Sip and see: The art of craft beer labels

El Greco, the great painter and architect of the Spanish Renaissance, was gazing at the night sky when he declared, "Art is everywhere you look for it." And, indeed, it is right there in the tranquil curve of your morning egg, as well as on the craft beer bottle you're sipping upon at the end of day.

We've gone from the blue ribbon of Pabst and the stark red and white of a can of Bud to beguiling designs that tell a story about the brewers, their vision and the beer itself.

Whether psychedelic, playful or elegant, label design is a "come hither" invitation to give it a go while communicating brand identity. A beer label has to be visually appealing, but how do you translate taste and character into a design?

"We rely heavily on our process to understand the brand of the brewery, and the flavor profiles of the beer, and turn that into designs that stand out on the shelf and communicate those ideals to consumers," said Matt Tanaka, founder and creative director of Chicago-based Stout Collective, a marketing and design studio specifically for the beer industry (

Tanaka, who established the business about three years ago, said the goal with every design is to communicate the ideals and personality of a brewery and its beer in a way that's clear to craft beer fans.

Orlando, Florida's Sideward Brewing hired Stout Collective to translate the brewers' affinity for tattoo and bike culture, as well as edgy graphics, into a label. "They're also super fun, friendly people with a very conscious focus on customer service and creating an approachable environment, and we wanted to capture both of those elements of their brand," Tanaka said. "As a result, their labels have a look inspired by metal, tattoos and occult design, but with a playful twist.

The label for Punks in the Waiting Room beer by Sideward Brewing was created by Matt Tanaka, creative director of Chicago-based Stout Collective, which works with breweries to come up with interesting designs and logos. Courtesy of Stout Collective

"This one in particular (Punks in the Waiting Room lager) features a punk rock skeleton who is sitting in a doctor's office waiting room. We also invoked design elements and colors of heritage beers to reflect the beer itself - a crisp, clean, simple Pilsner."

Sometimes, it's just kismet

John Laffler, co-founder of Chicago's Off Color Brewing (, found Nikki Jerecki's paintings so appealing he became a collector of her artwork. Jerecki has a fine arts degree, an master's in arts education, worked in a number of galleries and has been teaching art to high school students in the Chicago Public School system for 10 years. When Laffler was in need of a new illustrator for the brewery, he realized he loved her style and they communicated with ease.

"We did the first couple labels (Troublesome and Scurry) and the (company) logo together. That was six years ago and I've created more than 70 labels for them since," Jerecki said.

Off Color Brewing's hell broth label features Mischief the mouse, the company's mascot. Courtesy of Off Color Brewing

Jarecki noted that the brewers at Off Color are artists, too, just working with beer and sake instead of ink and paint. Its website describes Jarecki's work as focusing "on a macabre sense of humanity and tenderness depicted through vicious animal themes juxtaposing the softness of embroidery," which lines up with brewery's avant-garde approach to the craft.

"Mischief" the mouse is on Off Color's logo (a group of mice is called "a mischief of mice") and its taproom is called "The Mousetrap."

The creative process can begin with a text to the artist with a simple direction or she's hanging out at the brewery (and having a beer, of course) and the team is bouncing ideas around. Everything is hand drawn, then the graphics designer layers and formats it on a computer for various applications like T-shirts, stickers and beer labels. Take a look at Off Color's carriers on the shelf and they become an outdoor landscape and the label design on the bottles continues that theme in a storybook fashion. So, beer drinkers from LA to Portland to Denver to Chicago and its suburbs know what Mischief is getting into.

In addition to creating current designs of waterfalls and lazy cats, Jarecki is working on a mural at The Beer Temple, a Chicago craft beer shop and taproom with a roster of hard-to-find brews and daily free tastings.

Matt LeFleur of Evanston is shown at a White Sox game in Guaranteed Rate Field holding a can of a Hop Butcher beer adorned with his artwork. Courtesy of LeFleur Brewing Co.


Evanstonian Matt LeFleur noticed a bevy of home brewers on Twitter and Instagram who were developing strategies for opening their own companies. With his fine arts degree in illustration from Syracuse University in hand, he figured they might need label art, logos, T-shirts and merch of some kind eventually.

"I started to ramp up my social media presence, and a handful of folks sought me out when the time came," the father of two girls said. "The right hashtags and Twitter conversations can open doors."

When LeFleur started making beer at home, he had an "a ha" moment: the right story and designs with his own well-crafted beers might make a great calling card. Today you can see his art adorning brews from Hop Butcher For The World (Darien), Transient Artisan Ales (Bridgman, Michigan), Middle Brow in Chicago and Evanston's Sketchbook Brewing - and his own LaFleur beer.

This William Wallace Wrestle Fest scotch ale label Arcade brewery in Chicago was created by artist Matt LeFleur. Courtesy of Matt LeFleur

"The process can be a concept from the brewery, then they let me run with it," he explained. "It might also be very specific, and I just add my embellishments to their ideas. The beverage is always named already, which usually provides enough of a catalyst. The illustration then has a story to tell beyond just making the name into art."

LeFleur believes in meeting brewers at their place to have a chat, sip some suds and show his work (

"The community is such a great big hug," LeFleur said, "and it's easy to work with folks from different places."

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