Mikkeller Brewery, out of Denmark, and Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co., out of Brooklyn, have similar art-first approaches when it comes to labeling. Keith Shore, Mikkeller’s creative director, uses each of its bottles to tell stories about two invented characters, Henry and Sally, the brewery’s “hop sniffing, long-nosed lovers.” (Yes, that’s a reference to the 1989 rom-com When Harry met Sally.) They careen across the labels, playing baseball, floating through starscapes, and surfing gnarly waves.
Shore’s playful line drawings were inspired, in part, by the cartoons embedded in MAD, Cracked Magazine, and Peanuts, and he wanted to make labels that were similarly lighthearted, clever, and accessible. “I never approached the designs as if there were any imposed rules of what a beer label should look like,” Shore explained. “I just wanted to make something that was cool to look at, and that people could connect with.”
Joshua Whitehead’s labels for Greenpoint have a tendency to tell more serious, timely stories. Soon after the 2016 U.S. election, the brewery released an India Pale Ale called “Resist.” Whitehead’s can design featured a sea of colorful “power” fist emojis, which have become synonymous with contemporary protests. “Everything we put out becomes an opportunity for me to comment on something,” Whitehead explained.
No craft brewery can completely divorce itself from the fact that its designs are a marketing tool. But in the process, many brewers and designers see the label as a space where they can exercise not only their creativity, but also appeal to the creative impulses of their drinkers. “These are products you don’t need to buy, that you spend a lot of money on, and they go away after you drink them,” explained Van Hall. “I like to think of my work as giving [the beer] more value. If I can tell you a story, bring you in, make you feel good, then I feel like we’re not just taking your money—we’re giving you something more that’s fun, that’s entertainment, that’s thought-provoking.”