Craft Beers I’ll Buy DESPITE their Packaging

Let me start off by admitting that I love good branding.  I appreciate products that project a fully realized vision, from the packaging to the nuts and bolts inside.  The easiest (and these days the most clichéd) example here is Apple, which creates a lovely and cohesive brand experience from the store where you shop to the packaging you touch to the device inside. I’m not sure if liking such things makes me a yuppy, a metrosexual, a brand snob, a moron who overpays for shiny crap, or all the above, but I am confident that a few of you will let me know in the comments.  :)

In the beer world, the first brewery that pops into my head when thinking about a “complete brand vision” is the Bruery.  Their packaging is as elegant and well-crafted as the beers you’ll find inside.  It all works together beautifully.  Another brewery that fits this bill for me is one I sorta loathe – Brew Dog.  I bitch about their PR stunts, but their in-your-face punk ethos screams at you from the shelf when you gaze upon their products – you can’t deny that those guys have a cohesive brand. There are a bunch of other breweries that fit this bill as well, like Coney Island, Clown Shoes, Great Divide, Left Hand, Flying Dog, etc., etc., etc.  You get the idea.

So those are some who get it right.  There are many other breweries that make really good beer, but have wonky branding and packaging.  I hate to say that this has stopped me from buying their beers, as it makes me look like a shallow brand snob, but it has certainly slowed me down in some cases.  I wanted to taste Bruery Mischief the moment I saw that red and black label; I can’t say the same for Ruckus’ Hoptimus Prime (the punny name didn’t help).

I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll look past the labels and buy a beer from a brewery that I’ve never tried, but if I’m being honest, the nicer the packaging and the more cohesive the “idea” of the brewery, the sooner it makes it into the cart.

Here are some examples of breweries that make great beer, but suffer from poor branding or the art on their containers: 

Voodoo Brewery: I’ve adored everything I’ve ever had from the Voodoo Brewery, but their “image” is a mess (as is their website). They have a voodoo-themed brand, but aren’t located in the swamps of Louisiana or Southern Florida, rather  in a small town in Western Pennsylvania.  Um, okay.  Their beers have interesting names, like Pilzilla (which is awesome), Wynona’s Big Brown Ale (also awesome), Four Seasons IPA (again, wonderful), but none of these have anything to do with voodoo, which feels like a miss to me.  Some of their other beers fit the voodoo theme, like Big Black Voodoo Daddy (just assume I wrote “awesome” after all of these – my “a” key is getting worn out), White Magick / Black Magick, Voodoo Love Child, etc.  That’s a good thing, but overall, the whole “voodoo” idea doesn’t hold together, which I find unsettling.  Also, the art on their packaging struck me as a little lackluster at first (I overlooked it for a few trips before they caught my eye), but after tasting their stuff, I’ve come to salivate at the sight of it, so I suppose it’s effective. Anyway, if you see something from Voodoo, buy it, despite what your inner brand snob says.

Laughing Dog:  First off, I’d like to apologize to Fred Colby, owner of Laughing Dog and a dude who we adore.  Fred, your beer is stellar and an incredible value, but I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to figure that out if Don didn’t turn me on to you guys.  I love your brand concept (dogs and laughter and beer are go together wonderfully), but your labels don’t do justice to what’s inside.  Is the label art a dealbreaker?  No way, but your stuff deserves as much attention as it can get.  I know we had a Rocket Dog IPA label design contest going here a while back, and some of the submission were pretty powerful – maybe Don needs to shake a leg on that.  Anyway, if you’re a beer geek who has overlooked Laughing Dog in the past, you’re missing out on some seriously good beer – don’t let the labels stop you!

Dogfish Head: There, I said it.  I’m talking about their six packs here, as most of their bombers, especially Fort and the recent Sony Records collaboration beers (that felt weird to type), are pretty sweet looking.  But the 12oz bottles look dated and don’t reflect the creativity and craftsmanship of what’s inside.  I’m not sure I’d change it at this point, as Dogfish’s humble look is becoming almost iconic in the beer world, but it would be great to see the look and feel of the cartons and bottles live up to the taste and creativity of the beer they hold.  That said, I think Dogfish is doing just fine with the current packaging, so I guess if it ain’t broke…

One thing all of these breweries have in common is that they continue to be successful, which is terrific.  Most hardcore beer geeks don’t really care about what’s on the label, only the beer that’s inside. We read about beer on the internet, talk about beer with our friends, and jump at the chance to expand our horizons by trying something new.  In many cases, we look past packaging because we already know what a brewery or beer is all about.

But as the craft beer marketplace continues to grow and the big boys and their marketing machines begin to infiltrate our happy little world, branding and label appeal become more important than ever.  Many new craft drinkers aren’t ever going to become full-fledged beer nerds, rather they’ll walk up to the shelf and pick what looks good to them.  If wonderful beers like the ones above don’t make a clear emotional or intellectual connection with these new drinkers (and do it in three seconds or less), chances are they’ll be overlooked for ones with a clearer, more cohesive brand identity, like those supported by the macro brewers will surely posses.  While it kind of sucks that this is where craft beer is heading, it’s important that good beer wins the day, and that means good packaging.

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Categories: Beer

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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44 Comments on “Craft Beers I’ll Buy DESPITE their Packaging”

  1. February 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    This is one of those posts where I turn my head and grimace a bit when I hit the “publish” button. I hate calling these excellent brewers out for their packaging, but I think such things will matter more and more as the craft beer industry continues to grow and become more competitive.

    • February 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

      Whatever! Call them out. It’s time they updated. I hate that Russian River uses comic sans all over what are otherwise beautiful labels and even greater beers. Another brewery that makes me cringe is Weyerbacher.

      Conversely, the best at marketing has to be Mikkeller and Stillwater, but I’m a fanboy in this regard.

      • February 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

        Forgot Weyerbacher, which is a great example of a brewer that I enjoy with awful, awful labels. Good call – they are successful DESPITE their branding!

      • February 2, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

        It takes a great beer for me to overlook Comic Sans. Good thing Russian River makes beer that causes me to forget the packaging entirely.

        • John King
          February 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

          You guys need to stop being Comic Sans haters: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/im-comic-sans-asshole

        • February 2, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

          Hilarious [as I read it from my 17″ MacBook Pro…]

        • February 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

          Comic sans should only be used for comics. The “sans” does not mean it should be used everywhere but comics.

        • February 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

          That’s pretty funny, Mr. King. [changes out of black turtleneck]

  2. February 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I guess I’m just old fashioned as I read the labels for things like ingredients, ABV, etc. If it sound like something I’d like I buy it. That probably means I spend more time making up my mind. But that’s ok–I’m retired after all.

    I’m planning on making a run to the local beer cave today so I’ll try to look at the packaging for ya. That doesn’t mean I’ll let the packaging make my buying decisions though–after all I can’t drink the package.

    • February 2, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      I think you’re in the minority with that. My guess is that most folks walk into the beer aisle with a budget of one or two minutes to shop, and they scan the beers until something grabs their eye. For non-beer-geeks, it’s probably something that is emotionally appealing to them. then they might pick it up and read it, but if it’s not eye-catching, they’ll never really even see it.

      You and I might shop for beer the same way girls shop for shoes, but that’s probably rare.

      • February 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

        “You and I might shop for beer the same way girls shop for shoes, but that’s probably rare.” LOL! That’s the exact same image I had in mind but was loathe to admit. But in my manly defense, I have to check to make sure there’s no coffee in the brews I buy–coffee is a no-no for me.

        • February 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

          That shoe line has been bouncing around in my head since I wrote it – I think I’ll do a post on it tomorrow…

    • February 2, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

      The problem is that packaging is evidence of care (or lack of care) taken to bring you a product. If a brewery cuts corners on their packaging, they might cut corners with the ingredients.

      • February 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

        Yeah, that’s the rub. When you see a bad package or a dumb label or a stupid beer name, you wonder if there are any such misfires in the beer as well.

  3. Fred Colby
    February 2, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Hey Jim we are slowly changing some labels over Rocket dog is of course one Thanks to the discussion here Tom Kordik of Seattle got my label business and also the Labels business for Selkirk Abbey, with his design of the new RD label. CSB is one that needs changed what other ones do you feel need a new look?
    Fred
    p.s. our new labeler date codes the labels now

    • February 2, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

      Just looked at the labels on your site, and some are nice (especially like the Cold Nose label), but I’d suggest a complete overhaul. If you upgrade one, they’ll all need to change so they look like a family of products. Changing one or two will lead to a disjointed portfolio, which will make it hard for a lazy consumer (most of them) who loves Dogzilla to realize that CSB is also a Laughing Dog product. I’d also suggest redoing the Laughing Dog logo, or keeping the new-look labels close enough to its style so they still hang together.

      Anyway, sorry for talking smack about your branding. I don’t think it’s awful, it’s just not as good as your beer.

    • John King
      February 2, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

      Fred,
      Can Mr. Kordik change the faces around here to make them look better as well. If so, it would be greatly appreciated. This place needs a facelift.

      • February 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

        I’d like to see that as well, John.

    • oliver klosoff
      February 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

      I’ve learned something today, I always assumed that Sneaky Pete was a Laughing Dog brew. I always laugh out loud whenever I see the pic.

      • Fred Colby
        February 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

        Oliver
        it is a laughing dog brewed beer just sold under Kyselas Name as he commisioned us to brew it for him I did write the recipe for it

  4. February 2, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    This post seems like the necessary complement to the beers that we/anyone would buy based on the name or packaging, only to find that the label was the only good part.

    Besides, Jim, I’m not hearing you say that you like these beers but won’t buy them because of the labels – that would be superficial and pathetic – but that you’d like to see the wrappers get to be as good as the contents. That seems like reasonable feedback to the brewers.

    It calls to mind the beers that get both right. I love Old Leghumper – the beer is good and the label is hilarious.

    It also calls to mind how programmed the American market is. For example, light blue is code for diet. Spicy foods are labelled with lots of red. Beer has to look like beer. Some of Dogfish Head’s labels on the 750 ml bottles make them look more like wine – great labels but only a beer geek would recognize them for what they are.

    • February 2, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

      To be honest, there are some beers I want no part of because of their branding. I had a buddy text me from the beer aisle (this happens a lot) asking if beers made by Fegley’s Brew Works were worthwhile. I realized I didn’t know, because the labels are generic, and the name sounds like something you come up with for a Dave and Buster’s type brew pub – kinda phoney. Their brand identity is such a turn off, I’ve never really considered them.

      I’ve had their stout (I think) and it was okay, but not mind blowing, and I’ve never gone back to try the rest of their stuff. I think that’s largely a result of branding, which makes me at least a little shallow…

  5. February 2, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Great article, and I love the insight.

    The Voodoo website made me laugh for all the wrong reasons. It was like hopping in a DeLorean and driving to 1999.

    As you say, though, it doesn’t have to be a knock on the product. Good beer is good beer regardless of the way it’s branded.

    • February 2, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

      I agree that good beer is good beer, but if you never try it because it looks “bad” you’ll never know…

  6. February 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    Re: Laughing Dog, The Dogfather Imperial Stout is just plain hilarious. Equal parts Snoop Dogg and Coppola homage. It’s on my list of beers to try since I enjoyed their Rocket Dog Rye IPA so much.

    • February 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

      It’s a great beer, and I love the label as well – very gansta!*

      * said in the most causasian way possible.

  7. February 2, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    I’m a big fan of great label design, so it also pains me to see great beers with terrible branding. For me, some of these include: Anderson Valley, Eel River, the old Left Hand labels (the new ones rock), and Green Flash (although their “generic beer” aesthetic has grown on me lately).

    One of my favorite new breweries is the Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, a one-man operation. One of the first things he did was hire a designer, and all of his bottles and branding are gorgeous: http://www.crookedstave.com/. If such a small operation can do this, I see no reason why other, more established breweries can’t do the same. Mikkeller is another one of my favorites for the diversity of label designs that still incorporate the iconic font and Bergso’s portrait.

    • February 2, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

      I was going to mention the Green Flash labels. I’ve had at least 4 of their beers on several occasions, and they are all excellent, but their labels are just so dull. If it wasn’t for all of the positive reviews, I would have never tried their beers.

    • February 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

      I agree that MIkkeller has wonderful and cohesive branding, and I think Green Flash is a great example of packaging that it’s easy to overlook, kind of like Central Waters in Wisconsin.

  8. oliver klosoff
    February 2, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    No Lost Abbey Witches Wit? Losing your touch IMO.

    • February 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

      That’s a controversial label, but all told, Lost Abbey has a cohesive and easily identifiable brand.

  9. Mark Moeller
    February 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    JIm, you are the best kind of visionary

    • February 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

      The kind that’s full of applesauce?

  10. February 2, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Being a Creative Director and having to create and define the brand of the company I work for, I would strongly agree that the quality of both the packaging and consistency of label art are a big deal, whether most people realize it or not. I cringe at the amateurish art and design on some breweries’ packaging; although I’ll purposely buy beer with the worst design sometimes just to see how it rates with my expectations.

    The breweries that I think have the best design and most consistent branding are Odell, Ska, Abita, and Ninkasi (for the most part).

    • February 2, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

      I think “expectations” is a great way to put it. I much prefer a great beer with a silly name or clunky label than a mediocre beer in a fancy bottle (ahem, Infinium)

  11. February 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    I just returned from the beer cave–picked up a bottle of Duchesse on Don’s recommendation. As I promised, I looked at the packing on the sixers before I read the labels.

    I picked two that I’m sure you’d consider ho-hum. First was Breckinridge Brewery’s Vanilla Porter (which I love). Looking at the selection of Breckinridge products available I saw no particularly eye-catching labels. (But I know that Breckinridge makes good beer so that didn’t stop me.)

    The second was from a local brew-pub, Brewer’s Alley in Frederick, MD. Called 1634 Ale its a recreation of an early Colonial brew (rye malt, molasses & caraway are in the ingredients), thus the carton was reflective of its historicity. I believe had this beer on tap at the Union Mills Microbrew Festival a few years ago and it was a good solid beer. My son-in-law loved it.

    Finally, I picked out a sixer based just on its label–dark purple w/ a pair of yellow eyes staring out at you. The beer is called Buckwheat (After Dark) & is a dunkelweissen. Its brewed by the J.R. Rockers Brewing Co. in Spartanburg, SC. If you want to see what it looks like see: http://jimferguson.me/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/BuckwheatAfterDark.jpg

    • February 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

      When you lie a brewery, the quality of the label doesn’t matter (kind of like when you love somebody they’re always gonna look pretty awesome in your eyes).

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Duchesse. I found it reminiscent of a raspberry-laced Russel Stover’s caramel, while Don loved it. And you people call ME the metrosexual!!

      • February 2, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

        My take on Duchess de Bourgogne: Based on your description, I expected it to be sweet, so I poured a cupla fingers in a whiskey glass expecting something akin to a port or liqueur. I was most pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t the least bit cloying, nor was it alcoholic to any extent (only 6% abv). There was a touch of sweetness, balanced by a touch of sour and lots of tiny little bubbles (Don Ho would have loved it). I could taste the hint of raspberry you mentioned but not caramel. I had a hard time placing what it most reminded of: honey wine, sparkling cider? Nah. Then it hit me–champagne! I read the label again, a blend of 8 & 18 year old brews aged in oak, all natural, yadda, yadda. Those Belgian monks had outdone themselves w/ this one! They’d made barley champagne!

        Bottom line time: Would it satisfy my beer cravings? No way! But did I like it? Yep, I loved it–finished off the entire bomber in about 30 minutes–this was champagne as I always imagined champagne should be. Will I drink it again. most assuredly, but only at celebrations. Its just not a work-a-day kinda beer, and I’m just a work-day-kinda guy. But damn it was good!

        Props to Don!

        • February 3, 2012 at 11:46 am #

          Glad you enjoyed it, Massugu. Maybe it’s time I revisit it (again!) to see if my tastes have changed. It bugs the heck out of me that I can’t fall in love with this beer!

  12. Mike
    February 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    Voodoo may need a slight facelift, as long as he doesn’t change his recipes. I know the owner, Matt Allyn, and the name Voodoo seems to fit him. The worst labels I have seen so far come from Pangaea Brewing out of Wisconsin…good brews, but nobody could read the bottles, thus sales were terrible.

    • February 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

      I agree about the recipies – Matt makes some tasty beer!

    • Kid Carboy Jr.
      February 2, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

      I’ve spoken with the guy who founded that brewery. He is one of the most interesting but weird guys I’ve ever met in the world of brewing.

      His name is Guy Lilja. He’s the only employee of his entire brewery. The stuff is contract brewed at Sand Creek, and then he arranges all of its distribution himself out of the house of his elderly father, who he lives with. He creates and tests all the recipes on a 10-gallon pilot system in the garage.

      I agree completely about his labels and designs. The biggest problem is that they all have different slogans and inconsistencies on them. It’s also not good to put a URL on your sixpack that doesn’t go anywhere.

  13. February 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    A neat post on something not so often spoken about. Good to see.

    Here in Australia craft beers / micro breweries are becoming more and more prevalent as the tax excises start to change for the better. There are many many good beers and many many more poor ones. I have found packaging more often than not a good reflection of the contents eg. ‘those misfires’. It does not stop me buying them but it does make me judge. How can you use the word ‘craft’ when it looks like you got your 14yo son/daughter to make a package for their school project. A craftsman takes everything in their job seriously not just one aspect. It is a term all too watered down.

    Unfortunately now we are also seeing poor design and packaging with that ‘something to prove’ attitude finding it’s way into the Whisky industry as well.

    Will’s comments are in the mark. “packaging and consistency of label art are a big deal, whether most people realize it or not”. The best design is the design you don’t notice.

    Being the director of my own design business and being in the industry for a long time there is one thing that can be directly attributed to a part of the problem. The breweries are hiring inexperienced designers to make a package or a label. These designers are cheap to use and commonly feel a need to make a point of difference to the extreme. Now if the breweries actually took their branding seriously these designers would not be hired and more money would go into research and development with a more experienced designer. But then you have the whole $$$ issue come into play and how much can be spent especially if you are a startup.

    In a really simply way to look at it is that I do not buy a beer if it looks like it has water damage on the label, carton or box. Why? Because it means condensation has occurred and there is potential that the beer has been chilled and then let go warm. It can be the most reliable beer, from the most reputable consistent brand but it appears to be damaged goods so I will not touch it. Bad packing can make you think the contents are damaged goods (hope that makes sense).

    I see poor design all day every day in the stupidest things but it does not stop you buying it anyway if it does the job. With more and more competition creeping into the market I think we will see many a craft brewery turn on it’s heel and start taking it’s presentation seriously simply because they have to.

  14. Jeff
    February 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    Portsmouth Brewery of Portsmouth, NH has some amazing beer. They also have some pretty godawful labels. I’m not sure if they sell anything outside of their own retail shop though, so I suppose that would render packaging a fairly moot point.

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