Edmund's Oast Brewing Co.'s cans are almost startling in their minimalism. On a shelf surrounded by other craft beer cans with colorful illustrations and lots going on, a serene black-and-white palette pulls you in for a closer look.
The only thing that differentiates the EOB cans from each other are the whimsical pen-and-ink illustrations, done in a steampunk style with a certain cheeky humor, and the name of the beer typed along the bottom.
A vintage refrigerator illustrates the can of Something Cold, a Blonde ale that's meant to be an easy-to-drink beer on a hot summer day, while the bourbon-barrel-aged Abider features a Saturn-like bowling ball, in a nod to "The Big Lebowski." Other designs are more detailed, with clocks, butterflies, snakes, horns, hands and gears compiled into weird little scenes. For specialty brews like Sour Passionfruit and Concord Grape, a messy splash of watercolor stains the illustration.
Freelance designer Blake Suarez says beer can design has become an important extension of a brewery's style and it can be a challenge to stand out.
"When we first started working on those labels, we were looking at those (retail) shelves," he says. "Can art can be so cluttered, so we wanted to stay away from that."
Before the adoption of cans by craft brewers in the past decade, cheap beer in cheap cans was the signature of American brands selling mass market brews like Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The design was simple, usually an emblem that looked like a seal or badge. Once craft breweries started embracing cans, they blew open the design aesthetic, much like they did with their beers.
Selling craft beer in cans wasn't the norm for a long time. A certain snobbishness reigned with brewers preferring bottles. In 2008, when Charleston Beer Exchange first opened, store manager Brandon Plyler remembers that it was mostly bottles on the shelves, save for a few outliers like Dale's Pale Ale, an Oskar Blues brew that was canned in 2002, considered the first of the modern craft beer movement. But craft beer is generally more expensive than Budweiser, so paying more for canned beer has taken a bit of getting used to for consumers.
"Cans are fighting a big image problem," he says. "It's associated with cheap beer but a hazy IPA can go for $24 for a four-pack of cans."
Since just 2012, canned craft beer has grown from about 10 percent of production volume to nearly 25 percent in 2017, according to Bart Watson of The Brewers Association. He found the increase was driven in part by the growth of smaller breweries, which are more likely to use cans because they take up less storage space and are cheaper to ship. Plyler says cans also help preserve the beer's flavors by keeping light and oxygen out.
You can see the beer can trend in Charleston, where breweries have been popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Most are canning their beers and selling them at your favorite specialty beer store. Some have their own canning lines while others use mobile canners who come in and hook up right to the holding tank, says Plyler.
COAST Brewing Co. and Westbrook Brewing were the first local breweries to can their beers. Local design firm Fuzzco worked on both of those designs. Principal Helen Rice says they actually got to work on COAST's cans twice.
"When we did the initial brand design it was very art-forward," she says. "Initially, they wanted to work with artists to develop original art for each can, but that got a little bit hard to manage production, so we ended up creating our own art. Each can spoke to the essence of the beer."
On its cans, Westbrook's signature wrought iron motif is mixed with illustrations of ingredients and mascots like the White Thai tiger. In order to maintain continuity and cut down on costs, Fuzzco designed templates that an in-house designer at Westbrook uses to design new cans, which utilize color to stand out when necessary. For instance, One Claw is bright blue while the Gose is a simple black and white.
Keeping up with the brewers
Over at Revelry, they've dealt with the challenge of constantly coming up with new designs for their prolific beer production by hiring Chris Kemp as their in-house artist. This year, he says he's probably created 16 designs already.
Kemp's approach is eclectic and creative, echoing Revelry's approach to its beer styles, which range from dunkelweiss and schwarzbier to Belgian IPA and Bavarian wheat. Some are made in honor of friends like the Kill Ian Irish Red Ale (Killian's, get it?), which features an illustration of their barber Ian on a red background.
Some, like the Kook-asauraus Kolsch and the Never Sunny New England IPA, have designs that span multiple cans. Line two or three up and you'll see a picture of an Anubis or a Kookasauraus (whatever that is).
Kemp is constantly working on designs and most of the time he has no idea how the beer will taste since it's still in the works when he's coming up with his ideas. The only unifying motif is the hand-lettered Revelry logo, sometimes in a colorful badge on the bottom and sometimes just somewhere on the can. The aesthetic speaks to beer as something fun, not serious. Kemp says he enjoys keeping it fresh. "I don't want to be stale, and our fans enjoy (the design) being different each time," he says.
Holy City Brewing has taken a similar approach after starting out with classic illustrations that were commissioned from painter Sean Williams. Washout Wheat, Pluff Mud Porter and Bowen's Island Oyster Stout are all in the same vein, but lately they've been working with the Blue Ion agency to design special edition cans like Pedishaw and Sparkly Princess, the design of which art director Nic Lauretano says came with a specific demand: a pink can and glittery letters. Chris Brown of Holy City says they also work with designer Connor Lock of Seven.
"For new smaller batch cans, I want something bright that will pop on the shelf," says Brown. "It's nice with these beers to give the artist some creative liberty to design. I'm loving the new stuff that is coming out from Connor and Blue Ion. Sparkly Princess is a great can, and Connor's Madam Basil is fantastic."
If you think beer can design doesn't have an impact, you probably haven't heard the story of the Beer Can Professor. When Paul Roof of the Holy City Beard and Moustache Society appeared as the mascot on a can of Holy City's Chucktown Follicle Brown, he told the Charleston City Paper he lost his job at Charleston Southern University because of it. He has since used the notoriety to launch his own lifestyle brand called the Beer Can Professor and gives talks about his experience as it relates to craft beer culture and social media.
The craft beer can trend has also forced the large mass market companies to address their design. Budweiser spent tens of millions of dollars to refresh its brand in 2016, debuting a much more vibrant and modern can and renaming it "America" for the summer to mixed success. Corona also redesigned its cans for the summer in 2017, introducing an illustration of a tropical island to promote sales.
Tracking the impact of sales on design can be difficult. The Budweiser redesign probably got more attention because of the "America" stunt. But the way a can looks does influence a purchase. A Nielsen study found that 70 percent of beer consumers decide what to buy when they're looking at it on the shelf. More than 60 percent said that packaging and design was very or extremely important in their decision process.
Blue Ion art director Nic Lauretano admits as much. "I accidentally bought a gluten-free beer cause it had a dragon on it," he says.
Dragons, unicorns, lord proprietors. Whatever motif pulls your strings, you're likely to find it on a beer shelf these days.