Saturday, June 13, 2009

Beer & Art, Art & Beer

Whilst reading Ralph Steadman’s memoir The Joke’s Over recently, it occurred to me how much his schizoid imagery is ingrained into the ethos of Flying Dog, the brewer whose beers are advertised by these little works of art. Before you’ve drunk it, you kind of know what you’re going to get.
Steadman leads a tirade against the corporate brewing houses in one chapter, and then gleefully recounts being the guest of honour at a beer festival, along with some prototype artwork for the GABF 2004.
It’s all pretty heady stuff for not only a beer-nerd but an avid collector of all things Gonzo. It didn’t start here - he designed a wine label for Oddbins (which, if I remember correctly had a pirate or a parrot on it?) a few years back, and as you read he turns out to be quite the beer, wine and whisky aficionado; only too happy to lend his images to those he feels a kinship with. And why not? To a design whore like me, the label of a beer can often be the hook that lodges in my cheek, pulling my hand toward that particular beer. And it could just be serendipity that one of my favourite artists happened to hook up with a craft brewer (If only Coop or Jay Ryan would do some labels - I’d be in beer-art heaven).
We lament so many hoary, old-fashioned and formulaic beer label and pump-clips flooding our senses, that when something new and shiny pops into view it invigorates us and renews our fervour. Listen up, folks – This is good. This is progress. Sure, we love ‘Breweriana’ but need something more -and there’s not a lot of it in the UK, I’m sad to say. This is probably due to our proud brewing history –and I’m not for one second berating that. But I can’t help thinking - Did I only buy that Flying Dog beer due to the instantly-recognisable Steadman artwork? Maybe -That first bottle, an outstanding Gonzo Imperial Porter, sits empty in my kitchen, like a proud work of art. So it did its job. I passed up one other beer...for that. A sale for Flying Dog. Hurrah, everyone’s happy.

They (‘They’ being the sinister marketing men - booo) say that you take the first sip of a drink with eyes. If faced with a pump clip of a cartoon hound rutting a leg and had a comedic name like ‘Quickie’ or ‘Knee - Trembler’, you wouldn’t drink it, would you? It may as well be called ‘Trad crap-beer with a vaguely humorous label (if your humour was based on entirely 1943 standards)’.
I’m ranting, obviously, but all I want is good design – not for me; I’m lucky enough to like beer enough to try most things. I’m calling for good design to hook in those who don’t know what they are getting, but simply ‘liked the label.’ The industry needs those new drinkers.

So what appeals to me? I love the Orval label, an exercise in cleanliness and simplicity. Wonderful. Anchor Steam’s cartoony, hand-drawn lines and playful ‘skittle’ bottle-shape always brings a smile to my face. I love the brash colours of Speight’s – but not so much the beer. Ommegang’s Hennepin – now that’s a sexy label. Give me a poster of that for above my fireplace. I love the intricacy and faith to type that Sam Smith's keep going; and Bath Ale's modern way with country themes are great. I could go on, but this is a long enough post already.
What’s your fave? (and please, don’t suggest Brewdog’s Zeitgeist. That’s been done.) Have a think about it.

If you've not been on the Flying Dog site, do. It's very good, and yet again another example of what can be done if you really think about what your customers want.


Mark said...

Great post. Labels and pump clips are SO important. And like you I have a real disdain for novelty beer names and 'funny' pump clips. I hate these almost as much as I hate the beers named for/after sporting events - I NEVER drink these!!

Favourite labels: I like Mikkeller's design in general, the Dorothy Goodbody's are classy and tasteful in their promiscuity, Three Floyds have great designs (if only we could see them in real life over here, AleSmith, Oakham have real eye-catching designs, and some of the Belgian bottles are really classy like Cantillon.

Leigh said...

Mark - Agrree: Re Wye Valley's labels - love the 50's inference.

TIW said...

I like labels that have been around a long time, but weren't 'designed' in the modern sense of endless meetings with a man with complicated hair (and I speak as a graphic designer). The prime example being Taylor's Landlord bottles and their 'fat man', which has barely changed except for a freshen up when the bottles 'went' metric. I also like the Coopers Sparkling Ale label for similar reasons. I'm also a fan of the restraint of Westmalle and unpretentiousness of Duvel, Kwak and Chimay. Orval, though is brilliant - the bottle, the glass, the label (and the beer) are all works of art.

Bionic Laura said...

Great post. I bought Bath Ale's Barnstormer just because I loved the label so much and you know the beer didn't disappoint.

I think it's a hard thing to get the label right and despite what we claim it is very important.