One of the under-appreciated aspects of the rise of craft beer in recent years is the care and attention that most craft brewers put into the designs on their bottle labels and cans. It’s something that I’ve taken note of it my Beer of the Week reviews and to me is an integral part of the package. Sure you can still have great taste with a lousy look, but when the two come together you truly have the real deal.
An article in today’s WSJ described how critical the right design was one particular beer. A Craft Brew With a Chimp on the Label Retools to Stand Out on Crowded Shelves:
People weren’t reaching for the “Bitter American” beer.
The beer itself—actually, a lower-alcohol pale ale known as a session ale—wasn’t the problem; that style of brew is a favorite in the booming craft-beer market. Rather, the company behind Bitter American, 21st Amendment Brewery, decided a new package and a new name might help their IPA win over the finicky craft-beer crowd.
In early April, the Bay Area brewer launched Bitter American’s replacement, called Down to Earth, another lower-alcohol IPA with a more citrusy flavor and aroma. The bigger change was on the outside of the can: The chimpanzee floating in dark space on the outside of the Bitter American can was now, on the Down to Earth can, pictured in a colorful tropical locale.
Since the change, sales of Down to Earth to retailers, including grocery stores and bars, are triple what Bitter American sold in all of 2014.
Bitter American was a good beer, but it wasn’t clear from the name or can design exactly what kind of beer it was. I can see why the change made a difference.
Good design that fits the beer is no longer optional for craft brewers who aspire for greatness:
Designers and beer-makers say a successful package helps tell the story behind both a brewery and a particular beer. The can or bottle has the feel of an artistic one-off; but when it is stocked on a shelf with its sister beers, they call can “hang together and establish a billboard effect for the brand,” says designer Joe Duffy of Duffy & Partners, a Minneapolis design firm that has designed bottles for Summit Brewing Co., with skyline, bridge, and lake illustrations tying it to the St. Paul region.
In the past, craft brands tried to set themselves apart from big brewers by aiming for package design that looked intentionally amateurish, but that isn’t done much anymore, Mr. Evers says.
You can’t take yourself too seriously, but you need to show you put a lot of thought and care into the design and recipe, says 21st Amendment’s Mr. O’Sullivan. “The craft beer consumer can smell it if it’s not real.”
It’s pretty easy to tell which brewers put the thought and time into it and which ones don’t. And it does make a difference.