Monday, December 27, 2010

Judging a Beer by its Label

Appreciating the nectar of the gods from the outside of the bottle

Hi all! I’m Jen, Shaun’s wife (aka the beer widow). My appreciation for beer starts with the design of the label and packaging. But of course, that’s my day job too.

I attended a graphic design conference a couple of weeks ago sponsored by AIGA Seattle. One of the seminars had my name on it: “Judging a Beer by its Label.” Well, my name wasn’t on it, but I really had to go to this one.
Elmer de la Cruz and Jay Hilburn, graphic designers at Hornall Anderson Design Works in Seattle, walked us through the history of Widmer Brothers’ label and package design and gave us some tasting tips and *samples*.

Widmer introduced bottles into the marketplace:

Pros: Standard beer package, features the Hefeweizen flavor.
Cons: Bit of a snoozer. Do I ask for a Widmer or a Hefeweizen?

Hornall Anderson was hired to create a new brand for their new flavors: HopJack (pale ale), Widberry (black raspberry), Sweet Betty (blonde ale), Springfest (alt bier), Sommerbrau (kolsch), Oktoberfest (amber), and Winternacht (toasted ale). This was the first time the US had seen seasonal beers! It was important for the packaging to evoke a feeling of place/time and to explain these new flavors. The Widmer name remained prominent on these packages to leverage the brand.

Pros: You can tell it’s Widmer, and what the flavor is right away.
Cons: (if you’re a dude) It’s kind of cutesy.

New Belgium Fat Tire was at the top of craft brew popularity. Wi
dmer saw an opportunity to snag some market share. Thus, the birth of Drop Top.

This package had a completely different look from the existing line, which was part of the new strategy: give each beer its own personality and let the Widmer name take a back seat.

Pros: Kick ass design! Totally jumps off the shelf and just looks cool.
Cons: Uh, who makes these? It’s the same brewery? Really?

Here’s where I am a big proponent of the power of design. Believe it or not, the Oktoberfest beer formula stayed exactly the same. The only change was the packaging design. And it flew off the shelves. Sales shot up 50-60% (don’t quote me on that…but it’s close).

The other interesting bit of strategy was to introduce a
brewmaster’s release called “W.” This replaced the spring and summer beers, and gave the brewers a chance to experiment. If the formula was successful, it was integrated into the line under a new name the following year. For example, Broken Halo was born out of W’05.

While the new designs were wildly successful in appealing to cu
stomers, the Widmer brand was completely lost. There was confusion about WHO actually made these beers and it wasn’t clear that they were related! So in 2007, they took a little step back to incorporate the successful nature of the existing designs, but reintroduce the Widmer name and get people asking for it.

Pros: Ah, okay. These are Widmer Brothers beers. Did they buy the Oktoberfest brewery?
Cons: A little bit of the personality is lost. And I don’t know if I’m into Widmer beers (even though I’ve been drinking them all along).

2007 also saw the introduction of Drifter Pale Ale. I liked the story of the design, so I thought I’d share briefly. They went a couple of directions with the design: should it be a wande
rer? Should it be a cowboy? Maybe someone driving Route 66 with nowhere to go? After much debate, they decided to focus on the history of the brew. Because IPAs were created for shipping from England to India, they wanted to incorporate a maritime concept. The design is made to look like an old wooden boat, carrying delicious pale ale directly to your fridge. :)


Final version:
Finally, The Tasting:
We sampled the Broken Halo, Hefeweizen, and Drifter.

Pros: Crisp, citrus taste. Nice for a summer afternoon.
Cons: Slightly chemical flavor. Not as clean and refined as some other hefs out there.

Broken Halo:
Pro: Umm…
Cons: I miss the floral hops from other Northwest beers. This bad boy is straight up bitter. Like girlfriend-cheated-on-him bitter. If you’re into that sort of thing, I won't judge.

Pros: Refreshing and surprisingly balanced, like that good friend you love to hang out with. Hint of citrus and just a hint of bitter, but bordering an amber.
Cons: None really. I could see drinking several of these at a BBQ, taking a break from some of the heavier high-ABV stuff we usually have on hand.

Next time you grab a frosty brew (but not too frosty!), just remember that just as much thought went into the outside of the bottle as the inside of the bottle! Cheers!


Jen is a graphic designer and proprietor of Seattle-based Committed LLC.

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