their budget.
The main objective with the Kros Strain branding and packaging was to veer from everything else that was available in the Nebraska market. There are several small breweries with little to no investment in branding as well as some old guard breweries who make great beer, but haven’t updated their branding or design in years.
This created an opportunity for beautiful watercolor illustrations and storytelling across their flagship line. The labels themselves are diecut with a sloping diamond pattern that's carried through on the carriers.
Julie is a freelance writer. She spends her time exploring the creative process. From artists, designers, and entrepreneurs, to whisky distillers, coffee roasters, farmers, chefs, and musicians, she focuses on stories of determination, innovation, and ingenuity. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, HOW Magazine, Angeleno, The Henry Ford Museum Magazine, Cool Hunting, The Bold Italic, KCET, AOL Travel, and Gothamist and many other food, design, and lifestyle publications.