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How Breweries Are Arting Around With Packaging

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A quick perusal of the beer selection at your local grocery store reveals an almost equal number of cans and bottles. But brewers say it hasn't always been like this.

Back in the day, Dale's Pale Ale from Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery was the only craft brew you could get in a can. Of course, there were also the inexpensive everyman's beers such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Budweiser. Now, more and more craft breweries are packaging their suds in aluminum.

Why? The brewers interviewed for this article cited portability, trendiness and better light-blocking capabilities. And some brews, such as the Alchemist's Heady Topper, simply taste better from the can.

Not to mention, a 16-ounce silver cylinder provides ample real estate for branded artwork. And that's increasingly important in the saturated beer market. The U.S. counted more than 5,000 craft brewers as of 2016, according to the Brewers Association. That's a lot of competition.

Whether printed on the bare metal substrate or on a glossy wrap, beer-can designs speak to the personalities of the brews and the companies that make them. We tapped four designers in an attempt to better understand the artful can.

Collective Arts Brewing

  • Founded: 2013
  • Location: Hamilton, Ontario. The design team is in Stowe.
  • Designer: Creative director Ryan Thibault winnows designs by artists from around the world, and then passes finalists to a panel of judges to select the winners.
  • Annual production: 30,000 barrels
  • Format: Four-packs of 16-ounce cans
  • Aesthetic: "Collective Arts' aesthetic is art-forward and in a state of constant evolution fueled by our rotating artists," says Thibault.

SEVEN DAYS: When did you start offering cans, and why?

RYAN THIBAULT: We started selling cans in 2014. A, it was on trend, and B, we found it to be a superior vehicle to showcase the artwork with the added real estate on a can.

SD: How has the art on the cans evolved in that time?

RT: Over time, the quantity of high-caliber art being submitted has grown. And art is now being delivered from around the globe, including some very unexpected places: Havana, Tehran, Mumbai... We've collaborated with artists from 40 countries now.

SD: What does your look say about your beer? Who are you targeting?

RT: The people who are most in tune with what we're doing tend to be millennials and the creative class. I feel akin to millennials' approach to being sold to — they're an engaged audience and like to think that what they're buying is participatory. And the creative class [is] anyone in the creative arts field. We're very much art-forward.

Magic Hat Brewing

  • Founded: 1994
  • Location: South Burlington
  • Designer: Ryan Ober leads the Foundry, an in-house design team.
  • Annual production: 150,000 barrels
  • Format: 12- and 22-ounce bottles, 12- and 16-ounce cans
  • Aesthetic: "Eccentric, psychedelic, artful," says brand manager Lisa Kelly.

SEVEN DAYS: When did you start selling cans, and why?

LISA KELLY: We started selling cans in the spring of 2011. Cans have become a great option for outdoor activities, like gathering in parks, camping trips ... boating and enjoying at all the outdoor music festivals. [And] here are some benefits to using cans over bottles: Cans seal out oxygen better, which keeps the beer fresher longer. They also block out the light completely, so you don't get that skunkiness to the beer.

SD: How has Magic Hat evolved to keep up?

RYAN OBER: We just rebranded all our cans — we were focusing on better communication, a formula. We want to have a consistent look to the logo but stay true to who we are, being a little bit mysterious with our beers and having fun with it.

We really hadn't changed our packaging in 10 years, so we're [evolving] with all of our packaging, creating this family look. It looks more modern.

SD: Do you print on wraps or the bare substrate?

RO: I like printing on the substrate, because you have to communicate more with the printers — pick where you're going to let the shiny spots come through. I think some people like to print on the wrap, because then they can guarantee a white background. [Printing on the can] changes the colors.

Burlington Beer

  • Founded: 2014
  • Location: Williston
  • Annual production: 3,500 barrels
  • Designer: Steve McDonald
  • Format: 16-ounce cans, 750-milliliter bottles
  • Aesthetic: "Simple, bright, clean, illustrative and imaginative," says McDonald.  

SEVEN DAYS: Why this look? It's very different from any other beer can I've seen.

STEVE MCDONALD: I had a real eye-opening experience six months into our then-chosen branding path when I visited the Vermont Brew­ers Festival. We wanted to do something drastically different, and I knew, in such a competitive market, the margin for that separation to fall short was minimal from a consumer perspective, so we could take some risk graphically. 

We wanted to represent ourselves more as we're a younger group and brewery. Also we wanted to represent [founder] Joe Lemnah and [head brewer] Alex Swanson's eccentric beers with immediate, one-glance branding — to give a feeling that we're not your average brewery. Something that we could own visually rather than what the market or industry might be responding to at the time. [We needed to be able to] build on that branding so we could be flexible but always simple and recognizable.

With the rate of brewing Joe and the team are doing, we need a design system, something we can create or illustrate within a reasonable timeframe without reinventing the wheel for each label, while maintaining consistency. So, we defined a few design rules that apply for each design to keep everything on point with our brand.

Graphically, I can safely say Scandinavian design style has inspired our branding and illustration approach very much. Also, being less literal with our graphics, more playful themes, names and color palette matched with a simplistic illustrative style. 

SD: Are there any challenges in designing for beer cans, specifically?

SM: Creating something that has good shelf presence and sticks out from the crowd, especially in today's market. Staying consistent with your labels and designs. Not using beer ingredients in your graphics all the time, which I'm guilty of. What kind of label you'll be printing on is important to think about, and the scale of the label or sticker. Legal info is always hard to hide, and the dreaded barcode can take up some major space.

SD: Do you print on wraps or the bare substrate, and why?

SM: Minimum orders for bare substrate are very high in price, and as a more agile brewery, wraps are more cost effective with less production time.

Otter Creek Brewing

  • Founded: 1991
  • Location: Middlebury
  • Annual production: 30,000 barrels
  • Designer: Art director Brett Murray and senior graphic designer Dale Donaldson
  • Format: 12- and 16-ounce cans, 12-ounce bottles
  • Aesthetic: "We wanted to capture the funky vibe of culture and innovation of Otter Creek — to reflect who we are and where we're going with a healthy dose of our counterculture past rolled into one," says marketing creative manager Mikaela Shea.

SEVEN DAYS: When did you start using cans, and why?

MIKAELA SHEA: Fresh Slice White IPA was the first canned beer we packaged in 2014. Being a summer release, we recognized the need for a vessel that you could bring to the beach, the boat and beyond.

Canned beers have taken off since then, and we've been looking for any excuse to put our beers in cans.

SD: What was your aesthetic like then? How has it evolved? 

MS: The aesthetic of the original brand was very Vermont-centric. The focus was heavily tied to our Middlebury location, tourism and the wonderful things this area offers.

The problem was, as the craft-beer industry was going through an extreme expansion, the small-town Vermont voice wasn't being heard in the crowded marketplace. We love Vermont and boast about it whenever we can, but we believe the new branding speaks more directly to the ideals of today's craft-beer drinkers and carries further in the cacophony of the beer aisle.

We've utilized catchy, creative names, vibrant colors and nostalgia-inducing graphics to reflect the free-spirited, counterculture mentality of the crew that keeps our beer flowing. If you walk the brewery floor, you'll likely hear Grateful Dead blasting from the boom box. Our goal with updating the OCB aesthetic has been to create a connection between the innovative spirit of our team and the fun-loving culture that makes craft beer an exciting industry.

SD:  Do you print on the can, or on a wrap? Why?

MS: We print directly on the cans. Given the scale of our releases, it's more efficient for us to order larger quantities of printed cans. Recently, we have played around with can wraps — especially for super-limited, brewery-only beers. But the major releases are printed directly.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Beer-Can Do"

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