Thursday, June 14, 2012

Beer Labels as Fine Art? Occasionally.

While recently enjoying a Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye, I decided that I liked the beer label more than the beer itself.  Don’t get me wrong – I think this beer is good; it’s just not great.  It’s very restrained for a “rye-PA,” so I admire that Sierra Nevada is not joining the malt and hops one-upmanship game that so many craft brewers are playing.  But overall I found it to be, well… meh.  Apparently this is a replacement for their Glissade spring bock, which is a little surprising to me, as this rye ale just screams autumn.  As does its label.

And the label is striking!  Done in a style reminiscent of high-end graphic novels, the first thing you’re drawn to is the color scheme.  The hues are analogous enough to be soothing, but just far enough apart to throw you off a little and create an uneasy feeling.  The woman is haunting yet beautiful, like Patrick Nagel meets the witches from MacBeth.  Details, like the ominous clouds and strands of hair in the woman’s face, complete the picture.  The overall impression is chilling, hypnotic, and mysterious.

It turns out the artist is rock and roll illustrator Ken Taylor.  Best known for his album covers and concert posters, he dabbles in other areas too.  Somebody at Sierra Nevada must be a fan, so now he can add beer labels to that list.  Perhaps he’s a craft beer lover too?  Check out his portfolio.

Most beer labels have an illustration of an animal, landscape, person, or some other scene that matches the beer’s name.  It is usually competent and professional, but unmemorable.  Those who try to make the artwork take center-stage often go over the top in my opinion, producing art that’s better suited for the next Motorhead or Insane Clown Posse album cover.  (Sorry Coney Island and Ska Brewing.)  To me, the best beer labels are ones like those shown below.  The monochromatic, accented color schemes and easy to read fonts make beautiful, elegant designs.  But they are not art.  And that’s just fine, because it’s about what’s inside the bottle.

But Sierra Nevada may have changed the rules with their latest label.  Look at the crowded craft beer section in any well-stocked liquor store, and you’ll notice that Ruthless Rye really stands out.  That's the whole point of packaging.  You are drawn to it because it’s unique; it’s fancy, but it’s classy.  It’s a Bellagio in a sea of tacky Las Vegas strip hotels.

As the craft beer scene becomes more crowded, small brewers are struggling to come up with unique beer names and packaging that attracts attention.  I have a hunch that some of these brewers will follow Sierra Nevada’s example and start employing established artists.  For us beer-geeks who love art and design, this will be a nice bonus!

Please comment and share some your favorite beer label designs, and check out these links for more on this topic: The Pour Curator, and  15 Beer Labels we Love.

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