Getting Crafty: The Ongoing Experiment on Aisle 11

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Illustration by Bryan Condra
Hero image
Illustration by Bryan Condra

Today, for many craft fans, we discover, consume and criticize beer much like new music. Each pour is an expedition for the newest diamond in the rough. We are ever-thirsty for new flavors, new ways of pushing the limits. Which creates a paradox: How do you distinguish yourself in an industry where so many players tout their uniqueness? At best, the differences are subtle.

Thankfully, craft brewers delight in breaking the rules as a practice. Flanked by talented designers and artists who eagerly translate this experimental spirit, it makes for some of the most exciting presentation in any category. Below I’ve loosely categorized some approaches that have stood out to me lately in an already hyper-competitive environment.

As the grocery shopper for our family, my weekend shopping trips can verge on the epic. Often with small children in tow, always with a long list containing several obscure items I may never find.

And yet, I fulfill my duty gleefully. What keeps me coming back? The knowledge that I will always discover something new and exciting on Aisle 11, or more specifically, the craft beer section of my local market.

By no means is this ritual specific to my West Coast suburban dad demographic. This cycle of consumer anticipation and discovery around innovation –amplified by branding–replays itself in groceries, bottle shops, pubs and taprooms from Boise to Dubuque, Reykjavik to Buenos Aires.

Craft beer’s modern rise to the mainstream epitomizes the cultivation of a demand that didn’t previously exist — and it has been a long, collective (and literal) journey of acquired taste over the past quarter century or more.

Unlike laundry detergent or ketchup, or even Big Beer, this is an industry where consumers inherently demand to taste (and see) constant proof of experimentation.

A kinder, gentler beer

In this emerging approach to beer branding, this breed of design seeks to conquer us with kindness. The softer color palettes (with a healthy dose of Millennial Pink), quieter typefaces and lighter line weights all borrow from an understatement more common to health and beauty or fashion.

The Bay Area’s Fieldwork Brewing draws on a healthy appreciation of nature, farming and outdoor adventure; a visual testament to the beauty and abundance of Northern California. Hudson Valley Brewery balances urbane and rural, incorporating lush floral patterns as well as frequent wit into its visuals. In some ways, these directions feel the most disruptive of all in a traditionally brash and bold category.

Left: Fieldwork Brewing’s Finer Things. Right: Hudson Valley Brewery.
Left: Fieldwork Brewing’s Finer Things. Right: Hudson Valley Brewery.
Left: Fieldwork Brewing’s Finer Things. Right: Hudson Valley Brewery.
Left: Fieldwork Brewing’s Finer Things. Right: Hudson Valley Brewery.

A sum greater than its parts

With the triumphant return of the aluminum can, a bevy of designs have surfaced that capitalize on its larger, more continuous canvas. Some breweries like Seismic even seem to build their entire visual system around this trait. Noble Rey Brewing Co. has fully embraced the can form in a signature way, creating hilarious characters on their cans which build as they stack, with silly mashups abounding.

Left: Noble Rey Brewing Co. Right: Seismic Brewing’s Alluvium.
Left: Noble Rey Brewing Co. Right: Seismic Brewing’s Alluvium.
Left: Noble Rey Brewing Co. Right: Seismic Brewing’s Alluvium.
Left: Noble Rey Brewing Co. Right: Seismic Brewing’s Alluvium.

Beautiful economy

As a designer who thinks a lot about creating (and occasionally breaking) visual systems, I’m consistently impressed by the way this philosophy has manifested for beer packaging. Using an underlying set of constants, these designs are then freed to push and pull other visual levers.

Austin Beerworks employs vibrant colors and fun patterning for their seasonal packaging. Indeed Brewing leans on the guardrails of a consistent masthead and tints of color to anchor rich, compelling illustration and a roaming flavor emblem. The UK’s Magic Rock Brewing Co. is playful and prolific with its recipes, naming and abstract illustrations, all the while adhering to an ownable style. The possibilities are infinite with visual systems like these.

Left: Austin Beerworks. Top right: Indeed Brewing. Bottom right: Magic Rock Brewing Co.
Left: Austin Beerworks. Top right: Indeed Brewing. Bottom right: Magic Rock Brewing Co.
Left: Austin Beerworks. Top right: Indeed Brewing. Bottom right: Magic Rock Brewing Co.
Left: Austin Beerworks. Top right: Indeed Brewing. Bottom right: Magic Rock Brewing Co.

Make a stand

For many brewers, sense of purpose extends beyond a brewing philosophy. Led by Threes Brewing, dozens of breweries nationwide created their own interpretation of “People Power” beer to promote an ACLU campaign to expand voting rights and awareness, with 10% of proceeds going toward the program. This is but one example of hundreds of causes breweries are pursuing as community hubs.

In a more industry-specific move, Saltwater Brewery in Florida teamed with startup E6PR to develop the first compostable 6-pack ring — made from the malt byproducts of the brewing process. This self-policing of the industry is happily a well-established practice, with many breweries sourcing their electricity from the wind or sun, repurposing their CO2 emissions and spearheading clean water initiatives.

Examples of People Power submissions (Image: Threes Brewing)
Examples of People Power submissions (Image: Threes Brewing)
Examples of People Power submissions (Image: Threes Brewing)
Examples of People Power submissions (Image: Threes Brewing)

Built-in experiences

The line between gimmick and meaning is easily crossed. My two criteria for supplemental experiences would be: Is it a meaningful concept that communicates the spirit of the beer (or vice-versa), and just as crucial, does the product deliver on the audacity of the idea?

Boston band The Lights Out collaborated recently with Aeronaut Brewing to produce X-Ray Night Vision Black IPA. Each can comes with a Spotify code linking to their new album. This matchup makes a lot of sense with two art forms that go hand in hand. It’s a great one-hit wonder, since anyone who copies it will risk looking unoriginal.

Corsica’s Brasserie Alba brought a local legend to life with a glow-in-the-dark design. A mischievous demon printed on the bottle “awakens” when brought into a dark environment, creating two completely distinct designs on one bottle. A very strong idea that pairs brand with nightlife and culture. I only wish I could find it stateside!

Left: Aeronaut Brewing’s X-Ray Night Vision. Right: Brasserie Alba.
Left: Aeronaut Brewing’s X-Ray Night Vision. Right: Brasserie Alba.
Left: Aeronaut Brewing’s X-Ray Night Vision. Right: Brasserie Alba.
Left: Aeronaut Brewing’s X-Ray Night Vision. Right: Brasserie Alba.

Suds and bud

Not specifically design-related but significant all the same, a number of new offerings are blurring the boundaries between beer and cannabis. With hops and marijuana being distant relations, perhaps it was only a matter of time before they joined forces.

Lagunitas has gained attention by releasing Hi-Fi Hops, a THC-infused sparkling water that draws on the brewery’s apparently lengthy history with marijuana.

Many breweries have experimented with the non-high-inducing hemp, including New Belgium’s The Hemporer “HPA” which seeks to help catapult the old staple crop back into the mainstream.

Seattle’s Tarukino recently launched Reeb, a Cannabis-infused barley soda — unfermented (and therefore non-alcoholic) beer that smells and tastes like the real thing while deriving its mood-altering properties from THC.

Traditional breweries would be wise not to discount these innovations as fleeting novelties — they feel more like a mini-revolt in an already revolutionary field. So why not channel this momentum for the positive? Done well, such collaborations would serve to reaffirm craft’s commitment to evolve and grow.

Left: Lagunitas’ Hi-Fi Hops. Right: New Belgium The Hemporor.
Left: Lagunitas’ Hi-Fi Hops. Right: New Belgium The Hemporor.
Left: Lagunitas’ Hi-Fi Hops. Right: New Belgium The Hemporor.
Left: Lagunitas’ Hi-Fi Hops. Right: New Belgium The Hemporor.

A brand may have its standby recipes, but unlike laundry detergent or ketchup, or even Big Beer, this is an industry where consumers inherently demand to taste (and see) constant proof of experimentation. The biggest visual successes I see are those that create a system that acts as a platform for surprise and diversity—without having to reinvent the wheel each time. They strike that magical balance of providing the recognizable, common thread of brand with healthy dose of the unexpected built in. I believe that as long as brewers continue to reimagine the future of craft brewing, designers will be equally inspired to interpret it visually, and experientially.

That’s more than enough to keep me coming back to Aisle 11.

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