Controversy and aesthetics behind beer labels

What’s in a name? Controversy. The names and images emblazoned on some beer labels have disturbed everyone from consumers to regulators.

The beer: Santa’s Little Helper, an imperial stout from Port Brewing, San Marcos

The problem: On the label, Santa Claus and Rudolph raise a toast. “The government says you can’t have anything that appeals to kids,” says the label’s designer, Sean Dominguez. “There are certain things they won’t allow.”

One of those certain things? Santa.

The solution: To meet objections from the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), St. Nick was eliminated. In his place is a Kris Kringle-shaped smudge. “Santa,” though, lives on in the beer’s name.

The beer: Yellowtail Pale Ale, a Kölsch from Ballast Point, San Diego.

The problem: Ballast Point received a “cease-and-desist” letter from Yellow Tail. That Australian winery argued the San Diego beer was infringing on its trademarked name.

The solution: In 2011, the beer was re-christened Ballast Point Pale Ale, but that name didn’t stick either. Today, it’s known as California Kölsch.

The beer: Velvet Merkin, an oatmeal stout from Firestone Walker, Paso Robles

The problem: This beer debuted on tap in 2004. When it was issued in bottles in 2009, the name was changed to Velvet Merlin to avoid potential TTB objections.

The solution: “Merkin” is such an obscure word - it’s an accessory popular with Elizabethan prostitutes; for details, consult a dictionary or Google - in 2013 the name was restored to the bottled version without objections.

The beer: Salvation, a Belgian-style strong dark ale from Russian River, Santa Rosa; and Salvation, a Belgian-style strong pale ale from Avery, Boulder, Colo.

The problem: With both Russian River and Avery distributing their beers throughout the West, two beers with the same name was inviting confusion - if not a trademark battle.

The solution: Since 2006, the two breweries have worked together to make a beer that blends both Salvations. The name? Collaboration Not Litigation Ale.

In the eye of the beer-holder

Five classic beer can and bottle designs

After designers get ahold of a beer can or bottle, what you see can enhance what you get.

Beer: Modern Times’ Blazing World, a hoppy amber ale

Designers: Helms Workshop, Austin, Texas; typography by Simon Walker, also in Austin.

Surface appeal: “I wanted our cans to be totally different from everything else I was seeing in craft beer,” says Jacob McKean, Modern Times’ founder. “I saw tons of cartoonish, macho, loud designs, and that’s just not at all what I wanted for Modern Times. So we very deliberately went for a classic, gender-neutral, elegant design that wouldn’t look dated in five years or 50 years.”

Below the surface: “Uniqueness stands out, but so does consistency within a brand,” McKean says, noting that the brewery’s core beers share a uniform look. “If I’m scanning a store shelf for a specific beer, I want to be able to find what I’m looking for as quickly as possible.”

Beer: Duck Foot’s The Contender, a West Coast IPA.

Designers: Alek Michaud and Brian Gallarello, Madonna+Child, New York

Surface appeal: Comic-book sensibility meets pop art imagery - love the orange-tinted photo of an old-school boxer topped by the blue head of a cartoon robot!

Below the surface: “I would hope that anyone coming in a store and seeing Duck Foot on the shelf gets some feeling of Southern California surf and skate culture, an ‘80s and ‘90s vibe,” Michaud says.

Beer: Coronado’s Easy Up Pale Ale

Designer: MiresBall, San Diego

Surface appeal: “For Coronado Brewing Company’s core lineup, design elements like color and typography grab attention from the shelf,” says John Ball, MiresBall’s owner/creative director, “while the mermaid and brand tagline Stay Coastal inspire an emotional appeal.”

Below the surface: “Consumers subconsciously see clarity and simplicity and associate that with bigger, more established and trusted brands,” Ball says. “Although, in craft beer, it’s important to balance simplicity with passion and style. Appearing appropriate to the category, yet standing out within it, is always the challenge.”

Beer: Mikkeller San Diego’s California Dream, a hoppy pilsner

Designer: Keith Shore, Philadelphia

Surface appeal: Shore’s witty drawings often feature Henry and Sally, wide-eyed wanderers who appear separately and together. Here, Sally catches a wave on Henry’s head in a bit of SoCal surrealism.

Below the surface: Shore favors a bright palate, which helps draw attention to Mikkeller’s beers.

Beer: Novo Brazil’s Copacabana IPA

Designer: Fosfato Digital, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Surface appeal: Bold tropical hues, lush greenery and a toucan transport you to another hemisphere. “We’re trying to show a little bit of Brazil,” says Eduardo Pentagna, CEO and head brewer at the Chula Vista brewery. “Just how colorful, how joyful we are.”

Below the surface: “Copacabana” is printed across a green circle containing thick wavy lines. Look familiar? “That’s the pattern on the sidewalk by Copacabana beach” in Rio de Janeiro, Pentagna says.


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The art of the beer label