Designing Beer

Beer design seems to be undergoing a major shift, as the new BridgePort Haymaker further demonstrates. Leaving aside the ale-quaffing rooster (what was the thinking there?), you see a classic look--sleek and retro, with a crest-based label and cursive script. Since Full Sail redesigned their look a few years ago, breweries seem to be abandoning the gaudier, more "crafty" labels for consistency, maturity, and--this is the key design cue--industrial muscularity. (Not that I'm trying to suggest that's a good thing--design is subjective.)

The new MacTarnahan's design has the same look. In their case, they went for the classic all-caps look. But note the groovy checkerboard grid, which recalls mid-century packaging. I imagine a pattern on margarine. The color palate, as with the Bridgeport, is on a fixed, muted continuum, as opposed to some of the more garish labels of earlier craft packaging.

It's weird that what is old seems new, but when Full Sail originally decided to go for their redesign, they were consciously aiming for the youth market. The kids don't drink IPAs; they drink Pabst. When they see retro, they react to it as though it is new. What seems old are the Boomer designs that craft pioneers employed--which ironically were intended to have an insouciant, do-it-yourself, "we're the new kids in town" quality.

Here's a pretty good example from Alaska's Midnight Sun. It has a woodcut look of a type that was popular in the mid-80s. It's colorful rather than sleek and subdued, natural rather than industrial. My guess is that most young folks under 30 would say it looks hokey. Since the style hails from that period when today's young people were kids, it feels dated to them. (That's probably an axiom--style feels dated when it comes from the most recent, distinctively different era.) But go back to 50s style--once regarded as the most conventional in American history--and it's hip again.

Which brings us to the allure of the industrial. Early craft brewers, for whatever reason, strongly situated their breweries in local, natural settings. The earliest city beer was brewed by BridgePort, but it was named after the city's bird and the label showed a Blue Heron, not a bridge. There is something naturalistic about brewing, and early brewers were connected to ingredients (they hauled sacks of malt themselves). So we saw beers named for birds and weasels and seals and bears.

But the current look recalls the industrial age. You don't drive past factories anymore, yellow toxins rising off flaming smokestacks, and so it's easy to romanticize this broad-shouldered past. With the collapse of manufacturing in America, there's something very attractive about massive steel fermenters and guys cruising around in rubber boots and flannel shirts. Oregon in particular has always been a blue collar place, and so it's not surprising that there's a return to an aesthetic that recalls work and industrialism rather than nature and craft.

All things change, and as breweries get bigger and more impersonal, there will probably be an effort to remind people of the naturalism of brewing. (That's what happened as breweries got bigger and bigger in the 50s, 60s, and 70s; they didn't show their massive brewing plants, they evoked Rocky Mountains, artesian water, and the "Land of Sky Blue Waters.") But for now, industrial is hip.