The story behind beer bottle labels

While the approach may vary, many of Calgary’s craft breweries have something in common —ensuring the art on the label reflects the quality of what’s inside.

On the eve of their 30th anniversary, Calgary’s own Big Rock Brewery has driven big changes to their look and line this past year, with a new signature series design and 16 new brews.

It all started with a little brainstorming.

“We use local artists to do all of our labels and we always have,” said Brenda Sgaggi, manager of marketing at Big Rock.

“Our brewmaster will come up with a beer, and we gather a diverse team of people thinking from different angles for a brainstorming session — from the brewhouse, sales, marketing, administration — and we sit down in the boardroom, typically have a pint, and start talking about the creative direction.”

 Once an idea is decided, an artist is presented with a creative brief, illustration style, and colour palette.

Big Rock currently has two artists — Danielle Erickson, who works on the limited edition brew labels, and Dean McKenzie, who produced the signature series illustrations.

McKenzie, who is a creative director by trade, said it was fun to take a step back into the illustrator role, a decision that simply came down to timing.

“In the meetings and discussions with Bob Sartor (Big Rock’s CEO), I got a sense of what he was looking for,” said McKenzie. “The problem was that for us to have brought in two or three professional illustrators to give their interpretation probably would’ve taken six to eight weeks. We just didn’t have that time.”

For the next three weeks, McKenzie spent an average of 40 hours per painting on 16 different illustrations for the eight signature series brews that you see on liquor store shelves today.Dean McKenzie shows several of the illustrations he created for Big Rock Brewery’s signature series. Photo by Tera Swanson

The concept was straightforward — to reflect versions of well-known and sometimes century-old styles of beer.

“The (designs) evolved into what we call the country of origin,” said McKenzie. “Saaz is a typical Northern European Czech style of beer, thus the streetscape with the small cafe. Traditional ale is typically a British style brown ale, thus the thatched roof country cottage.”

Other local breweries like Wild Rose Brewery have taken a more abstract approach to their brand and story. Working hand-in-hand with Karo Group Inc., Western Canada’s longest-serving creative agency, a team spanning beyond Alberta collaborated from beginning to end on the re-launch of Wild Rose’s brand.

“Like a lot of craft breweries, Wild Rose was going through an evolutionary growth period,” said Martin Batten, creative director at Karo. “They were producing small quantities of beer and were doing labelling through a friends and family effort.”

“They then had the investment to build a new facility to increase their production with the hope of expanding beyond Calgary to all of Alberta for distribution,” he added.

“Bill McKenzie (Wild Rose’s CEO) felt that it was the right time to tighten the story and definition around Wild Rose and what it meant, especially seeing as they were going to be reaching beyond Calgary’s borders.”

After several workshops, brainstorming sessions, and research into the craft beer industry across Canada, Karo took up the task of tightening up Wild Rose’s brand positioning by taking a non-cliché spin on the word, “wild.”

“The story behind the label is to imagine going down a highway in Alberta, and coming across an old barn that’s run down and used to host parties,” said Batten.

“If you were to go up to this barn and look through cracks you would see inside some wild and crazy kind of event, which metaphorically is saying ‘it’s all about what’s inside,’ just as the brewmaster puts so much attention into what’s inside the beer.”

Hans Freistatter is one of many team designers that worked on Wild Rose Brewery’s new look. Photo by Tera Swanson While this story has led to some pretty quirky labels, including a jazz-singing bison and a team of toy army men scaling a pint, Batten maintains that creative labelling is the key to a consumer’s palette.

“These companies don’t have the budgets of the big guys to spend money on advertising and promotion,” said Batten, “so it really comes down to the label and the story behind the product to intrigue the curious customer.”

Batten said he has noticed a significant increase in the demand for quality labelling in the past three to five years — an indication of an increase in both the number of breweries opening, and their level of sophistication.

A sophistication that McKenzie said has also increased in the consumer.

“Young people’s tastes are more discerning as they get older. They want to challenge themselves and they want something better than what’s termed the ‘poundable’ beers chosen just to get a buzz on,” said McKenzie.

Batten said he has seen a new trend within the consumer as “wanting to be seen as being somewhat different and experimental and innovative.”

“If someone takes a craft brewery product to a barbecue, they’re saying something about themselves — that they’re not happy with just the norm, and they want to try things.

“A huge appetite for that adventure in food and drink, this sense of personal expression, has come in behind the increase in the rise of the craft brewery,” Batten said.

tswanson@cjournal.ca