I have been interviewed for a recent article in the Nikkei Asian Review. You can check it out here. I discuss the likely future for craft beer in Myanmar. Here’s to many more media appearances.
I love beer labels. I don’t consider them detritus. Australian craft beer works pretty hard at avoiding the distinct homogeneity of global craft beer with their usually colourful, crazy marketing pitches aimed at being “off-centre”. With the beer scene’s ongoing dramatic changes simply playing opposition to big beer doesn’t cut it anymore. All breweries need their own unique schtick; identifiable logos, strong and coherent branding across all their beers – not just their core range. Too often craft beer suffers from the “busy label” – too much text, too much saturation, too much detail. A muddle.
To non-brewers marketing is absolutely more important than a beer’s flavour. Non-brewers drink beer for flavour (and the effects of alcohol) but they choose which beer to drink in order to belong. Therefore the way a beer looks, how it is packaged and what its brand is stating is important. In many ways collecting beer labels makes more sense than collecting beers. As a perishable product the majority of beer styles sold in Australia do not age well. The labels will live forever.
So which Australian breweries do labels best? Often, the ones that are self-confident, consistent and anchored to a sense of place. Those breweries who do not tie themselves to a sense of place require more creativity to carve their niche but are also afforded more opportunity to create their own worlds. La Sirene is doing great things in this space at the moment.
I use examples from the state of Victoria here.
The Mornington Peninsula Brewery has a simple bottle label with few colours that translates well onto its cans. The label is the traditional oval shape and each beer is associated with a different core colour. It’s easy to identify each beer and there is little extraneous information. Although using capital letters this label doesn’t shout; it whispers.
The Bright Brewery recently revamped their branding, leaving the main logo and subalpine style in place but muting the colour palette of the labels and bringing their beer range more closer together visually. It’s a simple but effective look. It’s an outdoors brand; note the little silhouettes of bicyclists, skiers and cyclists. In this way the branding also promotes healthy lifestyles, which one can never argue with.
Red Hill does well with its arched, low-key design featuring hop cones and a style description. These bottles scream refinement and quality and fit into the wine scene around the brewery’s locale nicely. Red Hill are one of the few Australian breweries to put the word craft front and centre on their labels. When seated in the store next to beers with louder craft beer labeling Red Hill assures quality.
Hawthorn has a busier template for its labels. Sitting somewhere in-between Red Hill and Bright, their branding aims for refinement but meets craft-cheeky along the way. Using a neck label the bottles proclaim “all malt” to distinguish themselves from what one assumes are the big bad adjunct beers. As a tactic this assumes the drinker has some knowledge of beer and brewing, but not too much – nearly all breweries produce at least some beers with adjuncts. All malt does not necessarily a good beer make.
Mildura is nice with its main logo on the neck label and simple, ribboned oval below. No style description, little text or other distractions. Each beer in their core range has its own icon silhouette featured in centre. These are mostly animals associated with the beer in question, playing it safe – but there’s nothing wrong with that.
And speaking of simplicity, it doesn’t get much more straightforward than Bellarine Brewing’s excellent honey-hued oval logos. These are design school 101 and yet in the Australian craft beer space they are perfectly serviceable, identifiable and unique to the brewery. The company slogan is prominent, painting the sense of place, and a simple sketch of an old truck features on all their beers, evoking agricultural history.
Prickly Moses are guilty of mixing up their labels a bit too much for my liking but their core range is coherent and worth remarking upon. The echidna populates the core range which also features the brand logo over a slightly warped oval background. They mention “handcrafting” in the same fashion as Red Hill on some of their beers.
There are many other Australian breweries doing interesting things with their on-product marketing. Usually this focuses on the beer label, but occasionally bleeds out to affect bottle design. Moo Brew is a clear contender here – their bottle is their brand, their label, their everything. Crown seals, corks and bottle caps are very rarely differentiated between beers. Labels and six-pack holders are king.
There was an interesting piece of research recently published by Thomas Thurnell-Read, a Sociologist at Coventry University (and home brewer!), titled Craft, tangibility and affect at work in the microbrewery. It is behind a paywall of course, thanks to the incredibly archaic and exploitative academic publishing apparatus, but this is the summary (warning, academic speak, skip if allergic!):
“In offering particular intrinsic rewards, craftwork has been situated in recent debates as a possible antidote to some of the alienating features of work in modern capitalist societies. Accounts by brewers working in small-scale breweries foreground notions of skill and passion where both are intertwined to produce the brewer identity. Brewer identity is described as being embodied, felt and performed through the working on and with ingredients and equipment at the brewery. Being engaged in the material processes of the brewery and being able to see a tangible reflection of one’s labour in the finished beer highlights the ways in which brewers draw meaningful rewards from the affective and embodied facets of skilled craft work.”
Essentially, craft brewers are craftspeople rather than labourers because they “see a tangible reflection of one’s labour in the final product”. They receive rewards from their work that are internal as well as external: they get more out of brewing than a simple paycheque; they derive satisfaction from the process as well as the product.
The rise and rise in the numbers of people home brewing reflects this. Like countless others I spend to brew, rather than being paid to brew, but this doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the activity – indeed it heightens it. I have complete freedom in my relationships with the brewhouse, the ingredients and the process. My production is entirely my own. Like the craft brewers who derive immense satisfaction from going into a pub and seeing punters there enjoying the beers they brewed, so I feel gratified and proud when I serve my friends and families my beers at functions and in the home.
Like craft brewers, perhaps even more so, home brewers’ personalities are the product. Nobody makes beer exactly the way we each make it. When we brew a beer we put our souls into the mash tun, we evaporate off our worries in the boil and we refresh ourselves through fermentation. The magic of producing a subjectively experienced consumable product – like in cooking – is an energising force. Our homes are our castles and our beers reflect our homes.
Furthermore, for home brewers the physical nature of brewing is a toxin for the disembodied work environment many of us experience. I for one spend most days in an office with little variation in my routine. I stare at a screen and move pixels for forty hours a week, with maybe a few days on-site per month. The days of work aren’t monotonous because the world within the screen changes; my tasks change, I build things and gain satisfaction from building them within the virtual world – but it is disembodied in the sense that my labour is divorced from my physical body and the product is divorced from my labour – it exists under a brand, solely for the profit motive.
I could also perform my paid job with no legs, no arms, no nose, no mouth.
Not so hands-on brewing. Brewing at home uses assets I am lucky enough to have and unlucky enough not to work with. Brewing at home gives a fullness to life for the disembodied worker. It gives us a brewer identity.
It’s good to have a hobby.