The Packaging of Craft Beer: Thinking Outside the Bottle


We endlessly debate the beer itself, but what about its container? In Part I of a two-part series on packaging, we talk to two local design firms for insight into the branding of craft beer.

Carey Matthews knew the logo needed work. “We were in the middle of a cellar expansion and building expansion, and the time seemed right for big changes,” she says. “But there’s always that fear of upsetting people.” By the end of the rebranding process, Matthews would see the Internet go slightly nuts over the Summit Brewing Company’s initially proposed logo. The letters in the word “Summit” were spaced on a green chevron so that unequal margins were left on either side. Passionate commenters mocked the change. Improper kerning never felt so personal.

“From what we read it was about half-and-half, loving it and hating it,” Matthews recalls. “It was not only coming from their association to the old brand but what they find aesthetically pleasing. But it was comforting that people took it so personally. I mean, if nobody cared, that would be depressing.”

Increased competition in the craft beer scene is forcing breweries to take stock of how their brands are presented. From the straightforward, blocky colors of Lake Superior Brewing to the seizure-inducing sixers from Flying Dog, no two breweries approach it the same way or with the same level of care.

Some lean on the aesthetics of local artists. Indeed Brewing visually pops from the shelf in their Chuck U. designs, featuring the adventures of a mustachioed, monocle-wearing dandy. Lucas Gluesenkamp creates Bad Weather Brewing’s atmospheric bird-scapes worthy of the Audubon Society.

The common goal when it comes to branding is to strike a balance: to tell a brewery’s story in a personal way, while creating something engaging that allows consumers to take ownership for themselves. The need to foster loyalty is becoming more important because variety is skyrocketing.

According to the Brewers Association, over 400 craft breweries opened nationwide in 2013, bringing the overall brewery total to around 2,800 by year’s end, nearly double the amount operating seven years ago. And 2013 was a year in which overall national beer sales fell by 2%, while sales of craft beer enjoyed an 18% increase. The current count of U.S. breweries is over 3,000 with over a 1,500 in the preliminary stages of opening.

While craft beer is expanding, the amount of physical space for them isn’t keeping pace. That’s where design comes in. “Branding is super important with breweries, because you’re fighting to even get on the shelves,” explains Dan West, founder and executive creative director at Westwerk. “The distributors only have so much room on their trucks. The retailers, same with shelves. Who are you going to kick off?”

That was the issue Westwerk had to overcome during their rebranding of Rush River Brewing of River Falls, Wisconsin. Distributors were beginning to push back on Rush River, noting a discrepancy between the quality of their product and its performance on retail shelves.

“Ten years ago, it didn’t matter as much, since regionally there wasn’t much competition,” says West. “But they were charging a premium—$10 for a six pack. It needed to look like it was worth $10. When you looked at New Belgium or Red Hook, [Rush River’s] packaging lacked in comparison. When beer drinkers are looking for something new that they’ve never heard of, the need is really great for that branding to be solid.”

Westwerk developed a modern vintage feel for Rush River, envisioning it as an honest, blue-collar craft beer. They tweaked the iconography, creating a badge for each beer and a master identity for the brand. In the year after the rollout of new packaging, bottle sales of Rush River increased 127%. Before, sales were two-thirds kegs to one-third bottles. Afterwards, that ratio reversed.

Both Rush River and Summit’s rebranding had a major design decision in common—strategically updating a color scheme. They were each careful to make sure their packages would be instantly recognizable. And since the psychology of colors and brands is so powerful, mimicking those established colors was their link to the past.
Westwerk softened Rush River’s color palette from bright soda-pop neon to warmer, more approachable tones. But Bubble Jack stayed in the green family and Unforgiven Amber remained orange. Summit’s colors were upgraded to striking jewel tones, but the signature yellow associated with EPA stuck around to smooth the transition.

Summit’s rebranding was courtesy of Minneapolis-based Duffy & Partners, who were coming off the same process with Brewery Ommegang the previous year. “People would say they had Hennepin, but they didn’t know it was from Ommegang,” says Duffy project manager Ashley Court. “It was about making recognizable Ommegang bits over all of them, and then talking about the individual brew’s personality. But there was already such good brand awareness for Summit, it was the opposite problem. How do we play with the individual brews?”


Sketches from Summit’s rebranding process with Duffy and Partners

“We wanted contemporary, not trendy,” says Matthews. “Something that would stand the test of time but not look like it’s been around for all time.” Summit’s brand was dominated by dated background woodcuts. It felt too nostalgic and expected. It felt like a “beer brand” in a bad way.

The answer came from their location—St. Paul. The green chevron was meant to evoke a street sign for the brewery named after the city’s most recognizable avenue. Then, a more dimensional feel snuck into each individual brew. Look in the background of the EPA package—that’s the High Bridge floating down through the St. Paul skyline. Those buildings behind True Brit IPA are meant to evoke the European architecture of Cathedral Hill.

And about that chevron. Duffy corrected the spacing. In the finished logo, a critical eye will see the first M creeping into the peak of the chevron. Close up, that spacing seems incorrect. Considered overall, it’s much more symmetrical. “We wanted to make that chevron shape so it could be used on different parts of things,” says Duffy senior designer Ken Sakurai. “We didn’t just want to repeat the logo everywhere, it was about creating a wider brand language.”


Not only do craft brewers need to stand out from each other, they need to stand out from “crafty” competitors. Since MillerCoors and Anhueser-Busch InBev still monopolize so much retail space, they’ve branded subsidiary labels to blend in. Confederate crafts like Shock Top, Goose Island, Blue Moon, and Third Shift all look distinctly different from their conglomerate parents. Craft brewers calling for greater packaging transparency initiated the #CraftvsCrafty tag on Twitter, generating millions of social media impressions in 2013.

Westwerk ran into that problem on a rebrand of Monument, Colorado-based Pikes Peak Brewing. “Colorado, where everyone has a mountain on their logo,” says West. “I mean, Coors! And if they’re called Pikes Peak, how do we have a mountain that doesn’t look like everyone else’s? We looked around the area—Fort Collins and Colorado Springs—and carved out our own niche. Part of that was coming up with a distinctive illustration style. And we kept it monochromatic, which helps to differentiate on the shelf.”

Amidst an ever-expanding beer scene, West is quick to point out the upside of increased competition—it allows brewers to finely tailor their message to a target audience. “Because there are so many brands, the variety really shows the personality of the brewers,” he says. “There’s branding I don’t like out there, but the beer is good and that’s what’s important. It’s all about individual style. They’re trying to target specific people, and the packaging has to do the talking.”

Coming up in Oct/Nov: Part II in which we look at the packaging from a retail perspective. Cans vs. bottles, large format vs. six-packs, how does packaging influence a store’s inventory?

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.

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