Much has been said and written about the niche market that craft beer and how groundbreaking young breweries often use their labels as a means to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Yet there are some breweries that take it much deeper, using their branding as a way to build genuine connections with local artists, musicians and community groups. Kerry McBride speaks to three breweries from Australia and overseas in order to explore how a label can be so much more than just a label.
During Good Beer Week 2016, Australians got a glimpse into the unique world of Canada’s Collective Arts Brewing. Born out of a love for both craft beer and art, the Ontario brewery regularly hands creative control of its brand over to the creators and musicians within their community.
Once a new beer is in the pipeline, the team puts in motion a "Call for Art", asking artists to submit their ideas and concepts for the beer’s labelling and design. But, more than that, the winning designs are then decided by a jury of artistic peers, ensuring Collective Arts (a selection of whose artwork is pictured above) stays true to its mantra of artistry at every step.
Co-founder Bob Russell sees it as a circular process, where the beer informs the art, which informs the events the brewery might hold, which range from art auctions to live music events.
“Instead of creating a singular branded label, the art and the community decides what our brands are going to look like by the work they submit," he says. "It’s an ever-changing, surprising look at what is happening in real time in the art and music community.”
Their first call for art received around 1,000 submissions from primarily Canadian artists, and the most recent round attracted more than double that. Since launching in 2013, they have paid more than $100,000 directly to artists, and continue to keep them involved in brewery events afterwards.
For Bob, the connection between brewing and art seems only natural.
“Both beer and art are a creative endeavour," he says. "Our brewers use a different combination of ingredients – hops, malts and yeast to create our beers – similar to an artist who chooses between colours and mediums to create their work. Each beer we create is a piece of art as the process is highly creative – as are the minds that create them.”
That belief is mirrored by the team at Colonial Brewing, which initially launched in Western Australia before opening a second brewery and venue in Melbourne earlier this year. They have partnered with the Emergence Creative Festival over the last two years for the release of two of their canned beers: Small Ale and the Emergence of Astra.
The first collaboration at the 2015 festival involved creating a label for their Small Ale, a mid-strength that, after several iterations as a draught release, was set to become the brewery's second canned brew. Six artists were given the brief “Think small” and given free rein to explore what that concept might mean. The winning artists, Dune Haggar and Ian Mutch, then had 24 hours to refine their chosen design down to something that could be printed onto the can.
The two artists then returned for a second year, helping four fellow artists to produce the can design for the Emergence of Astra for the 2016 festival.
Head brewer Justin Fox sees Small Ale as something that doesn’t require tasting notes. Rather, take a look at the can, appreciate the artistry, and simply give it a go.
“You’ve got to just taste it," he says. "We don’t want to give you tasting notes. The way I think of it, Small Ale is Gary [the imaginary muse the brewers have in mind when working on many of their developmental and limited release beers] on a Tuesday night listening to some soft jazz while he works on his putting.
“Tasting notes don’t help you think. We don’t want to tell you that it’s deep caramel with hints of passionfruit and a touch of lemon sorbet. Just drink it. Discover it for yourselves.”
In the same way that the detailed artwork for their Small Ale and Astra beers hint at the complexities held within, their Colonial Draught can is stripped right back to basics. Once again, art and the beer itself are complementary.
“Putting Draught [the beer formerly known as Kolsch] in a white can was trying to take beer a little bit away from what it had all become,” Justin says. “It’s almost trying to go back to a blank canvas, and taking beer back to what it used to look like.
“We just wanted it to be beer again. There’s so much noise around the concept of ‘craft’ now, that sometimes simply having a beer is all you want to do. We used the design to pull back from that, and make it clear that sometimes beer really is just a beer.”
It’s hard to explore the interrelation of beer and art without the name Garage Project being mentioned. The Wellington brewery has embraced local artists from day dot, working with a huge variety of Kiwi illustrators and designers to keep up with the ever growing number of beers they produce.
One such artist is illustrator Tim Gibson, who decided the best way to get Garage Project’s attention was to turn up on their doorstep. In early 2014, he put together a portfolio, loaded it onto an iPad, and rocked up to the brewery completely unannounced.
“I literally just walked in off the street into their tasting room with an iPad of work and said, 'Hey, we should do some stuff together.' I was also arrogant enough to suggest a beer, which I didn’t realise they’d almost brewed anyway two years beforehand," he says.
“That was enough for them to at least have a look at what I’d brought in.”
It was a technique that worked, and the Garage Project crew gave Tim a shot at designing their next beer label. They worked together on a pair of beers for the 2014 GABS festival in Melbourne, and over the next couple of years Tim’s role morphed into something of an artistic director, working closely with co-founder Jos Ruffell to pair new beers with local artists and decide on a look for each new release.
His work can now be spotted on beers that include White Mischief, Death From Above, Touch Wood, Bossa Nova and Pernicious Weed. In the case of Garage Project, while the process varies from beer to beer, design usually comes after a beer is already brewed.
“For White Mischief, they told me the name and I said, ‘Stop right there’. I wanted to design with no other information," says Tim. "I went away and came back with five completely different ideas for what White Mischief might be.”
The design they decided on has been a hit, with the stylised fornicating bunnies dotted across the label of the salted white peach sour proving to be popular with beer sorts and design lovers alike.
“As soon as the guys saw it, they knew it was the one," he says. "It just had to be put out there.”
Considering the sheer number of brews coming out of the Garage each year, designs are constantly in production, Tim says.
“It’s important for us and for the brewing team that the beer designs reflect not just the beer itself, but the inspiration behind it. That goes beyond, ‘Oh it’s a summer beer, let’s make it bright and sunny’.
“They might have been exploring a certain period of music, or thinking about a particular film or book at the time. It’s this balance of pairing the inspiration or vibe of the beer with the flavour at the same time.”
In some ways, says Tim, the crossover between craft beer and art is almost inevitable.
“If you look at the people who drink craft beer, there is an incredible crossover between beer geeks and illustration geeks and creative people in general. The only real difference between beer geeks and some artists out there is we might not be able to afford the fancier beers all the time.
“But, if you think about it, you are just as likely to find an illustrator with a big bushy beard as you are a brewer.”
Co-founder Jos Ruffell – who does indeed have a beard – says they are lucky to be based in a city with such a creative heart, enabling them to do things such as inviting artists to paint the walls of the brewery itself, and develop beers and accompanying labels for a number of charity events and organisations.
“We're fortunate that Wellington has such a depth of talent to draw on, and we find the city itself to be full of inspiration and ideas, so it makes sense to work with other local artists who might also be experiencing that.”
But it is not simply a case of making a beer look good and walking away, says Jos.
“We ultimately want to brew beautiful beers that are unique and have something to say. So it goes hand in hand with great art and design for us. We care deeply about all aspects of our beers and showing that level of care and attention right through to the presentation and way the bottle or can looks is part of the process for us.
“Ultimately, the beer in the glass is the most important thing, but you do often drink with your eyes as well. So, if we can have a complete package that is unique and adds to the story and depth of the experience, that's where things get really interesting for us.”
The growing interest in craft beer labelling is catching too, with Tim and other artists who have worked for Garage Project picking up clients off the back of their beer work.
“People from cider or coffee and those types of industries are looking at craft beer design and saying that this is the kind of energy they want,” says Tim.
“We’re the ones out here taking risks with how we present stuff, but everyone else is still doing quite standard design stuff. We’re so lucky with craft beer that the inside can truly be just as exciting as the outside. There’s no point coming up with a new way to revitalise the IPA and then sticking it in a boring old paint by numbers can.”
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.