Label of love: The creative world of modern beer can art

Clockwise from top left: Electric Bicycle Brewing Co.; Mikkeller’s Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisee; the beer label artwork of Vancouver artist Patrick Wong; Superflux’s Superfluousness. Contributed/file photos

You can’t help it, I can’t help it—we all judge beers by their labels, maybe as much as we judge the beer itself. Beer labels have been around for ages: 83 years on cans, and much longer than that on bottles. It appears we’ve been loving beer labels for that whole time—just check out all the vintage labels you can buy on eBay! Doesn’t it seem, though, that we’re loving beer labels extra hard right now?

Maybe it’s that size matters. Beer cans, especially those tall boys, offer lots of real estate for labelling. Large-format bottles provide a sizeable canvas as well.

Maybe it’s as simple as habituation. Humans aren’t that different from crows; we’re attracted to bright, shiny objects. And with social media continuously bombarding us with bright shiny objects, it’s not surprising we’re attracted by the pretty things. They do say you drink first with your eyes…

Maybe it’s the amped up level of competition. The number of breweries fighting for limited shelf space grows almost by the day, making it ever more challenging to entice people to choose this beer over that one. Allowing breweries to sell their own packaged beer in their tasting rooms (thanks B.C. government!) has assisted in getting beer into local people’s hands. To woo those not-so-local folks into choosing beers at liquor stores, what are you going to do but come up with stand-out beer labels? For the initiated, a good story, a great product and word of mouth will sell beer. But for those not in the know, it’s going to be the label that grabs their interest.

Maybe it’s pricing. Digitally printed labels and sleeves make small label runs economically possible. Anyone can make fabulous labels for even their limited release and small batch beers.

Maybe it’s industry acknowledgment. Locally, the B.C. Beer Awards added the Creative Industry Awards last year for best can design, best bottle label design, best packaging for boxes and carriers, and best tap handle. Also acknowledging how much social media matters, they added awards for best website and best social media presence as well. Beer festivals, such as the Okanagan Fest of Ale, offer people’s choice awards for best beer label and runner-up, as well as for the favourite beer. Further afield, hands out prizes for great homebrew labels. And if all of that wasn’t enough to convince you that beer labels are influencers, USA Today has a reader’s choice award for beer labels. Now you know beer labels have arrived!

Maybe it’s about the artwork. Some breweries commission artists to create their labels. Ontario’s Collective Arts Brewing (whose beers are available on B.C. private liquor store shelves) hold open calls for art to feature on their bottles and cans. Every three months, artists can submit their works and a panel chooses the art to be featured. Vancouver artist Patrick Wong has had five of his works featured on CA bottles and cans. It’s a great way to promote artists as well as the beer, and as a bonus, offers a great conversation starter to those who may need a little help in that department.

Maybe it’s what the labels aren’t saying. I first noticed the new wave of beer labels when Superflux came out with their pastel ombre tall cans—everyone was talking about them. Then Powell Brewery caught my attention with their colourful patterned cans. It took me a bit of time, but eventually I looked past the pretty pastels and colourful patterns and realized what wasn’t there. The quiet roar of nothing offensive. No sexist images, no racist names, hallelujah! While I’m very much looking forward to Dave Bowkett finding a minute to make t-shirts using those label designs, I’m looking forward even more to the day when no one thinks offensive names and images are the way to market their beer. Also on my wish list is requiring labels to include, in print large enough for old codgers like me to read, where the beer was manufactured and by whom. I hate that the big guys can hide behind their shadow brands and subsidiaries. If you don’t want to proudly put your name on it, you shouldn’t be selling it, goshdarnit.

Maybe it’s that beer is not wine and doesn’t have to be prim and proper. Brewers can take their labelling very seriously, while still leaving room to be brash, or playful, and push the envelope on beer label designs.

Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever combination of elements it is that has led us to this moment in time, it is satisfying to see all the creativity going into labelling the drink we all love.


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