Tour the history of designing brewery labels and learn how you can create your own craft beer labels for any style of brew.

If you’ve ever chosen a beer based on the label, well, you’re not alone. These days selecting a beer often comes down to what’s on the can, not what’s inside. Craft beer labels convey more than just information about a beer—labels tell their own visual stories.

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Telling Visual Stories
Craft beer labels tell a story. Illustration by Tortuga.

Here we’ll take a look at the history of beer labels, the rise of the craft beer industry, and tips for how, as artists and designers, you can create your own beer illustrations for labels and logos.


A Short History of Bottle Labels

Ancient Egyptians were the first to label bottles. Hieroglyphics, seals, markings, and etchings were all used to signify the vintage, type, and quality of wine. By the 18th century, wine labels graduated to the use of parchment and hangtags wrapped around the neck of the bottle.

As demand for wine increased and innovations in printing, like the lithograph, were introduced, labels could be produced en masse. By the 19th century the first origins of label artwork had arrived: winemakers, like Château Mouton Rothschild, worked with artists (including Picasso!) to create labels that would distinguish their product from others. 

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Global Design Influences
Different cultures influence different design, such as Japanese influence. Illustration by nanano.

Unlike wine, beer wasn’t bottled until the mid-1800s. Instead, thirsty patrons would bring their own jugs marked with a family seal or coat of arms. (Today, you might know these as growlers.) By the late 1880s, beer labeling became standard practice. During this era, breweries sought to distinguish themselves through the use of trademarks. One notable example is Pabst’s eponymous blue ribbon.

Fast forward to the 1980s when microbreweries and brewpubs were introduced to the public. These small, independent and creatively-inclined brewers took the label design of the time (largely, those produced by commercial breweries) and completely transformed beer packaging.

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — The History of Beer Labeling
Microbreweries transformed label design for beer. Design by i-ro.

The Rise of Craft Beer 

The rapid rise of craft breweries in the U.S. and Canada has ushered in a new era of beer label design. (Wineries, though they were the first to partner with artists on labels, tend to be on the more conservative side of design. Lately, however, interesting label artwork is coming from the natural wine community.)

There are now more than 8,000 craft breweries across the United States. Ten years ago, there were only 1,542. And in 2019, retail dollars of craft beer sales accounted for more than 24 per cent of the U.S. beer market. Craft beer doesn’t show any signs of stopping soon either.

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — The Rise of Craft Beer
The rapid rise of craft breweries continues. Vector by Roberto Castillo.

For designers and creatives, this is a good thing—there’s more opportunity than ever to design brewery-friendly artwork.


The Rise of Beer Label Design

In 2019, the craft beer magazine Caña declared that, “From label designs that could stand alone as conceptual artworks to daring aesthetics that define a brand, as the craft beer juggernaut rolls on, its relationship with art rattles alongside at a gathering pace; beer cans are officially the new record sleeve.” 

Whether, like Caña, you think of them as record sleeves or simply canvases on a can, there’s no question that craft beer has “morphed into one of the main sources of and venues for… inspiration and creativity.”

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Beer Can as Canvas
Take inspiration from nature when designing logos. Illustration by graphicES.

According to a Nielsen’s 2017 Craft Beer Category Design Audit, 66 per cent of American craft beer buyers say that a beer’s package or label is “very” or “extremely” important for getting their attention.


Beer label design as art

Beer labels have even made their way to London’s Tate Modern. In 2018 and 2019, the series Beer + Art celebrated the artists behind some of Britain’s most notable craft beer producers by inviting them to show a one-off piece of work alongside a one-off beer from each brewery. As they put it: “In the world of ‘craft beer,’ this goes so much deeper than simply ‘good branding.’ The advent of the…can revolution has provided a much bigger canvas for designers and artists to make their mark.”

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Design Meeting Art
Beer labels as art. Illustration by adehoidar.

Even Milton Glasser, the legendary 84-year-old New York-based designer has something to say about good beer label design. (He’s also the designer behind Brooklyn Brewery, which is largely credited with bringing the beer label design renaissance to New York City.)


8 Tips for Designing Illustrations for Beer

How can you create artwork destined for the can or bottle? Here are eight tips to help you create brewery illustrations.

Tip #1: Do Your Research

And no, we don’t mean irresponsibly consume alcohol! Blogs like ohbeautifulbeer.com chronicle the latest in beer labels and packaging design, which will help you stay abreast of the components of good label design. Or visit your local bottle shop or craft brewery and pay attention to what’s on the shelves or taps. The industry moves fast, so make sure you’re moving along with it. Don’t forget to keep an eye on Shutterstock’s Creative Trends for 2020 too!

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Do Your Research
Do your research. Design by Trape Graphic.

Tip #2: Understand Beer Styles

If you’re creating artwork for the beer industry it helps to have a solid grasp on the beer styles available. An IPA is different from a pilsner, a sour-forward beer different from a classic pale ale. Understanding just how expressive and innovative beer is these days will help you develop a visual style to match. Try a pineapple sour or venture into the world of pét-nats (a naturally fermented wine) and then translate your experience into art. (Again, please consume responsibly.)

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Do Your Research
There are many types of beer (and glasses). Illustration by Berezka_Klo.

Tip #3: Design Art-Forward 

There are four* suggested ways to break down a label: 

  • Brewery-forward: This puts the prospective brewery’s brand identity at the forefront. 
  • Beer style-forward: This is all about style, whether it’s a stout, pilsner, sour, or pale ale. 
  • Name-forward: Ever giggled (or groaned) at a beer’s moniker? Having a unique and distinct name can help set apart beer as much as the artwork itself.
  • Art-forward: According to many breweries and designers, the art-forward style reigns supreme. The same Nielsen study mentioned earlier indicates that 71 per cent of craft beer buyers say they like to try brands with bold and interesting packaging. 
Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — A Blank Canvas
A blank canvas for an artist. Image by SQS.

*One notable exception is the beautiful, nearly information-free bottles of Swedish brewery Omnipollo, which are created by co-owner and designer Karl Grandin. They don’t play by any of the conventional rules, and because of this, their beer is widely admired and collected around the world.

Tip #3: Design for Distribution 

Breweries have to compete in a highly saturated market where shelf space is limited. Brand visibility is at a premium, so it’s important that beer labels are easily noticed—whether that’s through the use of vibrant, bold colors, interesting graphics, minimalist lines, local artwork, nice typography, and even photography. 

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Design for Distribution
A label should stand-out and get noticed. Design by Boychenko Alexey.

Tip #4: Avoid Insignia or Profanity

This seems obvious, but craft beer packaging should avoid profanity, pornography, insignia, and any statement that implies alcohol content (for example, “strong beer”). Most breweries are required to declare the ABV (alcohol by volume) of a beer, which helps customers know just how much alcohol they’re consuming.

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Avoid Insignia or Profanity
A great beer label has all the information you need. Design by Foxys Graphics.

Tip #5: Create a Cohesive Brand

Most breweries understand that a cohesive visual language will set them apart from competitors. This means more than just a label. When designing brewery-friendly artwork, consider all the elements of a brand and weave those together into one cohesive package. Think box design, logo, labels, and more.

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Create a Cohesive Brand
Create a cohesive brand for your brewery. Illustration by wildfloweret.

Tip #6: Tell a Story

A beer can often come with its own system of information. Since you’re designing artwork for a stock marketplace, you won’t have a defined brief or know what beer style you’re illustrating. Instead, focus on telling a story. Perhaps your artwork draws on folklore or a period of history. Maybe you’re translating your physical surroundings into illustration. However you’re influenced, let your art tell a tale.

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Tell a Story
The best brands tell stories. Illustration by qnak.

Tip #7: Don’t Design Beer Labels for a Single Audience

Craft beer’s appeal is wide. It’s enjoyed by people of all (legal drinking) ages, ethnicities, race, and sexual and gender orientations. While the late 2000s saw label design favor lazy and sexist male-centric motifs (for example, pin-up girls), today’s craft beer world is inclusive, non-sexual, urban, and imaginative. In short: don’t design for a specific audience.

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Design for Everyone
Design for everyone. Craft beer is for all. Design by Fancy Graphics.

Tip #8: There Are No Rules

Like all things design, there are no rules when it comes to beer label design. (Okay, the design itself does play by certain rules, but the point is to have fun with it.) If the craft beer industry can evolve past the stalwarts of the commercial beer industry (we won’t name any names here) to become the progressive, innovative, and expressive industry it is today, then you too should experiment with style. 

Designing Memorable Beer Labels: The Art of the Craft — Design Without Rules
Brewery label design has no rules. Design by Alex Blogoodof.

We hope these tips will help inspire and guide you to creating artwork that’s fit for both a canvas—and a can.


Top illustration by wildfloweret.

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