April 21, 2010

Is Beer Art Too Macho?

Bloomington, IN's Upland Brewing released this new label art a couple weeks ago (I found it at at Beernews.org).
I like the "painterly" look of the piece. I can't find out if the work is actually originally a painting, or just a clever digital piece, but either way I think the muted color palate, thick brushstrokes, and the fantastic/romantic dragonfly figures all work to create a mythological ethos (mythos?) for the image.

What's also interesting is that this piece showed up on an article in Chow, titled "Craft Beer Labels Too Macho." In the words of its author, Lessley Anderson:
Do chicks want to drink out of a bottle depicting a naked dragonfly girl getting done from behind? I ask you. 
Okay, first off, I really liked Anderson's piece, I wished it were longer, and I think her overall point is interesting (more below). But I did not get that from this piece. Maybe I'm sheltered, but I didn't really get the doggystyle vibe at first glance from the image. I mean, I don't know how Dragonflies mate, let alone fantastical dragonfly creatures, but it looked mostly like an embrace to me. Is the female even naked? I mean, she's half bug, for crying out loud.

But more broadly, I actually saw the image as appealing to a feminine sensitivity. For one, the softness and brushstrokes are more stereotypically feminine in style. And I saw the subject matter as owing more to Harlequin than Ron Jeremy. Again, I saw more romance than raunchy.

Look at romance novel covers. See any similarity to the bug couple in the Upland piece? And is there any doubt that the target market for such products is women?

One of the great things about art is that two people seeing the same piece can see wildly different things, and I guess that's what we have here.

More to Anderson's overall point, though: Are beer labels too macho? And of course, no one (least of all Anderson, I imagine) is saying women can't like scary gargoyles. We're using generalizations here to examine a larger sociological point.

She also cites less equivocal examples such as Stone Brewing's gargoyle and the Mamie Battleship art (see here if you forgot that) as evidence of the overall trend. And if we want more, we can look at the Rogue bottles being suitable for "mandles," or any of the other manly tattoo-inspired art we've seen in the short life of this blog alone. Perhaps, as Anderson seems to suggest, the marketing staff at craft breweries are too focused on (or comprised solely of) men. Given the gender demographics of the industry, that would make sense.

But I don't know if that's the best way to look at it. Let's look at the top ten craft breweries by volume this year (I started after Yuengling and Boston, because their art is more branding at this point):
  1. Sierra Nevada Brewing
  2. New Belgium Brewin
  3. Craft Brewers Alliance
  4. Spoetzl Brewery (Gambrinus)
  5. High Falls Brewing
  6. Minhas Craft Brewery
  7. Pyramid Breweries (IBU)
  8. Deschutes Brewery
  9. F.X. Matt Brewing
  10. Magic Hat Brewing (IBU)

I suppose it's possible to see Sierra Nevada's nature-themed art as masculine, but look at their new Glissade work.

Does it seem macho to you? Is the desire to spend time in gorgeous natural scenery a male thing?

New Belgium we've looked at a little bit already, but their artwork is similarly soft and gender-neutral, featuring lots of bikes and sustainability.

The craft brewers alliance (Redhook, Goose Island, Widmer, and Kona) is a group of often good but slightly more corporate craft breweries (they are backed in part by Anheuser-Busch) that have fairly neutral design that is mostly branding. Same with Spoetzl, High Falls (Genessee), Minhas, and F.X. Matt (Saranac).

Deschutes, Pyramid and Magic Hat all do more interesting things with label art, in general, but I struggle to see an overwhelming masculinity. Deschutes uses a more minimalist style (which I guess is a masculine artistic tradition in literature, with Ray Carver and Rick Moody), Magic Hat a more zany contemporary one. Since it's a long post, let's look at their new labels:

The HIPA logo is a sci-fi image of a woman's face. Unlike some of the more sexualized images, it's hard to see a desire to sell sex in this label.

Skeletons are pretty masculine, I guess, though the bright colors call to mind a Dia de los Muertos feel, which is festive and happy, rather than the usual imposing skeleton. I guess men might like things like this more than women, but I never thought of Halloween or its Latin American equivalent as a particularly "macho" holiday.

Pyramid I'll give you. Owned by the same people as Magic Hat, any brewery with heavily angled graphics and names like "Thunderhead," Curve ball," "Audacious," and "Hay Wire" is probably aiming at young men. Add in the dudes surfboarding in neon, and I don't think there's any way to claim that Pyramid is not guy-centric.

Still, that's only one of the top ten. Clearly, the more successful breweries have marketing and label art that is widely palatable. Anderson is really talking about the "long tail" of the craft brewing industry, that huge number of tiny breweries run and marketed by men whose art deluges our shelves. Scientific examination of the industry is above my pay grade, but I believe she is right.

I think the key is whether the beer itself is as aggressive as its marketing. Stone is growing rapidly on the back of its gargoyle and confrontational marketing. But so is Brooklyn Brewery, with its image of a refined brand and classy drinking. And so is Dogfish Head, whose art is every bit as diverse as its beer. The point is that art should be a visual identity of the brewery and beer. For many (who are run and drank primarily by men) that means chest-thumping, testosterone-laden images, or more breasts. But for others, it may mean that there is a growing space in the market for more women-centric craft beer. As we see more female brewmasters and beer drinkers, I expect we'll see the gender dynamics of beer art change.


  1. You'd never catch me drinking a Glissade. Check out that artwork. Only a wuss would drink something like that.

    Now, Pyramid Breweries: THEY know how to make beer for MEN.

    Marketing has been about reaching certain demographics all along. Can't expect beer to be any different.

  2. Please tell me--if you can find out-- WHO does the art work for Sierra Nevada. I wet my pants every time I see one of their labels/cartons!

    thanks-- stephan brown, great cape herbs, Cape Cod

  3. As I wrote to Stephan, SN's art director is named Jason Roberson.