From deadly alien universes to Chinese folklore and African batiks, the designs being created by British craft breweries represent a new wave of artistic expression.
Some of the most compelling and visually exciting artwork around in 2017 isn’t hung up in a gallery. It’s actually a lot closer to home, wrapped around the neck of a bottle, splashed across a can and fixed to hand pumps at your local pub.
Vibrant, adventurous and collaborative, the craft brewery scene across the UK is a hotbed for independent creative talent. Within a distance of 10 miles in London alone you can find upwards of 60 different craft breweries, each with a visual identity as unique as their range of beers.
Take Tottenham’s Beavertown Brewery and its “Day of the Dead meets 2001: A Space Odyssey” aesthetic. This post-apocalyptic alien universe filled with rocket attacks, exploding brains and tooled-up skeletons waging war on monsters is the brainchild of Beavertown creative director, Nick Dwyer.
“I’m massively inspired by graphic novels, comics and cartoons, so I aim to put my own spin on the themes,” he explains. “I’ve always veered away from realism and try to keep things pretty surreal with a bit of humour thrown in where I think I can get away with it.”
The artwork on the core range of beers takes place within the same universe. The spacemen on a can of Gamma Ray American pale ale are locked in a deadly battle with the green furry monsters seen coming under rocket fire on a can of Beavertown’s Lupuloid, a straight up IPA . The story continues with the artwork for double IPA Humuloid, which sees a giant neon robot emerging from the depths of space to help defend the spacemen.
Dwyer explains that the most effective way to maintain consistency across the range is by choosing similar tones and introducing familiar characters, in this case skeletons, spacemen and some “wonderful weirdos” thrown in for good measure.
“My favourite is the spaceman cracking his visor in order to drink a beer on 8 Ball, as it sums up how I want people to feel about Beavertown as a brand,” says Dwyer.
“Skeletons are a great vehicle for ideas as well, as you can choose to not give them genders or sexes or even ages, so they are kind of the perfect storytelling device.”
When working on a new design Dwyer sketches out the individual parts by hand, scans them, colours and repositions them. Ideally the creative process begins by tasting the new beer straight from the tank and then working on the design a month before the can goes into production.
Although as new brews can materialise overnight, creating the different elements separately means images can be easily changed without the need for a total redraw.
To date Dwyer has worked on close to 100 designs for Beavertown, the most intricate being for the Tempus Project, a range of beers painstakingly brewed in wooden barrels. The labels are stripped of colour to standout from the main range, instead relying heavily on detail and simplicity for maximum effect.
Two of the most complex of the Tempus Project designs are the black and white Mexican Day of the Dead style skeleton adorning tequila aged El Mariachi and, Dwyer’s personal favourite, the moonlit desert landscape on bourbon barrel aged brew Moonshiner.
True to the roots
Known for its bright, graphic style, Brixton Brewery has ensured that all its designs have “a bit of Brixton” in them, so deeply grounded is the brewery in the vibrant and ethnically diverse community it calls home.
“We feel so rooted in Brixton – it’s where we all lived when we met, started home brewing and thought would be a great place to start a business,” explains Brixton Brewery co-founder Xochitl Benjamin.
“Brixton has such a rich history and interesting built environment that we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to inspiration. We really wanted the brewery to be something that local people are proud of and that they consider to be part of the community, so we thought it was important that we make sure that we pay tribute to our extraordinary surroundings through our visual and brand identity.”
A running theme, for example, is the lightening bolt, which makes references to everything from electricity to song lyrics to Brixton boy himself David Bowie (aka Ziggy Stardust).
Showered with blue, yellow and orange lightening bolts, the Electric IPA is named after Electric Avenue, the first street in Brixton to receive electric lighting which was also famously name checked in the song ‘Electric Avenue’ by Eddy Grant.
At the other end of the spectrum, moody black and white double IPA Megawatt brings together the bright sparks of a candle with Brixton’s signature lightening bolt.
A lot of the designs also reference the distinctive style of African batik fabrics, which became a recognisable part of Brixton life after they first started being sold down Atlantic Road.
“It just seemed like something that is recognisably part of Brixton and expresses perfectly its exuberance. Also it’s a theme that is endlessly adaptable to new patterns, colours and styles so it has worked out well for us in terms of creating some visual cohesion for our labels,” Benjamin explains.
“We’ve moved away from it a few times, for example, our Megawatt IIPA, which is brewed annually around Christmas and takes inspiration from the religious icon candles that you can buy in Brixton market.”
Benjamin’s favourite is the Reliance Pale Ale, which takes its inspiration from the art deco windows of Brixton’s Reliance Arcade.
“I’m a big fan of anything Art Deco and the Reliance Arcade, with its beautiful and little-noticed windows are so eye-catching. It’s one of those little details that you find throughout Brixton if you walk around with your eyes wide-open,” he adds.
In a crowded market like the craft beer scene, Benjamin agrees that using design to stand out is key. This is why Brixton Brewery wants is beers to look visually stunning separately, while also being striking as a group.
“Though they are colourful there are also certain themes, like pattern repetition and the B at the centre, which lines up evenly when they are all in a row and helps bring everything together visually.”
Rock ‘N’ Roll stars
When friends Graham O’Brien, Sam Smith and Ben Freeman started out in 2012 with a home brew kit in a garden shed they had already decided that each bottle of Pressure Drop beer should be designed like a new album.
“It was always part of the plan to have illustrators do each bottle and treat each bottle separately, almost like an album cover,” explains O’Brien.
“The idea was to see each one as a separate release and think about everything from the visual appearance to the flavour to the ingredients. So for us it was intrinsically linked with the whole creative side of coming out with a beer.”
Brewed in Hackney, each bottle of Pressure Drop’s 30 different beers has its own unique visual identity. The aim is not to be too literal, instead letting the illustrator bring their own aesthetic to each label.
Combine this with the rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic and it makes total sense that the brewery would want to team up with Pete Fowler, the artist responsible for the album artwork for indie band Super Furry Animals.
Fowler collaborated with Pressure Drop on Strictly Roots, a dandelion and burdock porter brewed using ingredients foraged from the Hackney Marshes by famed London forager John the Poacher.
“We approached Pete because he posted a bottle of our beer on Instagram and we were like cool, maybe that’s an in,” says O’Brien.
“He’s done a fantastic job for us. He was living locally and knows the area, and so it plays into that idea of keeping it local from the ingredients to the label artwork.”
When not working with globally renowned artists Pressure Drop seeks out independent design talent, often sending out tweets inviting illustrators to send in their portfolios.
For the latest release, a series of five beers called Pale Series 1-5, the artist created abstract images based on the “drop” in Pressure Drop.
Often the concept is counterintuitive, like the label for Pressure Drop’s Cheeky tropical session IPA, which is an image of a boarded up inner city tower block drenched in tropical colours.
Whereas for Belgian style summer beer Wallbanger, artist Jake Blanchard played with the idea of the beer’s orange, lemon and lime flavours, creating a fantastical, exotic landscape of birds and giant flowers.
Wu Gang Chops The Tree is, however, O’Brien’s favourite design. Created by illustrator Ching Li Chew, the image is a modern take on traditional Chinese Willow Pattern, showing tiny spaceman Wu Gang endlessly chopping down a tree on the surface of the moon.
“The label is quirky and it’s the only one where as you turn the bottle round you see the tree growing and being chopped down, and re-growing, which is the story of Wu Gang who is punished by the gods by being sent to the moon to chop down a tree. It’s almost animated as you turn the bottle round, so it rewards a bit more scrutiny,” O’Brien explains.
In keeping with Pressure Drop’s “clean design aesthetic”, the team have recently tweaked the label. The offset black and white logo has been made slightly smaller to make room for more information than just the name of the beer and a one line description.
O’Brien explains that, as the world of beer changes and more breweries emerge, it helps to have a brief explanation on the bottle to give the customer an idea of what they’re buying into.
“Yes there’s a more savvy customer, but at the same time the product is ending up in places where there’s actually people who have less idea about what these things are. Craft beer is becoming more mainstream and ending up in cornershops, whereas before when we first started you’d be selling just to specialist shops or bars,” he explains.
“Now as it has broadened out you see the small breweries in a range of different places where they need to speak for themselves a bit more.”
Teaming up with other breweries or independent producers characterises the adventurous spirit of the craft beer scene.
Brixton Brewery collaborated with world renowned fashion design company, and fellow Brixtonites, Eley Kishimoto on two label designs including Market Saison, a tie-up with local Japanese soul food restaurant Nanban.
For its newly released series of experimental beers Ltd Edn, Brixton Brewery deliberately chose a pared-down style focusing on just two colours.
Collaborations with the likes of Norwegian brewers Lervig or small batch soda company Square Root London offer Beavertown’s Nick Dwyer a new design perspective, along with the ability to explore new techniques.
“A lot of the time it will help me not overcomplicate things or do something slightly against my own design principles, such as make something a colour it would never be. Sometimes you need pulling out of your routine and to scrap old ideas to make way for new ones – that’s where collaborations really come in handy.”
The Beavertown identity is continuing to evolve. Dwyer recently revamped the logo, switching the triangular “B”, taken from the US dollar bill, for his trademark skull framed by rays of light. After the tweak is complete, Dwyer sees Beavertown going in a “less is more” direction.
He recognises that an eye-catching design may get your beer in a customer’s hand, but that’s only half the battle. What’s inside the can needs to live up to its promise.
“I work with an amazingly passionate group of people who brew and sell fantastic beer, but if you pick up something based on its branding and it’s sub-par, that’s what you will remember,” says Dwyer.
“We want to be distinctive, so well earned loyal fans can spot us a mile away and potential new fans will gravitate towards us, and be hooked from their first sip.”