My friend Jimmy likes felt tips. Undoubtedly there is some truth in the fact that Jimmy likes felt tips because he was reluctant to master the necessary Illustrator and Photoshop skills deemed necessary to make it in the world of commercial illustration. It probably didn’t help that Jimmy was eternally skint and could barely afford his own fags let alone fork out for a Mac. A trip down to Brighton’s North Street pound shops would supply Jimmy with literally one thousand felt tip pens in every colour of the spectrum. With this arsenal of ink he would happily spend days on end carefully colouring in his wobbly cartoons with a semi-steady hand, one straight line after another.
You could tell when Jimmy’s felt tip reserves were slowly starting to deplete as his favourite colours became less frequent in his pictures, slightly off-kilter and interesting contrasts edging their way into his world. We loved it: smudges, tea stains, corrections, inconsistencies and all. His illustrations were alive.
Not all of our tutors felt the same. Our forms were heavily staffed with successful and influential illustrators from the ‘90s, some of whom found fame pioneering slick vector graphics that graced the pages of trendy magazines. We listened in amused disbelief whilst (let’s call him) Josper advised Jimmy to ditch his felt tips and have a go at making his images crisper and more efficient using electronic technology. We looked at Josper’s images of hot women in suggestive poses, silhouettes of unicorns, butterflies and rainbows acting as ‘ironic’ counterpoints, and we felt empty. They felt uncomfortably clinical, pandering to be on-trend in the new millennium, creepily self aware, over-composed. We could see the process, from brief to page, and we were bored.
Around the same time we were starting to get our final year exhibition together, Gordon Brown had offered tax incentives for small breweries, which has – almost fifteen years later – resulted in the well-documented boom of British craft beer we are seeing now, to the point there appears to be a hierarchy of ‘craft’ beers emerging.
Neatly avoiding the aggressively debated semantics of the word ‘craft’, I cast a trained eye instead over the beer bottles pouring into Gorgeous Towers from microbreweries all over the world. A continually exciting time for Britain, as our beardy brewers have stepped up their game over the past couple of years, departing from the copycat American styles of beer to confidently push the boundaries of our nation’s jaded taste buds. In the past week alone I have supped on an IPA brewed with Habean Ethiopian Konga Sedie Natural coffee beans, a lemon and thyme saison, a witbeer inspired by a Harvey Wallbanger but flavoured with juniper and bergamot, and a sparkling mead brewed with hops, tarragon, lemon zest and seawater. And they were all delicious.
However with such creativity in my mouth, I am sometimes taken aback by the lack of it on my eye. A small and somewhat inconsequential niggle perhaps, but – especially now that Britain is in the process of exporting to the rest of a world waking up to the fact that our beers are as much about football hooligan fuel as our culinary spectrum is limited to fish and chips – the importance of packaging and branding simply can’t be undervalued.
The moment I’d laid eyes on the By The Horns range at a beer festival last year, I already wasn’t keen.
The packaging and branding reminded me of discovering Photoshop for the first time and excitedly cobbling stuff together just because. With brazenly obvious references to wholesale British culture, lazy design and the occasional pun, here was a brand trying desperately to be chummy and laddish with a heavy dose of English rock ’n’ roll street cred, but coming across as flat, generic and a bit desperate. It’s a geezer dressed in Ben Sherman on Carnaby Street shouting about how real his ale is.
I love the fact that the larger British breweries are making a more concentrated effort to break into the new ‘craft’ market, some deservedly so as they were actually ‘craft’ before craft was ‘craft’. They’ve had varying degrees of success, but almost always fail at packaging their offshoots in bottles that don’t have a distinctively corporate whiff about them.
‘Crafty Dan’ might think he is being proper crafty badger by avoiding the mention of Thwaites brewery on the label, but whilst the labels aren’t bad, they just seem a bit empty, ticking the necessary boxes with tenuous links.
English? Lets call this one ‘Big Ben’, the sole connection being the word “resonance” in the descriptive. Trendy Victorian machismo? Let’s put an old cannon on this label, the justification being it has an “intense hit of hops”. Talking of hops, lets put a print of hops on this one, because it is well hoppy, and hops are in.
Greene King did much the same, but with more of an illustrative feel, although I have yet to understand the connection between Charlie Parker and their ‘Yardbird’ beer, save for the fact that ‘craft’ IPA beers were re-popularised in the States, and the saxophonist was indeed American.
The illustrations are exactly what I think of when somebody says “illustrator”, and I picture a nice middle aged lady in a country house, gazing absently at her hazy garden and more worried about spilling her chamomile tea into her watercolours than what the beer tastes like.
It’s not all about the ‘big little guys’ getting it wrong though. Wild Beer Co. are indeed as “wildly different” as they claim. With wild fermentations and wild collaborations with wild flavours, their beer can sometimes be a bit too wild, even for me… and I’m pretty wild. I’m not wild about their branding though. All that creativity in the bottle, and the best y’all could come up with is a pissed off stag? Is it wild with anger because with the very occasional exception the design of each exciting new expression is marked with the same dull logo but in a slightly different colour?
Little lesson on how it is done? I’ve hung on every artistic move Beavertown has made since inception, from their moody monochromatic labels that are already becoming collector’s items on their original bottles…
… to the batshit crazy and already iconic artwork adorning their current cans.
Weird Beard are one of the most progressive breweries in the U.K., and although the packaging might not be kicking down any creative doors, like Beavertown their branding and names are evocative without being condescending, and their collection feels genuine and just right.
I’d be delighted to have any of Partizan’s lovely labels blown up and hanging on my walls, each one is a joyful celebration of design, colour, composition and illustration:
I had a flavour revelation when three years ago I first tried Pressure Drop’s ‘Wu Gang Chops The Tree’: the foraged herb hefeweisse that I was primarily drawn to because of the bizarre name and label of the stuff.
Their labels seem to employ rather brilliant young illustrators and designers using an Infinite Improbability Drive, and I suspect our friend Jimmy might be responsible for their ‘Wallbanger’ label.
No doubt I am somewhat biased, leaning toward the illustrative designs rather than the graphical, but I can see why Camden’s simple, but bright, punchy and distinctive labels might’ve helped (controversially) make it into one of British beer’s biggest success stories last year, selling the brand for a cool £85 mil to the world’s largest drinks company…
… although it might be a long wait until we see their touching collaboration with Mr. Bingo hit the supermarket shelves any time soon.
Five Points don’t seem to be trying too hard at all with their simple and (forgive me) to-the-point branding and typography, but again feels well considered, balanced, individual, warm and friendly.
Kernel Brewery might’ve pioneered the modern British microbrewery movement in many ways, and their impact and link to the excellent Brew By Numbers doesn’t stop at the fact that they gave their new neighbours their first bit of brewing equipment. Kernel’s restraint with their brown corrugated labels is a refreshing contrast to their bombastic beers, and BBNo. seem to have taken note. Beautiful typography and symmetrical design pack in plenty of nerdy information whilst not being overbearing.
Naturally the focus is on their core philosophy represented by the numbers themselves. Their forward-thinking and ever-changing expressions offer them the opportunity to be unrestrained by house or regional styles, with each beer number linking back to their quickly growing and already impressive catalogue. The first two numbers denote the style, the second two the recipe within that style. A deceptively simple idea, which makes for a gorgeously functional design. ‘By numbers’ indeed.
Back in the world of commercial illustration, Jimmy is an admired and successful illustrator, whose soulful handmade style seems to have sparked countless imitators. Now part of the creative consultancy that once employed Josper, he has since learnt how to colour in using the most modern of computer technology, although I’d like to think his desk is still covered in old cups of tea, biscuit crumbs and felt tips.
Josper has retired from the illustrative arts.
Cover image credit: Shlur.com