How Design Reflects the Time

Throughout the forty years of the craft beer era, fashions in design, names, and brand presentation have changed. If we glance backward, we can see in these different eras the way craft breweries saw themselves. Just by studying the design, without even considering the beer inside, we can infer so many things. The pioneer era emphasized tradition with heritage designs and themes, the second wave insurrection with brash, countercultural imagery, and so on. 

I’ve been pondering the current trends, which have reached a state of design as distilled and cohesive as any we’ve seen. CODO Design, an Indianapolis branding firm, recently issued a very long analysis of craft beer (thanks for flagging it, Jessica and Ray), and it captures the themes nicely. In a section called “Maximum Design, Minimal Branding,” they write:

 “This colorful styling took root as a way to denote a brewery’s special releases by seeking to stand starkly apart from core flagship packaging. Originally, this created a one-off sense of “beer as art”—often signifying an extremely experimental beer, or a limited release that stands apart from business as usual. We are now noticing that smaller/younger breweries are applying this approach to their core/flagship offerings... Such an approach produces vibrant cans that leap off the shelf with incendiary full-scale patterning, vibrant color and few (if any) branding elements to clutter things up.”

In a case of perfect timing, Threes Brewing just sent me these cans as if to offer an object lesson: 



 The First Gen

Before we get into the current design trends and their meaning, let’s look back to see what happened in earlier eras. The first generation of craft breweries were the the original disruptors, but they didn’t present themselves as “innovators” or agents of change. Quite the opposite. Their design choices evoked tradition. The very act of trying to make weird styles of beer on a micro-scale was enough novelty for customers. Brewers then presented their products as a kind of restoration, a return to good beer of an era before industrial debasement. Block cuts, classic label design cues, old-timely fonts, and historical figures were the currency they spent to build this sense of continuity to an earlier era.

The Revolutionaries

Breweries founded in the 1990s took a different approach. Craft beer still had only a tiny share of the market, but it had been around long enough that most beer drinkers were at least aware of the trend. Big breweries had become concerned enough that they had begun to introduce their own  “craft” products. The brewers who emerged in this era had very good reason to think there was a future in craft brewing. They were brash and cocky, and their brands departed from tradition and emphasized their confidence in bold themes. Many featured desultory, slacker imagery (It was the era of Gen X grunge), others pursued punk rock or metal themes, while others created little self-contained worlds of their own making.

The Cautious Return

It would turn out that all that exuberance of the mid-90s was a bit premature. Craft beer volumes and brewery numbers hit a ten-year wall starting in 1997. (There were 1,514 breweries in 1998 and 1,511 in 2007.) the biggest problem of the frothy 90s was a lack of consistency and quality. Customers grew tired of gambling on a six-pack from the new local brewery that might taste like gasoline or burning, and they turned to brands on which they could rely. Breweries founded during this period emphasized quality in their branding. The brewers of this period were often craft beer natives, having grown up drinking in the craft era, and they, too, wanted to drink quality beer. They signaled their commitment through sleeker, professional designs. Some did this by choosing more sophisticated, almost winelike minimalism, while others went with bright, clean designs.

A Colorful Present

The unexpected arrival of cans as the emblem of new breweries and the current trends of candy-like flavors has been accompanied by the “beer-as-art” design choices CODO identified. This isn’t an especially acute insight—it has been much discussed and imitated. The bright, blocky and abstract labels are a visual cue about the kind of beer found inside. What’s fascinating is how similar so many of the labels are, and how much they deemphasize brand. CODA comment:

“But this abstraction cuts both ways: without careful implementation, customers are left with no idea who made the beer, or (perhaps more concerning) are easily wooed away by upstart competitors who will inevitably release similar style-driven packaging.”

And it’s not just the cans. Many breweries have barrel-aged specialty lines, and these often feature very different, understated designs that communicate sophistication. (One might even say winelike sophistication, but I bet few will cop to that.) Threes also sent me four mixed-fermentation beers using these design cues:


Ironically, this leaves the core or flagship lineup to carry the distinctiveness of the brand identity. Because the cans and specialty bottles are largely sold onsite at the brewery, there’s no reason to emphasize the brand. But when a package has to sit on a shelf with dozens of other competitors, it has to be unique and recognizable.  

Its always a bit harder to understand what all these collective labels are telling us in real time, but let’s take an exploratory stab at it. For new breweries, beer is increasingly being sold onsite, in taprooms. The branding choices that vary by beer type become cues to customers who stop by the cold case at the end of a session. Brightly colored four-packs: hoppy beers. Elegant bottles: mixed ferm, barrel-aged beers. (And branding-by-type doesn’t stop there. Look around and you see several other ways categories of beer are sold. Bottles with darker labels and possibly wax-dipped necks: bourbon-barrel aged beers. Sleek cans with minimalist designs and throwback names and fonts: sessionable lagers.) The brewery branding is evident in the physical space, on merch, and on tap-handles; that helps customers recognize the core line when they hit the grocery store later on.

All of this illustrates how beer has now become stratified by drinking circumstance and beer type. This would never have been possible in an earlier era because no beer types commanded broad popularity the way hoppy beers now do, or niche passions as barrel-aged beers or lagers do. Furthermore, this kind of clarity is important with so many breweries and beers, because it helps guide customers to the kinds of beer they like. Branding types of beers would have been self-defeating in earlier eras in a time where breweries were trying to build flagship brands that would generate most of the revenue. 

Branding seems to have roughly ten-year cycles, and are most cleanly defined right in the middle of the window. The current cycle began four or five years ago and is at its peak now; in the next five years, trends will likely move on toward whatever comes next. Somewhere around the middle of the next decade, it should be coming into view. In the meantime, enjoy the current designs. As a consumer, I find them quite attractive and will miss them when they go.

Jeff AlworthComment