Classy cans – the art of the craft beer can
Posted on February 04 2021
Creativity is part of craft beer’s DNA, so it’s no surprise that beer can design is an extravaganza of bold patterns and riotous colours. A quick peek at our craft beer bottleshop reveals there’s everything from Howling Hops’ intense repeating shapes to Tiny Rebel’s explosion-in-a-sweet-factory aesthetic, via Utopian’s restrained classicism. Craft beer can art – and, albeit to a lesser extent, bottle art – is a huge part of modern beer. They tell us about the brewer’s philosophy, and what we can expect to taste once we get it open. They’re often designed by professional artists and can be very beautiful; they’re the modern equivalent of an LP sleeve.
The rise of craft beer can art
Brewdog was the first of Britain’s modern craft brewers to put its beer in cans, in 2011, but it didn’t take long for others to catch on. Magic Rock, Beavertown, Moor and others followed, and what had begun as packaging quickly evolved into a canvas onto which breweries could daub a vivid, creative impression of their values. This explosion of beer can design was influenced by ideas from overseas: the first American craft beer in a can, Dale’s Pale Ale, was released in 2002, while, further down the road, the design-led packaging of Danish breweries like Mikkeller and To Øl had a big impact. In the years since everything has changed. Now even historic breweries, like Austria’s Stiegl (founded in 1492!), are packaging their beer in bold, striking cans. We’ve come a long way from the traditional beer can, first invented by the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company in 1935 in New Jersey, which was defined by its staid, easy-to-recognise, relatively unchanging branding. Craft beer has trumpeted its difference from mainstream beer by making its cans and bottles a pageant of vivid beer art.
Can art guide
All this creativity produces its own problems. How do you go about designing a can that will stand out from the crowd? One man who knows about beer art is Nick Hamilton (also known as Hammo), an illustrator and mural painter based in Manchester. He’s been designing cans for Alphabet Brewing Company since 2014, when an old pal, Joe Fearnhead, asked him to come up with designs for their launch beers. (Fearnhead is no longer involved with Alphabet). Over the years, he says, the process has evolved. “95 per cent of the time now they give me the name,” says Hamilton. “It started off where it'd be like, ‘We've got an idea for a beer, just come up with something’, but now we're a bit more focused, so they give me a brief. I'm not wanting to do myself down, but I draw the first thing that pops into my head. That stems from when I first started working with them when it needed to be done quickly. They're usually pretty happy with what I've done, I think.” Hamilton’s quick work has led to some interesting craft beer can art, including that which he produced for one of the launch beers, A to the K, an American pale ale. “I drew the most rubbish horse I could, just to see what Joe would think of it, and he ended up really liking it,” says Hamilton. “It's become their unofficial mascot. But it was a little bit embarrassing that he stuck with that because I was just trying to make him laugh. I can draw a horse!”
In-house craft beer can art
Not everyone has the inclination or income to hire a high-quality illustrator for beer label projects, of course. Lots of breweries keep it in-house. At Howling Hops, owner Peter Holt decided to take on the job himself to save time when, early in 2020, they needed labels quickly. “Sometimes it’s easier to roll up your sleeves and do things yourself,” he says. Like many in the world of craft beer, Holt’s labels are bright, bold and extremely eye-catching. He makes no apologies for that. “Our beer is bold and bright, we're not brewing middle-of-the-road, mass-appeal beers, so it feels like our labels need to be punchy to reflect that,” he says. “Besides, beer is supposed to be fun right? Let's not take it too seriously.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that anything goes on a can. Some breweries have been chastised by The Portman Group, the industry regulator for alcohol packaging and promotion. The group comes down hard on anything that suggests beer is being marketed to minors, even if that judgement looks suspect to the neutral observer. It’s an element of the design process that Hamilton is well aware of. “I can tend to veer towards slightly more cutesy stuff occasionally, so I rein that in,” he says. “There have been a couple of times when Alphabet have said, ‘Look, that's a bit too childish’. It is something I think about.”
Craft beer can art inspiration
Inspiration can come from anywhere: for Hamilton, it’s “80s cartoons”, for Holt it’s the patterns and designs he sees in the world around him that inform his beer art label projects. “There is a long history of patterns to tap into,” he says. “They’re everywhere throughout design, ceramics, clothing, weaving, wall coverings, floor coverings. It's not just decorative; it's in building and engineering too, I’m quite into cast iron drain covers, especially in Europe, you’ve gotta look up and down!” The nature of craft beer – its search for innovation, which has brought us hop-heavy pale ales, marshmallow imperial stouts and genuinely delicious non-alcoholic options in the past decade or so – means we can expect the fashion for big colours to fade. Inevitably, something new will be along soon. “Tastes will change for sure, they always do,” says Holt. “Some designs stand the test of time, and some look old and tired quickly. Creating something original and not jumping on bandwagons and trying to be too fashionable helps increase the lifecycle of a design, I think. “Our designs are evolving, transient and temporary, there's no need for them to last too long as the beers change so often. Hopefully, we’ll get bored with them and change them before everyone else does!”