“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

A smarter man than I once said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” That man, Mr Tulliver, uttered these wise words of wisdom in George Elliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss in reference to a beautifully bound book, which held dark tales of the devils within its pages. Despite the popular idiom being coined by a fictionary character in a book written over a century and a half ago, the phrase continues to be used and it certainly rings true when you’re stood in a bottle shop confronted with row upon row of beer, or stood in front of a bar decorated with pump clips of all shapes and sizes.

Art, branding and marketing play a huge role in our perceptions as consumers and as beer drinkers. A label might not affect the taste of a beer, but it effects our buying decisions.

Breweries, unlike the majority of consumer products, use their artwork not simply to sell their wares however, they use their bottles, their cans, their caps and their pump clips to not only build a brand around their beer, but to tell a tale that a glass of ale, on its own cannot. A story that reflects who the brewery is and where it is based.

More and more you will see some sort of story plastered on the side of your beer that goes beyond simply stating the beers’ tasting notes. From Harbour Brewing’s tall tales about dolphins to BrewDog’s anarchist monologues, they’re everywhere but no one does it better than The Celt Experience.

Through it’s labels, the mystical Welsh brewery pays homage to its Celtic roots. Taking inspiration from ancient folklore, each of their designs reflects a different Celtic myth, from chained treasure-guarding eagles that gave rise to their triangular logo, to a merciful Medieval King that lends his name to one of their beers, each is steeped in history and ingrained with the brewery’s heritage.

“Tom Newman, the owner of Celt Experience, sends me titles of the beers he wants the labels for and a little background on the idea or the history of the beer,” explained Sarah Ogren, an artist from across the pond who is responsible for not only the dark, surrealist art that is used on their Shapeshifter range, but also painted the mural that decorates Celt’s in-house bowling alley.

This method of using local legends isn’t restricted to one of Wales’ most innovative breweries that, like an ancient Celtic shapeshifter, is continuously innovating and dynamically adjusting its image and its beer range, and is prevalent with one of England’s most easily recognisable pump clips; that of Hobgoblin.

Whereas many will start with the beer, Wychwood, start with the character and story that will appear on their marketing material, a strategy that is inline with their motto of being ‘Brewers of Character.’

“We use the Wychwood Forest as an inspiration for our characters,” explained Chris Keating, the Marketing Manager for the Hobgoblin, Wychwood, Ringwood and Brakspear brands and this is evident throughout their Tolkien-esque, fantasy-based beer range that includes not only the infamous Hobgoblin, but the Black Wych and Ginger Beard. “We brief the head brewer and his team on the character we plan to create for him to employ his team’s talents to create a beer that works well with the character essence,” he continued.

Hobgoblin

Photo source: Chris Keating from Wychwood Brewery

These characters are birthed from the stories and legends that have been told by residents of the nearby magical forest of Wych Wood for centuries.

As well as telling the stories of the area in which you’ll find a brewery, a beer’s bottle provides the brewer with a blank canvas which they can fill with their own beer and decorate using their own artistic talent and flair that also conveys to the drinker where the beverage sitting in front of them was brewed, such as the case of one of West Wales’ most traditional breweries.

“I take inspiration from our farm and the surrounding area, such as the bluebells down in the valley,” explained Sarah Davies whose husband owns the Gwaun Valley Brewery found amongst the rolling Preseli Hills that quilt the landscape.

Such stunning scenery, from the idyllic valley to the Pembrokeshire coastline, as well as various historic buildings found deep within the valley itself in the nearby village of Pontfaen, are beautifully painted in water colours on each of their farmhouse ales.

pembroke

Photo source: Gwaun Valley Brewery

Not only do beers tell the tales about the breweries themselves however, it’s a way for the individual brewers to express themselves and to portray their own personal interests through their beers.

“The inspiration for the branding simply comes from things we are interested in and like the look of,” said Brad Cummings, one of Cymru’s craft beer kings from Newport based brewery, Tiny Rebel and as such their artwork, similar to their beers, mixes the retro with the modern.

Take for example their IPA, Hadouken; a beer dedicated to the finishing move of classic video game Street Fighter. Any keen gamer will recognise that the arrows on the front of the bottle correspond with what your thumbs tap in to the controller in order to produce a blue surge of all consuming power to knock your opponent to the floor.

As well as nods to retro gaming culture, their artwork, created by Canadian artist Tamsin Baker, pays homage to cult classics such as Star Wars with their Vader Shuffle and Rebel Alliance beers.

“Although we take our beer very seriously, the drinking side is very chilled out,”Brad added. “We don’t take ourselves very seriously and the designs are a way of expressing ourselves,” Tiny Rebel’s Brad added.

Such a stance is mirrored in Sweden with Brutal Brewing.

The cooperative brewery, operated by employees of Spendrups who work for the project in their spare time to craft beers such as Pistonhead, is heavily influenced by their workers dedication to the Kustom Kulture lifestyle, which is portrayed across their bottles and their cans.

“The guys at Brutal Brewing are mad about Kustom Kulture and 50’s pop culture!” exclaimed Claire Madams, the brewery’s Global Brand Manager. “They love the vintage cars, Rock ‘n’ Roll attitudes, pulp heroes, the drive through diners, Americana and the greaser pin up styles,” she continued.

“It’s this style and culture that inspired the look and attitude of Pistonhead as a brand,” she continued, but not only does a beer allow a brewery’s personality and lifestyle shine through, a beer’s branding enables brewers to show off who they really are and where they’ve come from in order to get where they are today.

Designed by Phil Carter of Carter Wong, the creative studio behind some of the most recognisable consumer packaging in the world, including Unilever’s global ice cream, Heartbrand, and Cornetto, the simple yet truly unique wraparound packaging of Manchester based brewery, Ticketybrew, does just that.

“We wanted something to reflect the fact that Duncan (Founder and Head Brewer) was giving up acting to become a brewer,” explained Keri Barton of Ticketybrew. So after deciding on their name “the idea of theatre tickets really appealed to us,” she continued and similarly to portraying where the brewers of today have come, others use their labels to forever celebrate the brewers of the past and the roots of which their brewery has risen from.

ticketybrew

Photo source: Keri Barton from Ticketybrew

“We have commemorated members of our family with out beers,” said Connie Parry, the CEO of Swansea’s Tomos Watkin brewery. “Cwrw Idris for example is named after our grandfather, Idris Parry,” she continued, who in 1916, during the peak of The Great War, was aboard the HMS Duke of Albany when it was torpedoed and sunk off of the coast of Orkney by an enemy submarine. Although the Royal Navy lost 24 brave men that day, 11 officers and 76 sailors were saved and one lucky seaman was Idris, who along with his younger, cockle picking sister Blodwen, is immortalised in Tomos Watkin’s bottled beer range, after he, despite the Kaiser’s best efforts, survived another torpedo attack and went on to found Hurns Mineral Water Company and subsequently Tomos Watkins.

Don’t just judge a beer by its label.

Beer therefore is more than just a mix of water, barley, yeast and hops. It’s a canvas and each brewery’s labels and each brewery’s pump clips are as different as a stout and an IPA. Each beer’s branding and artwork is inspired by a broad range of topics and themes and has a variety of functions, from commemorating the past to celebrating the present, so next time you’re in a beer emporium or a pub, don’t just judge a beer by its label and pick the most attractive brand, think about the story that each is trying to tell you as each has its own tale to tell.

Jordan Harris

An English freelance journalist living in exile in Wales where he works at a brewery, a distillery and a meadery, runs a hot dog pop-up shop and blogs about the great ales of Wales.