Art of the can: Breweries invest in creative label concepts
WEST OCEAN CITY, Md. (AP) — Peanut Butter kisses, mad scientists, the Indian River Inlet Bridge — it’s no surprise brewers are paying just as much attention to the creativity on the outside as the beer inside.
Many Delmarva breweries enlist the help of local artists to make their craft beer labels pop on the shelf or entice a visit for a special release.
Harrison Albert leaped at the chance to work with the growing Dewey Beer Co. in Delaware. The 23-year-old co-owns Lt Grey Creative in West Ocean City, Maryland, with Taylor Harman.
The couple opened the shop in October 2016 after graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. What started with crowlers for the brewery became their most hands-on client when Dewey bought a canning machine and started in February 2018.
“Two months later, they were like, ‘Alright, we’re going to do cans, in February,’ ” Albert said. “It’s worked out and it’s been crazy since.”
Now Albert, Harman and the team create funky, bright abstract patterns along with reminiscent designs, like the peanut butter kiss cookies would on the outside of a Peanut Butter Blossom stout.
Abstract creations usually involve plenty of colors, like the rainbow wave that circles the can of the Dewey Booter, a session IPA released in December.
There’s also plenty of humor, like what freelancer Yolanda Morris did with the Forced Family Fun lager. The fall beer label depicted a family sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table, baby crying and covered in food, a young boy on his phone and two family members yelling while the father cuts the turkey.
It was relatable, Harrison said, which is a big deal for the Dewey team.
“There’s a lot to be said for the marketing aspect of beer,” said Michael Reilly, co-owner and head brewer at Dewey Beer. “There’s no doubt the guys down at Lt Grey are nailing our visions and ideas.”
But it’s not just young, smaller craft breweries that put an emphasis on cool cans. Big-time beer makers like Dogfish Head and Evolution have even more competition to stand out from on store shelves around the East Coast and beyond.
Traditional mass-produced products like Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light do not have the artistic qualities that back many craft brewers.
Miller changed back to its traditional color a few years ago (the white can), Bud will slap your favorite sports team on a bottle and Coors’ mountains will turn blue, but local craft brewers like Third Wave, Evolution and Crooked Hammock have a smaller audience and can target local themes and brands that allow their consumers to connect.
Even Yuengling, the largest independently-owned craft brewery in America based on beer sales volume, keeps an old-fashioned style that hasn’t changed too much through the years.
While artistry might not change a traditional beer drinkers mind, a label that stands out might help convince a craft beer drinker to pick their product over others.
“Certainly, as the market has become more crowded, it becomes harder to stand out, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. “Now, they really have to be thinking about the total package.”
The not-for-profit trade group helps craft breweries digest the ever-changing market with advice on its site, and research shows that a label is an important part in success, Watson said.
“When consumers can pick from some many beers, you have to have quality packaging,” he said.
Artist Laura Erickson had the perfect in when Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes needed someone to make their cans stand out.
Her fiance is Redmond Killpack, one of the lead brewers. Erickson has been freelance painting and drawing for the last three years.
Between the two of them, and head brewer Andrew Harton, they brainstorm the ideas based on the recipes, and once Erickson gets a few key words, she begins with her acrylic paints on canvas.
The first was the Hammerhead IPA, which was named after the owner, Jeff Hamer. Hop vines intertwine with a hammerhead shark as it swims up toward the sun’s cascading rays in the water.
But Erickson’s favorite is the Noir et Bleu, one of the top-selling brands. The 9 percent Belgian tripel features the Indian River Inlet bridge at night, matching the translated name, black and blue.
“It was a match made in heaven for the bridge at night,” Erickson said. “It’s my favorite beer to drink and I love the label. It’s special.”
Once Erickson is done painting, her job is done, but another local company comes in to take the artwork to can.
Andrew Dickinson owns 302 Design Group and has done work for SoDel Concepts and Rosenfeld’s Jewish Deli, among many other local businesses.
The Salisbury University graduate will take the artwork and apply the fonts, layouts, logo and all the required legal information. Since he’s known the guys behind the brewery for a long time, he knows the brand, respects the artwork and delivers.
“Marketing is short term, branding is forever,” Dickinson said.
The final product wraps around the can — which is no easy process in itself — and hits shelves on Delmarva.
Paul Thens loves his job at Dogfish Head as the lead designer. But still, when it comes time to create this year’s version of the Punkin Ale label, there is some pressure.
Thens works with the different artists that are selected for the Off Centered Art Series, which is in its 10th year.
Four labels are designed by Michael Hacker in this year’s iteration — 75 Minute IPA, The Perfect Disguise (a double IPA), Dragons and YumYums (last year’s fruity hit) and the grand finale of this year’s Punkin, the cult classic of pumpkin ales for beer lovers since 1995.
“There’s definitely a bit of pressure when it comes to Punkin. . . . It’s a very renowned beer when it’s being associated with Dogfish Head,” he said.
Just finding something different each year is a challenge.
With Punkin, it usually focuses on the season, fall harvest or Halloween. This year’s 75 Minute depicted a “mad” scientist, experimenting with a 60 Minute bottle and adding extra hops. A maple syrup bottle looks on inquisitively.
Thens’ favorite this year was actually the 75 Minute bottle, depicting owner Sam Calagione as the creative scientist. He said Hacker has a way of bringing a story to life with lots of layers of artwork.
“I loved the collaborates spirit of craft brewing as a whole,” Thens said.
As for a label to come out later in 2019, Neal Steward, vice president of marketing, said he was looking forward to this year’s release of Dragons & YumYums.
It took half a year to find their rhythm, but once the Dewey gang did, they can knock out 45 cases of beer in 80 minutes.
The music keeps them in sync as it starts with Reilly, the head brewer, who feeds the machine cans and makes sure all the technical programming with the canner is accurate.
Assistant head brewer Mo Colucci, who everyone says has the worst job of the canning line, grabs the now-filled beer cans from the machine, dries them off so the label sticks and puts them in a case. At 17 cans per minute, it’s tough to keep up, especially hunched over on a chair for more than an hour.
Then it’s up to co-owner Brandon Smith to make Lt Grey Creative’s hard work come to fruition. He inserts the label sticker, which is on a long roll holding hundreds, and works the foot pedal to wrap the can.
Then Josh Litten, bartender/do-it-all guy, puts the black and silver lids on the four-packs and stores the cases in a walk-in fridge.
“And that’s how we do it,” Colucci said at the end of one canning session.
It’s not the most glamorous part of being a brewer, but the hard work pays off.
At the most recent special release, people drove from as far as Baltimore and Pennsylvania to buy either two four packs or three cases. This special release featured a Tiramisu imperial sour, a spicy chicken and waffles stout and “Party Cat” — an IPA with a label that really stood out — pastel colors, old-school sunglasses and even a cat emoji with sunglasses.
The design, brand and labels all parallel the vibe and sense of humor of the brewery.
The artwork shows.
“I think that they’re always trying to create a conversation,” Albert said. “No matter if it’s colors, patterns, story, they just want to make a statement.”
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/