Skip to main content

Craft beer labels tell a story

Craft beer labels have become something of an art form, combining form and function. Beer labels have come a long way from just mixing fonts and color stripes. Craft beer labels have to not only give potential buyers an idea of what's inside the bottle or can, but they also have to stand out from the ever-increasing number of craft beers on the shelves.

Several craft breweries in and around York, Pennsylvania have gorgeous labels. Many of their flagship beer labels tell a story. Here, we peel back the label to find out what inspired several craft beer labels, and which artists are responsible for their designs.

Crystal Ball Brewing Co.

Crystal Ball Brewing Co., in York, is the result of a three-way partnership between Jesse De Salvo, Ryan Johnstonbaugh and Ashley Garvick, three Spring Grove High School graduates. Crystal Ball's beer labels are as much of a collaboration as their beers. "We developed the Crystal Ball logo as a company," De Salvo says.

De Salvo and his partners work with artist Josh Eacret, of Brew Brand Creative in Colorado. Eacret is so in tune with what they want on their labels that, De Salvo says, "I've told him before, 'Get out of my brain.'"

When a new beer is ready to be distributed, the three partners list out what they want the label to convey. After they send their ideas to Eacret, the artwork that comes back is usually "spot on," according to De Salvo.

Each of Crystal Ball's beers depicts their signature mustachioed man in a different costume and setting. De Salvo's two favorite Crystal Ball beer labels are Jamaica-Style Wheat, because of its nod to a particular kind of lifestyle, and Black Magic, for its color scheme and funky flair. De Salvo says the four men don't ever agree on a design 100%, but, "We wouldn't put out imagery like that if it wasn't 95% approval."

Raven Beer

Stephen Demczuk, the co-founder of Baltimore's Raven Beer, is a born storyteller. Speaking to him about the caricature image of Edgar Allan Poe that's featured on all of Raven Beer's labels was no exception.

When Demczuk and his partner, the late Wolfgang Stark, were brainstorming names for their brewery, Stark wanted a name that had an American connotation. The first thing that popped into Demczuk's mind was a raven, in honor of Baltimore's world-famous author, Edgar Allan Poe. Stark was delighted. Demczuk says, "He liked that because, he said, 'Everybody knows Edgar Allan Poe.'"

Raven Beer went through a few different designs over the years. In 2012, when Raven Beer moved to its current home at the Peabody Heights facility, Demczuk decided it was time for a whole new look.

Demczuk says he wanted Raven Beer labels to be "a little cartoonish, a little fun, a little mysterious."  He called on his friend, cartoonist Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher to create a new logo. Kal, the editorial cartoonist for 'The Economist' and 'The Baltimore Sun,' initially turned down the job. But when Demczuk told him that another cartoonist, Ralph Steadman, had designed the logo and labels for Flying Dog Brewery, Kal agreed. The result is a caricature of Edgar Allan Poe, featuring a giant forehead.

Demczuk's two favorite labels are Annabel Lee White and Tell Tale Heart IPA. The Annabel Lee White label depicts Poe surrounded by angels and his dear Annabel Lee at the sea. Tell Tale Heart IPA shows a hammer, loose floor boards and an ever-watchful eye.

Why IPAs are called IPAs
The India pale ale has become an American beer art form, but there's a lot of global history behind that name. Video provided by Newsy

Ship Bottom Brewery

Ship Bottom Brewery started out like most craft breweries, as a home brew hobby in Ship Bottom, New Jersey. When it was time to design labels for their beer, Ship Bottom's president, Robert Zarko, turned to the Goodwin Design Group.

Ship Bottom's labels are distinct for their bold color combinations and easy-to-spot imagery. In an email, artist Brian Barto says, "All of Rob’s beers are based on beach life... The illustrations each tell a little story."

Barto continues, "For Baconator Stout (which is brewed with real bacon), we wanted to do something very bold and aggressive. We all pictured Kenny Powers (from HBO's 'Eastbound and Down') riding his wave runner with his no-care attitude, so the tough, biker hog with a fine lady on back came to mind.

"One of the tougher ones was Rob’s Pumpkin Ale – how does pumpkin live in the beach world? We decided to make a ghoulish pumpkin-helmeted diver, suited up in vintage gear lurking around a shipwreck."

Ship Bottom's beer labels are meant to convey more than just what's inside. "We really just want to give people something that they can hold in their hand and say, 'I want to be there' or 'I want to try that'," Barto says, "while retaining that beach vibe and having fun doing it."

Fegley's Brew Works

Fegley's Brew Works, based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, brews award-winning beers, including Arctic Alchemy, which won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Fegley's labels are just as distinctive as their beers.

Artist Alexander Clare says he isn't inspired by anything specific. In an email, he explains, "I've always felt that inspiration comes from simply creating. Like, I will just start drawing and playing with ideas, and the concept will evolve from there, and ideas spawn better ideas."

Sometimes the brewery gives Clare direction. For instance, for Fegley's Insidious Imperial Stout, the company knew they wanted a snake on the label. And for Venomous Imperial Honey Ale, Clare was asked to include bees in the design.

Other times, the requirements of a beer label's design is "a bit more open-ended." Clare says, "With the Amber Lager, I was influenced by the propaganda illustrations coming out of Russia during the cold war." Because he wanted a nod to tradition, Clare says, "I wanted the steel workers to play a major part [in the label], because of the local history with Bethlehem Steel."

Clare got even more creative when it came to designing a label for Steel Garden Wit. "I had the idea for the painting parodying Grant Wood's American Gothic with robots, and thought it might also double as a label." He wasn't sure if Fegley's would approve, but as it turns out, "They ended up liking the painting and so it became the label.

Swashbuckler Brewing Co.

Swashbuckler Brewing Co. is a small brewery whose main purpose is to supply beer for the events at Mount Hope Estate, like Mount Brewfest and the upcoming Celtic Fling and Highland Games. That doesn't stop the company from having stylized labels that are pirate-themed.

According to Candace Smith , the director of sales and communications for the Mount Hope Estate, the brewery did their research. In an email, she says Woodling Double Dark IPA features a wide-open eye because "'[W]oodling' was a commonly used method of torture by pirates involving tightening a leather cord around the prisoner's head until his eyes popped out."

Another label has roots in family history. Dunphy’s Irish Lager "was developed in honor of our master brewer’s very Irish grandfather and the label reflects a crest in his honor," Smith says.

Visit each brewery's website for more about their beers and their craft beer labels.