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Case study

Queer beer labels

After a massively successful first year in business, DC's first 100% gay and veteran-owned brewery,Red Bear Brewing Company, was ready to start canning their products. They contacted me asking if I was interested in helping them create an artwork system that could be used across all their beers, starting with two of their most popular: the 51st State IPA, and the Tall Dark & Nutty stout.

Project Overview

There were few requirements on Red Bear's end around what they wanted the label artwork to look like. They asked was for the artwork to have really big personality, and to stand out amongst their local competition in DC. Although the process for this project was just a few simple steps (sketch concepts, get required content, then refine and finalize the artwork), I can't say we didn't hit a few bumps in the road. I had my laptop stolen during a trip to Costa Rica which caused us to lose some time until I could get a new machine after I was stateside again; then stay-at-home orders for COVID-19 were enacted just as we were finalizing the artwork for the first beer labels, which caused everyone's priorities to shuffle. But, because I kept organized, the Red Bear team and I were able to roll with the punches as they came! Despite having to make some last minute changes, customers were delighted to be able to get some handsome Red Bear brews while under quarantine.

My roles and contributions

  • Illustrator and label designer
  • Primary contact for the manufacturer printing the shrink wrap labels for any questions and concerns regarding the artwork

Scoping out the local competiton

Like many other cities in the United States, DC's beer scene has blossomed with independent craft brewers rising in popularity. Despite being new, Red Bear has an advantage over many competitors because they're located just a couple hundred yards from the NoMa metro stop on the red line. With that in mind, I looked at competitors who are also considered downtown(ish) breweries that were easy enough to get to without a car, as well as some popular household names amongst District residents that can easily be found in grocery stores, or that are commonly listed under "local brews" on drink menus throughout the city.

Atlas Brew Works

Four different beers from Atlas Brew Works

image credit: town center market
Despite being based out in Ivy City, Atlas Brew Works beers are easy to find on both restaurant menus and as cans in grocery stores around town.

Right Proper Brewing Company

Six pack of Right Proper Brewing Co's "Raised By Wolves" IPA beer

image credit: General Design Co
Not unlike Red Bear, Right Proper is easily accessed by metro, just off the Shaw/Howard U metro stop. They've got a killer restaurant menu and also sell cheeses and meats from local farms. Their popular "Raised By Wolves" IPA can design was done by none other than the talented folks General Design Company.

Silver Branch Brewing Company

A mockup of the beer label for Silver Branch Brewing Co's "Sacred table" Belgian ale

image credit: Silver Branch Brewing Co
Silver Branch opened just a year ahead of Red Bear with a can design that follows in the footsteps of DC Brau, Atlas, and Hellbender (heavy reliance on color). They're based up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and while that's far from downtown, they're easy to access via the Silver metro line (hence the name).

DC Brau

Close up of DC Brau's "Corruption ale" beer

image credit: a glass after work
The first DC brewery to package their product, DC Brau's main brews come in iconic looking cans that feature the capitol dome. Their "corruption ale" can be found all over town, and their annual "Pride Pilsner" is a beloved summer drink.

Hellbender Brewing Company

A can of Hellbender Brewing Co's "Bare Bones" Kolsch ale

image credit: Hellbender Brewing Co
Hanging in West Hyattsville, Hellbender's cans use color in the same way that DC Brau and Silver Branch's main product lines do. And like Red Bear, their namesake is displayed in their logo (a hellbender salamander).

3 Stars Brewing Company

3 Stars Brewing Company's "Peppercorn Saison" beer

image credit: 3 Stars Brewing Company
Much like DC Brau, 3 Star is a well known brewery in the District and their can distribution game is strong in the city.

Port City Brewing Company

Four different beer bottles from Port City Brewing Co.

image credit: Crystal City Wine Shop
The only Virginia brewery I looked at, and also the only brewery on this list that is packaging their beer in bottles instead of cans. Like Hellbender, 3 Star, at Atlas, Port City may be physically far away, but their beers are easy find at the grocery store and familiar brand in DC.

Takeaways after reviewing Red Bear's competitors

  • The only other brewery with an animal reference (either by name or visual appearance in the branding) is Hellbender. Their salamander is almost icon-like: totally flat, easily scalable, and uses negative space to create shape and definition. What this meant for Red Bear and their mascot Ursula is that we had an opportunity to play her up as a focal point in the label artwork with lots of detail.
  • DC Brau, Atlas, Hellbender, and Silver Branch all rely heavily on color to distinguish each of their beers from each other. Besides that, the design stays the same can to can. It'd be important for Red Bear's cans to be unique enough that color wasn't the primary way to tell one beer from the rest.
  • Port City, Silver Branch, and 3 Star are use badge designs that sometimes compete for visual dominance with the titles of their beers. Red Bear's logo is also very badge-like, so I wanted to explore different ways to brand their labels without using their primary badge logo.

Establishing the system

Knowing where the competition stood and having identified some areas where Red Bear had opportunity to stand out, I began sketching. Even though we were starting with Red Bear's 51st State IPA and Tall Dark & Nutty sout, this was where I had to think about laying the groundwork for the visual style that all future labels would follow. I offered three different directions for Red Bear to choose from:

Silhouettes, which would have a very bold and simple typographic treatment for the beer titles with abstract textures and imagery housed in the profile of a bear head. Those textures and images would be based on the flavors and theme of the beer. I pitched this concept as the "middle of the road" option regarding how complex it would be for me to design, and how unique it would be for Red Bear. This rating was relative to the other directions: Habitats and Collage.

Habitats, where Red Bear's mascot, Ursula, would be placed in a scene based on the theme or flavor profiles of the beer. I explained that this would be the most complex design to create, but it would be highly unique artwork compared to other local beers.

Collage, which would feature Red Bear's logo and a series of small and simple images, stacked like Tetris blocks in the background. What's pictured in the collage would be dependent on the flavors and theme of the beer. The name of the beer would be positioned vertically (like on the spine of a book) with a solid color background colored to match the primary artwork. This concept was pitched as the "safe" choice that would be easiest to execute but still have the ability to stand out from amongst other cans.

Silhouettes

A sketch of the "silhouette" concept for the fifty-first state beerA sketch of the "silhouette" concept for the tall dark and nutty beer

Habitats

A sketch of the "habitats" concept for the fifty-first state beerA sketch of the "habitats" concept for the tall dark and nutty beer

Collage

A sketch of the "collage" concept for the fifty-first state beerA sketch of the "collage" concept for the tall dark and nutty beer

Despite the bears' wonky looking faces, they chose the "Habitats" concept! I was really excited about this because it would be the most challenging of the three to design, but also the most fun.

An element that we decided the "Habitats" concept should borrow from the "Collage" direction was the stripe of color. The team envisioned being to be able to compose various pride flags by lining up different combinations of their canned beers. They suggested having the stripe run horizontally around the top rim of the can, but I proposed that we keep the vertical position so it could take up a full "side" of the can with their name inside the stripe. This way they could stack cans vertically and build any pride flag at various scales. This color stripe became known as the "pride stripe."

As for what colors 51st State and Tall Dark & Nutty would be, we agreed that red made the most sense for 51st's pride stripe because the artwork was drawing on the fact that DC's state flag is red and white, and Red Bear is located on the red metro line. For Tall Dark & Nutty, with its intense peanut butter chocolate flavor, brown seemed to be the best option. After looking at all of the widely used pride flags, I determined that Red Baer would need to can a minimum of 12 different beers in order to have enough pride stripes to make as many pride flags as possible.

Rough sketches and prototyping

I told the Red Bear team I intended to draft with pen and paper for as long as I could considering how complex this direction was. The more refinement I could do with analog tools would save me hours in digital illustration.

higher fidelity sketch of the fifty-first state beer label

51st State IPA label artwork paper draft

higher fidelity sketch of the tall dark and nutty beer label

Tall Dark & Nutty Stout label artwork paper draft

The Red Bear team decided they'd be canning in 16 ounce cans with shrink-wrap sleeves that ran nearly the full height of the can. I used the dimensions of the digital template from the label manufacturer so I could properly lay out the artwork within the "panels" of the can and understand how much room I had to work with. I ran down the block to the nearest 7-Eleven to get some 16oz sodas so I could see how exactly the label would wrap. This prototype was really valuable for both me and the guys at Red Bear to get a sense of how the artwork looked in a 3D space.

high fidelity sketches wrapped around 16oz soda cans
high fidelity sketches wrapped around 16oz soda cans

Refining the final artwork:
51st State IPA

Once everyone agreed that the layout felt right, I moved into Illustrator. I started with 51st State knowing it would be the more difficult of the two cans to design (this was because it had more overlapping figures in its illustration).

If you compare the final artwork to the paper sketch, you'll notice some significant adjustments were made: the DC metro map shifted to wrap behind the main artwork and only includes the red line; the DC flag was moved and re-styled; and the ABV and beer-style text has been paired with the title rather than being part of the illustration.

photo of a six-pack of twelve-ounce beers with the modified fifty-first state label

Refining the final artwork:
Tall Dark & Nutty

Tall Dark & Nutty was much more straightforward and had next to no major changes from the sketch. The biggest thing that needed adjusting with this one was the brown hues—when I initially showed this draft, I was using super dark, rich browns, but then realized those had to brighten up because the artwork would print darker than what is seen on a screen.

A photo of patrons enjoying drinks and conversations at the bar in Red Bear

COVID-19

Just as we were about to wrap everything up and send the artwork off for printing, DC was starting to shut things down and advise folks to self-quarantine for the coronavirus. Bars and restaurants were allowed to stay open, but only if they offered pick-up and delivery orders. Red Bear had to be nimble and make some adjustments to their day-to-day; part of that meant switching from printing full height shrink-wrapped labels for 16oz cans to a standard 12oz labels because they were able to get them three times faster. They asked if I could reformat 51st State label, "of course," I said, "I'm ready to roll with the punches right alongside you guys!"

The 12oz cans printed in a matter of days, and Red Bear was ready to send out 6 packs for delivery and pick-up to all the thirsty folks in quarantine.

The 12oz cans printed in a matter of days, and Red Bear was ready to send out 6 packs for delivery and pick-up to all the thirsty folks in quarantine.

Another round!

And they were a hit! The cans issued a fantastic response from patrons, and Red Bear was ready to move on with not only more beer labels, but seltzers as well! I'll continue to update this case study as new beers roll out.

51st State | India Pale Ale

Tall Dark & Nutty | Peanut Butter Milk Stout

The Manhattan Project | Cherry Almond Sour

24 Karat | Carrot Ginger Farmhouse Ale Saison

DC Dirt | American Porter

Mystic Storm | Both Coast IPA

Skookum | Pacific Northwest Red Ale

Personal Takeaways

  • This has been my first big solo project as a freelancer. I feel grateful to have met the Red Bear team when I was working at Brunch Digital and had the support of my then colleagues. This label series has been a great opportunity to see if I can handle the responsibility of project managing, art-directing, handling clients, and designing the deliverables all on my own. I'm proud of myself for how I've run this project, and of the artwork I produced.
  • It feels really fucking good to produce fun artwork for a local gay-owned brewery. I remember in college the idea of designing anything that'd end up on a can or bottle of booze was "the dream", and here I am! Living the queer, local, craft-brew dream.