Craft beer is typically lauded mostly for what’s inside the can. But for many drinkers—especially those new to craft—love at first glance starts with the label. That’s where label artists come into play.
Creative, artful labels are key to getting beer into buyers’ hands and making one brewery stand out over another on store shelves. For Bent Brewstillery, in Roseville, Minnesota, the process goes beyond just making a can look good: characters are created for every new brew, complete with backstories as complex as the beers themselves.
Bent Brewstillery labels range from illustrations that depict the brewery’s intended image to drawings designed to capture a beer’s flavor profile. Cans of Über Lüpin Schwarz IPA, for example, prominently feature an illustration of Balthasar. According to legend, Balthasar was a blacksmith who singlehandedly defended a town against an invading horde with a morning star.
“He’s just a big, brutal German guy, and we’re like, that fits the big, brutal German beer,” Bent Brewstillery owner Bartley Blume explained. He pointed to a row of bottles in the brewery featuring other label illustrations. Among them were a muscular Chilean chieftain, a long-haired blonde woman, and an angry man in a kilt.
Blume says beer notes, history of the style, and the colorful characters he envisions when brewing a beer are all considered when he commissions artist Brent Schoonover to create a label. Because of how fast-paced the craft-brew industry can be, Schoonover typically only gets about a week to work on new labels.
More than an artist making a stationary label, Schoonover says he’s essentially working with Blume and the Bent Brewstillery staff to create an alternate universe for the individual beers and brewery as a whole. It’s not unlike his work as a comic-book artist for Marvel, for whom he makes characters like the Punisher. “It’s fun in that regard of character design,” he says. “You’re kind of ‘world building,’ a lot like you do in comics.”
Schoonover’s work with Bent Brewstillery is about more than creating a character, however. He says he also seeks to honor the vibe of the brewery.
This is common among label artists, who fastidiously work to ensure their art fits a brand’s image or theme. For example, label designs for Surly Darkness are always done using red and white. Bad Weather Brewing labels give off a surreal, Hitchcock feel. For Bent Brewstillery, it’s an entire world of characters.
Illustrator Adam Turman got his start working on beer labels when he designed the very first bottle of Surly Darkness in 2007. The label featured the Grim Reaper holding his iconic scythe and a snifter of the Russian Imperial Stout. Today, Turman does art for a handful of other breweries, too, including 612Brew and Sleeping Giant, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. His experience mirrors Schoonover’s in that the breweries he works with lead the design process.
“I love them to come to me with an idea of what they want to see,” Turman says. “Ultimately it’s a design challenge. They have a communication problem, meaning they need some design done for a product, and I need to make artwork that represents them as a business and [reflects] their product. […] And it all has to make sense to whoever’s buying it.”
Sometimes that means playing off the name of a beer or the style of what’s in the can. The process can be tricky at times, especially because not every brewery has a specific image in mind when commissioning label art.
But a lack of direction isn’t always a bad thing. Bad Weather Brewing artist Lucas Gluesenkamp says it actually makes his task easier: “They more or less kind of let me do whatever the hell I want,” he says. “I would say I have about 95 percent free reign.”
Before beginning a design, Gluesenkamp receives tasting notes and a general description of a beer. After tasting it and considering its origin, he digitally paints landscapes that he thinks represent the beer, sometimes sending several versions of an idea to the brewery before they land on one they can all agree on. Thunderstorms and tornadoes don’t cut it for Bad Weather; instead, Gluesenkamp shoots for an atmospheric eeriness, capturing “strange times of the day, or weird, foggy places that feel either haunted or untouched by humans for a long time,” he says.
A good example of this is the label he made for Bad Weather’s flagship beer, Windvane. Emblazoned with a decrepit barn and carmine colored sky over scorched earth, the image perfectly captures both the brewery’s image as well as the red ale’s personality.
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