An Oral History of Beer Label Design

As the craft beer industry grows more crowded, it becomes increasingly important for breweries to distinguish themselves from the competition. One way of doing so, aside from the beer itself, is the look and feel of the beer’s packaging. Chris Wright of GearPatrol.com sought out a number of leading figures in the craft community, and asked them about the design of their beer labels.

Wright’s panel of experts includes Brooklyn Brewery’s Milton Glazer, who founded New York magazine and designed the iconic “I (Heart) NY” logo in the 1970s; Flying Dog Ales’ Erin Weston, who works closely with Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrator Ralph Steadman; and Dogfish Head Brewery’s Sam Calagione, who really needs no introduction. Ten other designers, representing such well-known brands as Founders, Ommegang, and Sly Fox, also contributed to this fascinating oral history.

The designers come from various walks of life; and, as expected, many of them are home brewers. They explained to Wright what they wanted their labels to convey, such as psychedelia or fond memories of the beach. Perhaps the best comment came from Calagione, who told Wright that label design has become a challenge. He said, “It’s getting harder to find fun, provocative on-brand names these days with 1.5 new breweries opening every day and only half a million words in the English language.”

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The Friday Mash (Iditarod Edition)

Thirty years ago today, Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. “Mushers,” as competitors are called, must brave dangerous cold, blizzards, and whiteout conditions on the 1,135-mile course from Willow to Nome, Alaska.

And now…The Mash!

We begin in St. Paul, where a delegation of Minnesotans—including state lawmakers—made a symbolic beer run to Wisconsin to protest their state’s ban on Sunday alcohol sales.

A group of writers at Fortune magazine took a stab at deciding what your choice of beer brand says about you. For instance, Amstel Light says, “Thank God the beer is free at this office party.”

Rhys Morgan, a student at the University of Cardiff in Wales, figured out how to make a bottle opener out of a sheet of paper. His YouTube tutorial has more than 350,000 views.

Civil engineer Dave McWilliams won first prize in a home brewing contest. And what a prize it was: the opportunity to brew a batch of IPA at Anheuser-Busch’s pilot brewery in St. Louis.

Tap beer is served at 38 degrees. That’s fine for mass-market lagers, but it’s too cold for craft beers, which should be served at temperatures between the mid-40s and the upper 50s.

Beer is expensive in New York City, but an app called Price Per Pint can help find the cheapest drinks, as well as specific happy-hour times and daily specials at hundreds of establishments.

Finally, staffers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation brewed up a beer protest of the National Security Agency’s “three-hop” surveillance program. Their beer is called “Stormbrew” and yes, the recipe is available to the public under a Creative Commons license.

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The Friday Mash (San Diego State U. Edition)

On this day in 1897, San Diego State University was established. The 35,000 students at SDSU have an amazing selection of craft beer to choose from. At the end of 2014, the county had nearly 100 breweries and brewpubs.

And now…The Mash!

We begin in Houston, where the Texas Beer Refinery has opened for business. Its fermenting tanks and brew kettles have been made to look like refinery towers from a distance.

Goose Island Brewing Company’s 20-year-old brewery on Chicago’s Near West Side will start offering tours and tastings later this month. The tasting room will also offer growler fills.

Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company has brewed a beer to benefit James Madison’s Montpelier. Ambition Ale, “a beer with checks and balances,” will be available in central Virginia this summer.

Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen, Oregon’s largest-selling craft beer, is now co-branded with Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. Both the brewery and the team are Portland institutions.

Goldcrest 51 beer was popular in Memphis until the Tennessee Brewing Company closed its doors in 1955. Beer writer Kenn Flemmons plans to revive the beer this spring, using the original recipe.

A federal appeals court has ruled that Flying Dog Ales can sue Michigan for damages over its refusal to approve the label for Raging Bitch IPA. The state’s decision was overturned in court.

Finally, a new beer from Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company honors cherry farmer Nancy Bunting, who supplied it with thousands of pounds of cherries. Allagash has donated part of the proceeds from “Nancy” to a charity that helps farmworkers with health problems.

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The Ten Commandments for Drinking at a Bar

Have you ever seen a bearded guy dressed as monk at a beer festival? Chances are, his name is Woody Chandler, a noted beer and whisky writer.

The folks at All About Beer magazine persuaded Chandler to write the Ten Commandments for Drinking at a Bar. We suspect Chandler didn’t require much persuasion, as he loves to write (often in Biblical verse) and says he’s “routinely nonplussed by the lack of bar etiquette demonstrated by modern imbibers.”

The commandments include the obvious (don’t talk politics in a loud voice, and don’t get into fights); what should be obvious (don’t wave your hands to get the bartender’s attention); and what you might unwittingly violate after a few drinks (keep your hands on your side of the bar, don’t tear bar mats into confetti).

Chandler also advises you to learn bar lingo, including these three terms: flagged, which means you’ve been cut off and asked to finish up and leave; 86’d, which means you’ve been flagged and failed to leave soon enough; and blackballed, which means you’ve done something so egregious that you’re never allowed back under penalty of trespass. Needless to say, you should avoid these at all cost.

The Friday Mash (Aspirin Edition)

On this day in 1899, Bayer AG trademarked the name “Aspirin” for its synthetic version of salicylic acid. Aspirin, an anti-inflammatory drug, is one of the world’s most widely-used medications: 40,000 metric tons are used each year.

And now…The Mash!

We begin in Kentucky, which is best known for snow bourbon. However, a lively craft beer scene has emerged. Fourteen breweries have opened in the Bluegrass State since 2011.

CNBC is bringing back its Most Loved Beer Label contest. For the next week, citizens can nominate labels. The network will reveal the finalists on March 23, and voting will wind up two weeks later.

In Malaysia, non-alcoholic beer for Muslims is unacceptable to the chief halal certifier because he objects to the word “beer” to describe the drink.

Jay Brooks has published an ale-themed parody of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. The closing lines are, “I do so love craft beer at home! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-Cala-Gione!”

CoolMaterial.com created a flowchart to guide people who can’t decide what their next beer should be. The first question is, “Are you looking to get drunk and don’t care about taste?”

Beer festivals attract people dressed as court jesters, ballerinas, superheroes, and even giant chickens. MLive.com’s John Serba offers five ridiculous, but practical costume suggestions.

Finally, Eleanor Robertson stirred up a hornets’ nest with an op-ed condemning craft beer. Robertson hates its taste, can’t stand beer snobs, and would rather talk to her friends than her beer.

The Inspiration for American Saison Beers

In an All About Beer article titled “The Most Influential Brewery You Probably Never Heard Of”, Jeff Alworth introduced his readers to a French brewer named Daniel Thiriez, who has been making farmhouse ales since 1996 at his brewery in Esquelbecq, France. Alworth credits Thiriez’s version of saison as the inspiration for those brewed in America.

First, however, Alworth discusses Dupont, which he says is to saison what Pilsner Urquell is to pilsner. Dupont, which was instrumental in reviving the style, made its version with “a finicky strain of yeast” that most other brewers don’t want to deal with. The beer has “a stiff mineral profile, strange esters, herbal hops, explosive effervescence and a desert-dry finish.”

Even if they could replicate Dupont–a fiendishly difficult job–American brewers wanted something different. They preferred versions with less assertive, more familiar esters. That is the kind of beer Thiriez makes. The yeast he settled on is Wyeast 3711, the “French Saison” strain. It’s a strain well known to American brewers, who began using it in their saisons.

The Friday Mash (Not Mr. Met Edition)

On this day in 1872, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in Manhattan. With more than two million works in its permanent collection, “The Met”—not to be confused with baseball mascot “Mr. Met”—is one of the largest art museums in the world.

And now…The Mash!

We begin in Turkey, where security guards red-carded a fan for trying to smuggle beer into a soccer stadium. A whole case of bottles, in an outfit he’d designed for that purpose.

The latest trademark fight pits New Belgium Brewing Company and Oasis, Texas Brewing Company, both of which brew a beer called “Slow Ride”. New Belgium filed its mark ahead of Oasis, but Oasis’s beer hit the market first.

Vietnam’s robust drinking culture—there is no word for “hangover”—is raising concerns about health as citizens grow wealthier. A glass of beer costs just 30 U.S. cents.

Screenwriter and director Matthew Vaughn says that Guinness provided the inspiration for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Over pints, Vaughn and comic book maestro Mark Miller came up with the idea of an old-school spy movie.

The popularity of IPA and other craft beer has forced Iowa lawmakers to revisit the definition of “beer”. Beverages with 5 to 8 percent ABV currently exist in a legal twilight zone.

An Austin, Texas, company has developed a product called Kube, which combines a high-quality portable sound system and a beverage cooler. It’s designed to be used at parties and outdoor events.

Finally, Empire Brewing Company is collaborating with China’s Jingwei Fu Tea Company to brew Two Dragons beer. It starts out mellow and woody, and finishes with a sweet tea-like taste. Empire hopes to export it to China.

The World’s Youngest Cicerone

Angela Steil is only 21 years old, but she’s earned certification as a Cicerone and will be working as the in-house beer sommelier at Gravity, a beer-focused restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Steil is the world’s youngest Cicerone. Attaining that status is no easy task, regardless of one’s age. Only half of those who take the exam pass it. It requires memorizing a huge material of material—the syllabus is 19 pages long—and includes tasting portion in which one has to identify specific off-flavors of beer. Steil’s test preparation included marathon flash-card sessions, videos, “every book they mention,” and innumerable blind flight tastings.

Steil’s next goal is to achieve Master Cicerone status, which is so difficult that only seven people have qualified so far. However, she has plenty of time to acquire the knowledge needed to get there.

When Brewpubs Were a Novelty

In the current All About Beer, historian Tom Aciatelli takes us back to 1986, when recently-laid-off geologist John Hickenlooper drove to Berkeley, California, to visit his brother. The two paid a visit to Triple Rock Brewery and Alehouse, and Hickenlooper realized what his next career would be.

Two years later, Hickenlooper and his partners opened Wynkoop Brewing Company in what was then a gritty section of Denver.

A quarter century ago, brewpubs outnumbered microbreweries by a substantial margin (the opposite is true today). Brewpub owners faced serious challenges, including finding the money to get started, overcoming Depression-era liquor laws, and persuading customers to pay more for a product they were not familiar with.

Hickenlooper was a notable success in his industry. He started or invested in 11 brewpubs. Later, he embarked on yet another career, that of a public official. He got elected mayor of Denver, and is now governor of Colorado. When he first took office in 2011, he made sure the craft beer flowed at his inaugural party.

Craft Brewing’s Growing Pains

Rich Doyle, one of the founders of Harpoon Brewery, asked his partners to bring in an investor so their brewery could buy struggling competitors. They said no. So, after 30 years, Doyle is cashing out.

Doyle believes we’re in the midst of a craft beer bubble, which like all bubbles, will pop. He told the New York Times, “you have a lot of entrants, with low barriers to entry, chasing a finite amount of growth.” he said.

But Doyle’s partners disagree. They think there’s more room for well-run breweries like Harpoon to keep growing. And many brewery owners elsewhere in the country agree with them.

Private equity groups have been investing in craft breweries. For example, Uinta Brewing, which brewed nearly 150,000 barrels last year and aims to break into craft’s top tier, took on an outside investor to fund the infrastructure it needs to get there.

Other breweries have accepted takeover offers from big breweries. The most newsworthy deals involve Anheuser-Busch, which recently bought 10 Barrel Brewing and Elysian Brewing.

And some breweries are borrowing to finance their expansion. This raises fears about unserviceable debt loads and overbuilding in general. Benj Steinman of Beer Marketing Insights told the Times, “People have built out way in front,” he said. “They’ve made bets and not all will succeed. It’s pretty likely there will be some that won’t survive. And then there might be some capacity available for cents on the dollar.”

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