Meet the Canadian craft brewers turning the beer label into a work of art

You taste with your eyes first — and with the rise of craft beer, the label has come to be understood as a canvas.

You taste with your eyes first. With the rise of craft beer, the label has come to be understood as a canvas

Beer cans from Collective Arts in Hamilton. (Collective Arts)

Even if you can't read French, you could guess that it's a sinful brew before the cap's off. The label bears the painting of a woman — the biblical Eve perhaps — giant-eyed, wearing a quarter smile, her hair like long thorns. She's wrapped around the shoulders by a fork-tongued serpent. Once you open the bottle, it pours black and syrupy into your glass. It smells like fresh espresso and tastes like toasted marshmallows. As beers go, it's higher-test (9.5 per cent alcohol by volume), but that lends a pleasant warmth. It is decadent. But the label art did warn you.

Beginning 15 years ago, Péché Mortel ("original sin") was the first beer commercially bottled by Dieu du Ciel!, the renowned Montreal craft brewery. Those bottles, and every one since, have been dressed in the art of illustrator Yannick Brosseau, a university friend of brewmaster and founder Jean-Françoise Gravel. Through the label art, Brosseau has created a pantheon of gods — a new divinity for each product, building out the visual identity and the mythology of the brand.

When Gravel and Brosseau first began, beers — especially Canadian beers — didn't yet care much how their packaging appeared. Last year, nearly two decades on, Brosseau was honoured with a retrospective exhibition at the Maison de la culture Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in Montreal surveying his work with the brewery. Bottle art, apparently, has become the stuff of galleries.

Dieu du Ciel!'s Péché Mortel. (Dieu du Ciel!)

With the rise of craft beer, the label has come to be understood as a canvas. It is an opportunity, on the outside of the bottle, to express (or at least market) the artisanal, contemplative, sometimes vanguard character of what's going on inside the bottle. When mass beer packaging is typically economical and utilitarian, craft brewers have played to their consumers by transforming the label into a place where identities are developed and stories get told. If their beer is art, why not look like art?

This past May, Four Winds Brewing Co. in Delta, B.C. was awarded Best Label Design at the Great Okanagan Beer Festival. Unlike many craft brewers, it employs an in-house graphic designer. For a brewery that blends Old World and New World styles, as designer Justin Longoz puts it, the labels are bold, colourful and heavily patterned. The farmhouse ale Norwegian Wood, for example, wears a jewel-tone, geometric weave. The colours — cyan, pink and amber — represent the "funk" imparted by its distinctive yeast strain. Fortunello, an ale brewed with kumquat and bay laurel, is wrapped in a wallpaper graphic ornamented with those ingredients. "Craft beer is an art form unto itself," Longoz says. "It only seems appropriate to put something artful in an artful vessel."

He goes further: "From an advertising stand-point, you want to stand out in the crowd. I think that if you're designing packaging that is inviting people to pick it up to investigate, then you're doing a good job." Though the craft industry has exploded in the last decade, winning valuable market share away from Big Beer, indie brewers (and, every year, more indie brewers than ever before) are competing with each other to carve up a relatively small piece of the pie. In that regard, Longoz is right: differentiation isn't just art — it's also business.

Four Winds' Fortunello. (Four Winds)

When Toronto's Bellwoods Brewery began bottling in 2012, they used a generic front label with a small tag applied to the backside listing the beer's name and specs. As they produced more styles, and brewed subsequent batches of successful brands, their stock shelves "started to look, well, generic," says cofounder Luke Pestl. "Even internally, it was hard to identify the bottles. You need some identifier, and it's a good opportunity to put a little more creative energy into it."

Designed by local studio Doublenaut and inspired by vintage woodblock concert posters made by the likes of Nasheville's famous Hatch Show Print, the bestiary of their ultra graphic labels — the occult tattoo flash of Wizard Wolf, for example, or the twee and surreal Witchshark, illustrated by Kate Wakely-Mulroney — have become the brewery's mascots, appearing on apparel, glassware as well as their own posters framed and hung on the walls of beer fans around the globe. These give a face to the individual personas that populate their growing lineup of beers. (Brasserie Dunham in Dunham, Quebec, similarly says their labels — wildly diverse, engaging many different artists, but leaning often toward the psychedelic, expressionistic and folky — lend a personality to each beer).

Bellwoods' Pestl says it's also basically the brewery's only advertisement. A smart label gets trafficked on social media, as drinkers, like all users, catalogue and share where they've been and what they've enjoyed. People will approach him at a festival in Europe, say, and commend the Bellwoods packaging because they saw it on Instagram.

Bellwoods Brewery's Jutsu, Witchshark, Cat Lady and Wizard Wolf. (Bellwoods Brewery)

The founders of Burdock, another Toronto-based brewery, are interested in the visual stories their bottles can tell — almost as a means of scene-setting. "We try to make things that are balanced and elegant and pretty and lovely, and that's reflected in the art we put on our labels," explains brewery director Matt Park. They're inspired regularly by fine art — Henri Rousseau and Henri Matisse are cues Park mentions. Working with a handful of creators, they'll sit down with the artist, sample the batch and tell them a story about the feeling they hope to convey. "Your plane crashes in the Brazilian jungle and where you land, there's an espresso bar," for instance, or "You're on the beach with your family, someone is playing bongos in the distance, and the sky is all magenta and tangerine."

Craft beer is an art form unto itself. It only seems appropriate to put something artful in an artful vessel.- Justin Longoz, in-house designer for Four Winds Brewing Co.

Vermont Blond, a staple in their lineup, bears a pastel seascape, but the window through which it's viewed appears to peel away from the bottle. Illustrator Adrian Forrow, who's made many of the Burdock labels (Park, it should be noted, has done a number himself) says when he tasted the blond ale, it took him "to a place I didn't think a beer could." "It was I went to another dimension." And so that's the tale he's spun into its design. Park recognizes the label for its opportunity: "We have the privilege of putting thousands of these little canvases out into the world."

Burdock's Brett Peach. (Burdock)

Putting art into the world is, in fact, a company mission for Hamilton's Collective Arts. Every three months, the brewery extends a global call for art, assembles a jury of seven to nine creatives, and select new labels for each of its products from the submissions. Winners receive a stipend of $200 USD, recognition on the can and an artist profile on the company's website. Cofounder Bob Russell says when they made their first call five years ago, they were floored to receive 500 submissions. To date, they've received 19,000-plus submissions from more than 40 countries. "We're all about helping artists and musicians gain the exposure that is so difficult for them," Russell says, "We're creating a channel for them to be viewed."

If you visit their Burlington Street retail shop, the taproom there is wallpapered in past bottles and cans. So far they've published around 700 unique labels. Beer art may well hang in galleries, but they have already built their own.

About the Author

Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton