- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

DENVER (AP) - More breweries are operating now in the U.S. than ever before, upping the competition for precious cooler and shelf space. Craft brewers are opening at a two-a-day clip, and new and older operations alike are increasingly relying on a simple device to stand out from the crowd of more than 4,100 competitors: the beer label.

Legacy brewers such as Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing, Deschutes Brewery in Oregon and Twisted Pine in Boulder recently updated their packaging. Other smaller operators have invested time and chunks of money to enlist artists, graphic designers and full-fledged branding firms to help them stay in the game.

“As a brewer, it pains me to say that it’s more important than the liquid inside,” said Kevin Selvy, who started Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. in the Vail Valley with his wife, Marisa.

The little mountain brewery is in the throes of a massive expansion and is setting up a second location in Breckenridge Brewery’s spacious former digs at 471 Kalamath St. in Denver. (Breckenridge moved to a $36 million farmhouse-style brewery on 12 acres in Littleton.)

Crazy Mountain’s expansion brings with it the ability to package beer in 12-ounce bottles and also vaults the company up the list of the nation’s largest brewers.

Crazy Mountain’s image needed to mature, too, Selvy said.

On its cans, Crazy Mountain’s logo took the backstage to funky scribbles touting “Crazy Mountain Amber Ale,” ”Mountain Livin’ Pale Ale,” ”Lava Lake Wit” and “Lawyers, Guns & Money.”

“I think where we really failed was there was no cohesion between our different labels. If you walked into a liquor store and you saw five of our cans on the shelf, you couldn’t tell that they were all from the same brewery,” Selvy said. “It was all good artwork, but there was nothing that held it together.”

Crazy Mountain spent most of a year working on a brand overhaul with Moxie Sozo, the Boulder-based design firm behind the crazed rabbits and frenzied beavers wrapping cans of Bootstrap Brewing’s IPA and Pale Ale.

For Crazy Mountain, Moxie Sozo cobbled together three Colorado-dwelling animals to create a mythical character and story line for each beer. Think jackalope, but for microbrews.

An elephant poking its head from the brush on the Hookiebobb IPA label has been replaced by Magnus, a bison-moose-grizzly creature that trudges through snow and bears a snarl. The character, like the beer, is “strong but bright, and complex but not too intense.”

Sheamus, stitched together from an owl, bobcat and deer, is considered the bold, wise elder of the Crazy Mountain zoo and monitors the water that flows into the Amber Ale and other beers.

Jeremiah, a mountain goat-elk-pika, is the “bright and outgoing” gatekeeper of Crazy Mountain and the mascot for Mountain Livin’ Pale Ale.

Crazy Mountain supplemented the artwork with custom bottle shapes and die-cut six-pack holders.

Selvy credits the rebranding and the addition of bottles for a sharp uptick in sales and new accounts.

He’s optimistic that the striking imagery and storytelling will play well in Crazy Mountain’s efforts to expand overseas, though he joked that he’s not sure how the Jeremiah character that replaced a cozy mountain chalet on Mountain Livin’ Pale Ale will play in Sweden.

“The Pale Ale can is really popular in Sweden,” Selvy said. “I don’t know if they’ll let us send in our new cans.”

The cereal box effect

Effective branding is a combination of what’s on the vessel and what’s inside it, Selvy said.

“If your label can’t become ingrained in somebody’s memory the first time they see it, you haven’t done an effective job,” Selvy said. “And then the liquid’s got to be good, otherwise they won’t come back and get it again. The branding has to be on cue, because if it’s not, it doesn’t matter how good the liquid is.”

Shelf space is everything to a burgeoning brewer like Lafayette’s Odd13, said Kyrie Wozab, a brewery bartender who also designs labels for its beers.

“If you can take up half a cooler with your artwork, that’s what you want,” she said. “You want someone to walk in, open that one cooler and see a line of your work and they’re like, ‘Oh, I need one of these, and I need one of these, and I need one of these.’ “

And much in tune with the comic books that the label art is based on, Odd13 beers are collected by some loyal fans, she said.

Odd13’s “flash-bang,” comic book style ranges from the dark and brooding to the comical and punny.

Eric the Dead Sinister Sour, a special October release, featured a macabre knight that looks as if Conan the Barbarian became a character in the dark fantasy video game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.”

And an apple-headed, Nacho Libre-influenced, peach-shaped super hero is pitchman for Tequila Barrel Duraznodor, a sour ale fermented in a tequila barrel with peaches.

“I don’t like there being a character for no reason,” Wozab said.

The label and its characters can play an important role in telling the story of a brewery.

It’s like the cereal-box experience, said Michael Benjamin, a creative director with Boulder-based Anthem Branding.

Just as one sits down to a bowl of cereal, perhaps reading and inspecting the box, a beer-drinker can pause to scope out the intricate art or read the back story of the brewery.

Benjamin’s firm led the redesign work for Twisted Pine Brewing Co. in Boulder as well as the initial branding for Upslope Brewing Co., also in Boulder.

Each of those projects came with unique challenges. Twisted Pine needed to recapture consumers who were drawn away by shiny, new arrivals. Upslope wanted a simple badge-like design to stand the test of time.

“I think (Twisted Pine) saw that they were kind of losing any status they had left and wanted their label to reflect the vibe of their brewery and the types of people who work there,” he said.

Twisted Pine has built a brand on being funky and wild, brewing a beer with some of the hottest peppers in the world and crafting cheekily named taproom favorites such as Rhesus Peanut Butter Stout.

“They wanted everything to be super-crazy,” Benjamin said. “I love weird stuff, but we would tell them, ‘I don’t know if you want a chicken skeleton’s head popping out of a birthday cake on this particular beer.’ “

They found a happy medium with classically bold logos complemented by taste profiles written in casual tones; quick-hit lists of food pairings; and some fun on the side - the Hop Zealot label includes the description “as hoppy as a pirate with a pogo-stick-peg-leg.”

A new era of innovation

Randy Mosher, a Chicago-based author, consultant and graphic designer, tries to consciously avoid having a style.

Mosher leans toward the “old-school” method of speaking for the brand without interjecting too much of one’s own personality.

“What you have to balance is communication,” he said. “You’re trying to project some kind of an image that reflects the overall concept or the brand, you’re also trying to interject some randomness.”

Harvey Shepard, who showcases beer label design on the website Oh Beautiful Beer, said brewers’ creativity is at an all-time high in both the beers they make as well as the packaging.

“Breweries are putting more emphasis on, and resources into, their visual identity,” Shepard wrote via e-mail. “In any market you will find design trends/themes and beer is no exception. But overall, breweries are recognizing that consumers want quality outside of the bottle as well as inside.”

Beer packaging, he said, is regarded as more of an art form now.

“Moving forward, I expect the craft beer segment, as well as the art budget for breweries, to continue to grow,” he said. “We will see the baseline for label design continue to rise. And as beer design as a whole improves, look for more and more breweries to go to extremes to stand out.”

Craft brewers have ramped up their marketing buys in recent years. Small, medium and large brewers increased sales and marketing spending by a range of 3 percent to more than 11 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the Brewers Association’s 2014 Brewery Operations Benchmarking Survey.

“The shelves are getting more crowded,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Boulder-based Brewers Association, a trade organization that represents the independently owned craft brewers. “We’re noticing some brands of craft beer that have been around for a while, that have helped build the category, update their packaging.”

At the end of November, there were 4,144 breweries in the United States, surpassing the historic high of 4,131 breweries in 1873, according to the Brewers Association.

West Highland wine and spirits staple Mondo Vino has expanded its beer cabinets in recent years and cycles in about 40 new beers a week to the stock of 1,000, said Foster Ramsey, beer curator at the store.

Good design, he said, is especially important in large-volume stores, where consumer education and service is scant.

“I feel like we can help kind of mediate whether a beer lives up to its label design,” he said.

When Bootstrap released its Insane Rush IPA, the matte-finish can of bright blue packed with rabbits and other animals helped propel the beer off the shelves when Mondo Vino was selling about 15 to 20 cases a week of Insane Rush.

But sales have tapered in the last two years, he said.

“The beer drinker is a little bit different” than the wine consumer, he said. “I think they always want to try something new. It’s really hard for them to go back to that same beer.”

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Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

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