Breweries are often small, overworked, and cash-strapped. Labels with fewer colors cost less but can look terrific. Durham, North Carolina’s Fullsteam Brewery works in a clean, hip, retro-with-a-twist lithograph style. Who’s that guy? He’s a “semi-fictitious steampunk plantation owner,” of course.
If there’s one industry that has earned its right to historical allusions, it’s this one. Beer is part of our founding history. Brewers like Ben Franklin and Sam Adams took time between draughts to make a nation. Massachusetts-based Ipswich evokes the state’s deep coastal heritage with elegant drawings of sailing ships on its line of ales.
Animals sell everything in America (airlines, trucks, investment advice), so why not beer? There are several genres, including sport fishing (beauties from Ballast Point Brewing Company). But no critters are more adorable than the turtles that play banjo, kayak, and chop hops on the labels of Athens, Georgia’s Terrapin Brewing Company.
There’s a reason the term “artisanal beer” never caught on: Beer remains a blue-collar drink of the people, crafted with industrial tools over big hot fires. Labels often celebrate the heroic worker in art that nods to WPA themes or even Eastern Bloc Solidarity posters.
Brewing is cool, but most brewers are giant nerds; one of the greatest honorifics in craft beer is “beer geek.” For label design they look to tattoo artists, sci-fi and fantasy illustrators, and comic artists—comic art having made its way all the way to the top of our culture by now.