Who knew that beer labels were such a hot topic of conversation? Last week’s Labelmania post drove our traffic through the roof. Some great comments were flowing throughout the blogosphere with a fair amount of disagreement about our selections as well as many great suggestions on breweries we missed.
So how do we follow up a post about the best packaging in the beer world? How ’bout an in-depth look at the worst labels out there?
As with our earlier post, this isn’t about individual beer labels or any one major graphic/font/design issue. This is about overall presentation and how certain breweries simply don’t showcase their wares in the most flattering manner. While many breweries on my “Best” list were actually pretty terrible (hello, Redhook!), the opposite is true in this post. Some of my favorite breweries in the world will be found below. Bad packaging has utterly no effect on the quality of a product and I’m sure most brewers would argue that they spend far too much time worrying about what’s inside the bottle to bother caring about what’s on the outside.
That’s all well and good, but if we drink with our eyes first then we certainly BUY with our eyes first too. I humbly suggest that it would behoove some of the following ale factories to put just a touch more effort into dressing up their offerings. Prettier bottles aren’t going to affect the purchasing habits of devout fans, but they COULD attract some new blood. And really, isn’t that the whole point of marketing?
As with the “Best” post, I’ve broken down my “Worst” Top 20 list into four categories: Maddeningly Inconsistent, Deadly Dull, Amateur Hour, and the Worst of the Worst. Let me quickly say that I know this list is going to be MUCH more controversial than the earlier one. Aleheads fall in love with their favorite breweries regardless of the packaging and it’s easy to convince yourself that those ugly bottles you drink every day are actually quite beautiful. They’re not. I’m sorry. Take off your blinders. The beer inside might be gorgeous, but these breweries need to give their beers a serious facelift…
20. Shipyard: Might as well start with a brewery that can’t even seem to decide on its own name. Much like when Smashing Pumpkins kept vacillating by occasionally adding the definite article “The” before their name, Shipyard is sometimes just “Shipyard” and sometimes “The Shipyard”. “The Shipyard’s” Light Ale is easily their ugliest bottle, but their other offerings (Shipyard Summer Ale, The Shipyard Longfellow Winter Ale, and the wholly inconsistent Ringwood Old Thumper which Shipyard claims as their offering but presents as if it’s a contract-brewed beer) aren’t much better. They’re last on my list because their Signature Series brews (including, coincidentally, the Smashed Pumpkin) are actually quite attractive.
19. Big Sky Brewing: Since they started canning their beers, their packaging has actually improved tremendously. They’re on this list for one reason…pick a goddamn logo and stick with it!!!!
18. Middle Ages: This medieval themed brewery in Syracuse seems to have taken the shotgun approach to label design. They’ve got a plethora of different fonts for their logo and beer names. They’ve got a smorgasbord of aesthetic styles for their graphics. Some labels appear to have been designed by actual graphic designers (the Druid Fluid, the Tripel Crown) while others look like they were cranked out on a Commodore 64 by a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast. About the only measure of consistency in Middle Ages labels is that they used the same busty lass on their Wailing Wench and Double Wench labels (with the Double Wench being, naturally, even more top-heavy).
17. Dogfish Head: I always thought of Dogfish Head as a fairly marketing-savvy outfit until I saw Brew Masters and realized that the man helming the company seems to be a 5-year-old running around throwing darts at a board. A quick glance through DFH’s line-up reveals the same sort of ADD-inspired decision-making. The Raison D’Etre looks nothing like the Raison D’Extra. The 60, 90, and 120-Minute IPAs barely resemble each other, the Midas Touch doesn’t look like it was made by the same brewery…and don’t even get me started on their large format bottles. Dogfish Head uses some cool, funky fonts and has some great label art, but you could look at an entire row of their beers at a package store and have no idea they came from the same place.
Editor’s Note: Here’s a look at a new DFH bottle design which would immediately eliminate them from this list. Until I see it in stores, however, they’re staying right here.
16. Bell’s: What do the Hopslam, Two Hearted Ale, Oberon, Double Cream Stout, Java Stout, and the Oracle labels have in common? Absolutely nothing.
15. Ballast Point: Nothing sells beer better than the same exact label with a different picture of a fish on it. If I hadn’t heard from others that the Sculpin was a best-in-class IPA (and it most certainly is), I would have walked by it countless times. Even the fish look bored on the Ballast Point labels.
14. Green Flash: Uninspired names: Trippel! Porter! Barleywine! Imperial India Pale Ale! Wow! The exact same graphic package on everything except for color variations. A dull logo. Weak fonts. Add it all up, and you’ll be in a coma every time you walk by the Green Flash shelf in the package store.
13. Bar Harbor: A nice little brewery in one of the great towns in America, Bar Harbor’s labels marry the plainest text you’ve ever seen with a background image from one of Jack Handy’s Deep Thoughts segments.
12. Duck-Rabbit: I thoroughly enjoy this Farmville, NC brewery’s offerings, but dear lord do they need to change their entire packaging. A brutal logo, the blandest labels I’ve ever seen, and thoroughly dull beer names do nothing to sell the great stuff in the bottles. Few breweries need to hire a Marketing Director as badly as Duck-Rabbit.
11. Hoppin’ Frog: I’ll give Hoppin’ Frog this…they’re certainly consistent. Same cartoon frog carrying the same mug of beer in front of the same asymmetrical yellow rhombus. There’s no mistaking a Hoppin’ Frog beer, but every time I buy one of their brews I have the same thought: “This is the stupidest looking bottle I’ve ever seen.”
10. Rogue: I predict I’ll take some heat for this one since Rogue’s cheeky labels are beloved by many. But I’ve never found them to be anything but goofily amateurish. Most of Rogue’s labels show a cartoon of a man with his left arm raised in the air and his right arm firmly holding a mug of beer. There’s nothing wrong with their labels per se, but they just seem woefully out-of-date. Back when Rogue was first making a name for itself, the bottles seemed almost “indie”…the silly images, funny names, and “brew-it-yourself” attitude clearly set them apart. But in today’s craft beer world, with over 1,700 American breweries (and many more on the way), Rogue just seems a step or two behind. They need a fresh look and feel for their tired bottles…or at least a better artist to sketch the label art. It’s just not very good.
9. New Glarus: New Glarus makes some legendary beers, but you’d never know it from their bottles. More than any other brewery, New Glarus’s labels look like something you could whip up at home with some public clipart, a couple free fonts, and Microsoft Publisher. How much time do you think went into designing the Spotted Cow label? 8 seconds?
8. Shorts: I remember getting my first bottle of delicious Huma Lupa Licious IPA and being struck by how ugly the bottle was. There’s nothing particularly egregious about the look of the bottle…it’s just…the art-work is so clearly second-rate. Look, I’m all for getting your friends involved in your business…especially when it’s a brewery. But if your friends have no artistic talent, DON’T let them design your labels! They can work the bottling line or make deliveries for you instead! Whatever you do, don’t ask them to paint a fucking magician for you! Aaaaah! It’s horrible! Look away!
7. Lagunitas: Their ugly dog logo needs to be sent away to a farm, but the most egregious thing about Lagunitas labels is their font choices. The Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale alone seems to have 17 fonts on the label. Most of their bottles look like they were designed by a middle-aged Mom “having fun” with Microsoft Word as she makes a Garage Sale flyer.
6. Bear Republic: Word of advice, Bear Republic. You might want to pay your label designer a little more money so he/she can afford something other than crayons.
WORST OF THE WORST
5. Russian River: The number one rated beer in America and what font do they choose to use for its label? Motherfucking Comic Sans. Goddammit.
4. Dark Horse: Their logo alone would put them in the Top Five. What is it? A horse? A pine cone? A Swiffer duster? But the rest of their graphics aren’t much better. Dark Horse is one of those breweries that crosses the line from “whimsical” to just plain shoddy. Actually, I kind of enjoy buying their beers in SPITE of how ugly they are. They remind me a little of the “FLIM SPRINGFIELD” ad in the Radioactive Man movie episode of the Simpsons. “All right, this place must be hot! They don’t need a big ad, or even correct spelling.” Dark Horse MUST be good…they don’t need a decent logo OR well-designed artwork! Let’s buy a bottle!
3. Tommyknocker: Reader Resie Rae (let’s just call her Triple R) has noted that Tommyknocker is in the process of redesigning their legendarily ugly labels. Their labels are all characterized by some sort of dwarf/miner homunculus engaged in various acts of dwarvery/minery. Like many of the breweries on this list, Tommyknocker specializes in labels that are silly without being fun and far too “busy” without being interesting. I recognize that when I tell a company they need to self-edit it’s like a pot calling a pot a pot, but the difference is that I’m giving my words of wisdom away for free (Unless you’d like to pay for them. Would you? No? Just checking.).
2. McNeill’s: If you gave patients in the traumatic head injury ward a box of colored pencils (not too sharp, of course) and asked them to draw beer labels, they’d probably come up with something a little nicer than what McNeill’s slaps on their bottles. Seriously guys…your labels are searing my retinas.
1. Weyerbacher: Weyerbacher’s labels are a special kind of awful. In a way, they sort of embody everything bad in the world of craft beer labels. They’re wildly inconsistent. The graphics are poorly designed and executed. Their font choices are just inane (I’m fairly certain the Double Simcoe IPA uses some variation of Papyrus which is just…I mean…fuck). They all kind of look like they were drawn up in a basic Paint program on a VGA computer in the early 90s. They don’t even really seem to have a logo…just the underlined word “Weyerbacher” in perhaps the worst font choice I’ve ever seen. I remember reading about how Bill James described Pedro Martinez when he was at his peak. It wasn’t that he did any “one” thing better than anyone else…it was just that he was exceptionally good at so many different things that he was the best pitcher in baseball by a mile. That’s Weyerbacher…I can’t say they’re the “worst” offender in any particular aspect of beer marketing, but they’re just so bad at EVERYTHING, that it all adds up to the #1 spot on my rankings.
Before the Barley-Bashing commences, let me remind everyone that I enjoy beers from ALL of these breweries and some of them (Lagunitas, Russian River, Hoppin’ Frog) are amongst my all-time favorites. We can’t all be good at everything, and given the choice between a great brewery with shitty marketing or vice versa, I’ll take the former every day of the week and twice on Sundays. I just hope that some of these ale factories recognize that competition is getting fierce these days and if they want to stay on top, they should consider putting just a little bit o’ money in the ol’ marketing budget.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drink a bottle of Weyerbacher Double Simcoe with my eyes closed. Mmm…