Brewers increasingly turn to local artists to design beer labels

Every picture tells a story, and some of those stories are about beer. A particular beer.

From the classic throwback football player that's become synonymous with Land-Grant Brewing Company's signature Stiff Arm IPA, to the eye-catching Seventh Son Brewing logo and the intense, almost street-art quality of the images that accompany Sideswipe Brewing's roster of beers, beer art lives at the intersection of two creative communities — craft brewing and visual arts.

Sure, label images, posters and tap handles are about marketing and branding and other things you might read about in a business plan, but those images are also works of art that support, along with a beer's name, the brewer's vision of the flavor and style of a particular brew.

“The craft beer industry incorporates creativity on so many levels, from brewing and design to space-making and sales. Everyone's got to be creative,” said Walt Keys, Land-Grant's co-owner and creative director. “You need a story. You need an identity. And there's no one way to do it.”

Sideswipe Owner and Brewer Craig O'Herron wanted a visual image that reflected his own background and interest in the martial arts. His friend and graphic designer Caroline Petitti created the clean-yet-chaotic backdrop against which her brew-specific images are set.

“That [chaos] is intentional,” Petitti said. “It's intense, has tons of energy and evokes a little bit of curiosity. We're consistently having that conversation … that this is [Craig's] face to the world [and] that every bottle at the beer store is trying to do the same thing.”

For each specific brew, Petitti said, “Craig will tell me he'd like an image that does ‘this.' Then that shapes how I approach the artwork, from line to the overtones to the background color.”

“I definitely have the final say,” O'Herron said with a laugh.

Keys said his brewery's block-lettered logo and classic, understated imagery is inspired by vintage collegiate sports programs and posters, a nod to his and co-founder Adam Benner's alma mater.

“We're both proud [Ohio State University] alums, and there's a little bit of a sports bar feel [to Land-Grant's Franklinton tap room],” he said. “Plus I just love that look, [inspired by] those old programs with custom illustrations that have become collectible, from an aesthetic and design standpoint.”

“Both of my business partners went to art school,” Seventh Son Co-owner Collin Castore said of his brewery's connections to the Columbus art community through partners Jen Burton and Travis Spencer. Local artist and sign maker Clint Davidson created the brewery's logo, to which graphic designer Kyle Kastranec added the concentric circles.

“It's a lot about feel,” Castore said. “We have a good network of artists we know and whose work we love. Plus, we're located in the Short North, so we wanted to reflect being a part of that through the beers we make.”

“There's definitely a creative aspect to making beer,” O'Herron said. “The labels end up being sort of an extension of that.”

“It totally has to all work together,” Burton said.

O'Herron and Petitti both mentioned Sideswipe's first and signature beer, Elegant Hoodlum, a dark smoked stout, as a prime example.

“I was shooting in the dark. [Craft brewing] was not a realm I was all that aware of,” Petitti said. “We really worked together a lot [to come up with the design].”

“The name drives everything else,” Keys said. “Usually by the time we come up with a name I at least have an idea [for the art].”

Besides Stiff Arm, Land-Grant features a handful of other sports-themed beers, each supported by a vintage-style illustration — Misconduct Imperial Rye IPA, Goon Strong Pale Ale, Greenskeeper Session IPA, 42-1 Imperial IPA and the Crew SC-themed Glory American Wheat Ale.

“Adam and I are both huge [Crew SC] fans, and we love how the team's supporters have really taken ownership for the fan experience. I wanted to keep the label supporter-focused, to make it all about the fans,” Keys said of the Glory label design which features cheering fans with banners held high.

Beyond Clint Davidson, Seventh Son has regularly engaged the Columbus creative community. In addition to the brewery's regular releases, which have recently been designed by Jack Shifman, Mike Moses and Will Fugman, Burton has connected with some of her friends in the art community for special labels and other projects.

“I was definitely excited to have my art on a Seventh Son can,” said musician and visual artist Aaron Troyer, whose work you can find on containers of Proliferous Double IPA. “I love their beer and I do the Columbus Flea, which takes place there, every season. As far as the piece on the can, I basically just chose a few designs and sent them to Jen. A few months later, she sent me a text telling me to come pick up a case of the printed cans. It was originally supposed to be a limited run, but I think it's become pretty popular, so they keep making it. Not sure if my art has anything to do with that, though.”

Burton contacted Evan Wolff, whom she knew from working at Ace of Cups, for Seventh Son's upcoming fall release, Assistant Manager Beer.

“He's done a lot of show flyers and posters and I knew his style and vibe would be amazing for [it],” Burton said.

“It's very cool to do work like that for a place you support and that your friends support, to be part of that whole community aspect,” Wolff said. “It's just cool that they think whatever I do is worthy of being on their beer. So many folks go there, so it's cool that they'll be seeing my art while they're having a beer. I like drinking beer, too, so I wanted to maybe have a design that you wouldn't mind looking at all day.”

“We make it a point to get their contact information on the labels,” Castore said. “It's, I hope, a different kind of way to get these artists exposure to an audience that might not normally see what they do.”

For the right project, Keys said he's willing to deviate from Land-Grant's traditional look. Take the summery Pool Party Pilsner, for which he adopted a less stark color scheme. While the image still feels vintage, it's clearly a departure from the established template.

“I make the rules; I can break them,” Keys said with a laugh, adding that the process, from brew to design, has proved to be “amazingly rewarding, the way it all kind of goes together.”

Petitti mentioned Sideswipe's Pixelated Sun as varying ever so slightly from the brewery's established look.

“I got the name and the description from [O'Herron]. I decided to play with it and have a little bit of fun,” she said of the sunny, less-intense design, reflecting the citrusy, hoppy wheat beer.

While there may not be one simple rule for beer label art, Burton said there is one simple rule for the beer itself.

“You have to brew good beer,” she said.