Craft beermakers go to extraordinary lengths to brew up the perfect pint—and lately, that attention to detail has shifted to what's on the outside as well. The number of craft breweries nationwide has more than tripled in the past ten years. As a result, brewers aren't just in a race to make the best tasting beers — they're also competing for your eye.
"I think the consumer really wants a whole experience," said Jen Kimmich, co-founder of The Alchemist brewery. "They want more than just a great beer. They do want a beautiful can."
When it comes to the art of beer, there are few on the same playing field as The Alchemist's Heady Topper. In a recent USA Today poll, readers named Heady Topper the winner for Best Beer Label. For years, the can has been one of the most sought after in the world. The double IPA inside is among the highest rated, and its cover art, for craft beer fans, is among the most recognizable.
"We really started looking at the shelves, the beer coolers, and, you know, what made them all similar and how could we stand out," said Jen Kimmich, co-founder of The Alchemist brewery, which makes Heady Topper. "We thought if we can, you know, make a label that's really authentic and is a reflection of us and our style, that's what we wanted to do."
The can's signature image was the result of a collaboration with artist and musician Dan Blakeslee. The partnership began after Blakeslee's concert posters captured the attention of John Kimmich, the other co-founder of The Alchemist, at a coffee shop in Vermont.
"What he said to me was, he liked the whimsical nature of it," Blakeslee said. He was hired to do art for the brewery, and then the label for Heady Topper.
Blakeslee grew a beard and used a picture of himself as inspiration. He turned the vision into reality without ever tasting the beer.
"I've had three sips of beer in my life, and I didn't like any of 'em," he said.
For Megan Penmann, designing beer cans has become a full time job. Penmann has created more than 300 labels for Other Half Brewing Company in Brooklyn, New York, which releases upwards of four new cans every week.
"It's wild to see it out there in the world and see people with it," Penmann said, adding "this is so many people's dream job."
Penmann's throwback images are bright and colorful. "We liked the idea of this can art feeling kind of '90s. Like, '90s jam shorts," she said with a laugh. "Like, 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,' like that kind of vibe."
There are entire social media accounts dedicated to craft beer labels. More than 150,000 followers track Other Half and its art on the brewery's Instagram account, and the most diehard fans will line the street to get their hands on its latest creation.
"We have a language across all of our cans," said Sam Richardson, the brewmaster and co-founder of Other Half. "They look different. But I think that you can see the connections. You can look at it and say, 'that's an Other Half label.'" Richardson said he credits the brewery's popularity and cult following in part to the designs on its cans.
Despite the craze over label art, John Kimmich emphasized that quality is still the most important thing.
"You know, you might buy a can of something because of the art once, but if that beer is terrible, it doesn't matter what the art is. You're not gonna come back, 'cause the beer is not good."
The team at The Alchemist has continued their work with Dan Blakeslee on other cans since the release of their famed beer, and are currently redesigning the label for an IPA named Rapture.
"The coolest thing about being a part of the craft beer revolution right now is the high level of competitiveness, because everyone is really being forced to set themselves apart," Jen said. "We make the best beer we can. We have the best artists we can work with, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. At the end of the day it's beer."