Culture

Breweries Tell Their Story with One-of-a-Kind Artwork

Three six-packs of colorful beer cans
21st Amendment's Brew Free! Or Die gives a quirky spin to an iconic American image.

For many breweries, beer cans serve as a canvas, allowing artists and illustrators to create fun, eye-catching designs that set their beers apart and tell a story about their beer and brewery. Beer cans offer space for creative license that bottles cannot.

“With cans, you have a lot more real estate to tell your story,” says Nico Freccia, co-owner of 21st Amendment Brewery, which features whimsical images that cover the entire can. “A label is 2 to 3 inches. You essentially have a small square, but with a can, you can use all 360 degrees.”

Freccia and other brewers believe their one-of-a-kind artwork is a valuable marketing tool. “I absolutely know it helps sell the beer,” Freccia says. “I can’t tell you how many emails I get from customers saying, ‘I was browsing my craft beer aisle, I saw your can and I had to buy your beer.’”

Here’s a look at how four breweries use can artwork to distinguish their beers from the rest.

Image of a beer can with a cartoon of Mt. Rushmore illustrated on it.

21st Amendment in San Francisco

Named after the amendment that repealed prohibition, 21st Amendment Brewery’s cans feature iconic images of Americana -- like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore – but with a humorous twist. Its Back in Black IPA can, for instance, features Paul Revere’s midnight ride and celebrates 21st Amendment rebelling against the British style of IPA by creating a hopped-up, darker version.

The brewery works with three illustrators – mainly London artist Joe Wilson and New York artists Jon Contino and Kim Sielbeck – to sketch the ideas, which are then executed by TBD, a design agency in Bend, Ore. 21st Amendment also packages its six-packs in boxes that further showcase the artwork.

“We use the box like a billboard,” Freccia says.

Beer can with artwork on the front, set against white background

Orpheus Brewing in Atlanta, Georgia

Orpheus Brewing uses local artists to create the art on its cans. “We don’t get to use nearly as much local ingredients as breweries in other parts of the country because we don’t grow hops and barley here,” says Jason Pellett, president and brewmaster. “Using a local artist is a way to get local flavor into our beer.”

Designs by Atlanta street artists Brandon Sadler, Peter Ferrari and Sam Parker have been featured on Orpheus’ cans. Instead of filling up the entire can with their artwork, Pellett says he prefers the “clean look” of frameless art so the artist’s design is featured on a white can.

Originally, says Pellett, Orpheus spoke with a marketing expert from Coca-Cola who warned them that white cans wouldn’t stand out on the shelves. “We decided to ignore him,” Pellett says.

But for a pop of color, the rims of the cans and the designs are colored to indicate what type of beer it is. For example, the Serpent Bite hoppy sour is orange, the Transmigration of Souls double IPA is dark green, and the Sykophantes fig sour features a rich shade of magenta.

A beer can with a pac man character on the front.

Tallgrass Brewing Co. in Manhattan, Kansas

Like many breweries, Tallgrass started out producing its beer in bottles and kegs. But in 2010 the brewers decided that switching to pint-sized cans would be more energy efficient and would provide a bigger space for the artwork on its labels. “If you look at our old bottles and the art on those labels and put them next to our cans there is no comparison,” says Andrew Zender, the brewery’s marketing manager.

Their in-house creative director, Neil Camera, who came from the world of comics, creates all the designs. Camera was a lead designer for Garbage Pail Kids (a parody of Cabbage Patch Kids), and he also drew and designed Bazooka Joe cartoons.

Those comic book influences are apparent on the cans. “The best brands are the ones that have some central character,” Zender says, so the brewery has developed a few iconic characters to help promote its beers. For instance, the Tallgrass’s 8-Bit Pale Ale and 16-Bit Double Pale Ale give a nod to Pac-Man and Nintendo characters. 8-Bit Pale Ale is a citrusy, complex beer and features a character reminiscent of Pac-Man on the can, while the 16-Bit Double Pale Ale is second generation, crisper and smoother beer, and features a character that looks more like Mortal Kombat, Zender says.

Beer can with a comic hero on the front.

Ska Brewing in Durango, Colorado

The vision for Ska Brewing came to co-founders Bill Graham and Dave Thibodeau while they were listening to what they call “thinking music,” known to the rest of the world as Ska. They illustrated their mission in the form of a comic book that tells the story of craft brewers fighting the forces of a corporate beverage conglomerate. Today, the characters from that comic book, The Legion of Ska, are featured on their cans.

The original artwork was produced by artist Dorn Roberts, who was living in Durango when the brewery opened in 1995. The brewery now employs an in-house graphic designer who handles the brewery’s day-to-day artwork needs but all the designs are based on Roberts’ original drawings.

“The consumer identifies with the overall brand,” says marketing manager Kristen Muraro. “There is a story that we created that is based on who we are, and we have incorporated those characters into our events and our branding.”

Photo of Orpheus Atalanta courtesy of Tristan Spinski

Photo of Tallgrass Brewing Co. courtesy of David Mayes Photography

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