Beer is the Best Beverage (and Other Learnings From the Brewer’s Congress)

11.12.19

The good folks at Brewer’s Journal (shout out to Tim & Jon!) invited us down to this year’s Brewer’s Congress last week, which is a day filled with talks about beer, food served alongside beer, and beer. Having attended some Brewer’s Lecture events as both speakers and beer fans, we’ve realised that passionate brewers share a lot of common traits with passionate designers, so we were positively stoked to hear from some of the most influential and renowned breweries making shit-hot beer for the world.

Don’t Dismiss Traditional British Beer

As designers, we know that ‘newer’ does not equal ‘better’, but as beer drinkers we do get tempted by the new, shiny brewing styles that are popping up all over the place. It was hard not to be infected by the enthusiasm for traditional British beer that radiated from speakers such as Miles Jenner, Head Brewer & MD at Harvey’s Brewery, who actually grew up on a traditional British brewery, or Derek Prentice, Brewmaster at Wimbledon Brewery, who was celebrating brewing equipment innovations inspired by UK brewing history. While some of the intricacies of Victorian-era brewing engineering flew well over our heads, we did leave feeling inspired by our own national drink and its rich history.

Authenticity or Perish?

Most of the speakers united in a common derision of beer geeks. They had an unwavering belief in their craft that almost dismissed the end consumer. They just wanted to see how to brew the best goddamn beer they could. In response to the proliferation of fruity IPAs, Master Belgian brewer Yvan De Baets of Brasserie De La Senne offered my favourite line of the day: “if you really like magoes that much…go eat a mango.”

Yvan went on to say, “You should know what you want to drink, then make it”. This chimed with Burning Sky founder Mark Tranter’s belief in brewers needing an unwavering focus. The general feeling was that brewers that just followed the whim and fancy of each passing trend were doomed for failure.

I took from this consideration that the craft brewers had recognised the one trump card (an authentic, artisanal approach to brewing) they can play against the big brewers.

Collaboration Leads to Inspiration

Christian Townsend from North Brewing made an excellent comparison at the end of his talk. Imagine if the automotive industry collaborated and shared knowledge as freely as brewers do. I’m picturing myself in a car that looks a bit like a classic super safe & comfortable Saab, with the speed of a Ferrari and the electric power of a Tesla.

It’s evident from the good feeling and sharing of knowledge at the congress that brewers are really good at this already. In such a competitive market, it’s an inspiration that rival brewers brew together to create collabs and explore new techniques together.

We do feel that UK brewers are also at the cusp of an even bigger collaboration. With Big brewers being able to take advantage of market share and economies of scale they are crushing the commercial viability of many smaller independent brewers. Sam McMeekin from Gipsy Hill, as well as obviously being a whizz at data crunching and excel spreadsheets, has identified the advantages that independent craft brewers will have if they work together to lobby government to level the playing field. It’s obviously a tall task—at one point even defining ‘craft beer’ seemed beyond the speakers—and there are already UK wide groups like SIBA & CAMRA that have up until now struggled to get the leverage they need to make real change. However, the combined might of an industry that is already teaching us all how tasty collaboration can be is sure to succeed.

Brewery Culture Can Be Used For Good

One of the best parts of the Brewers Congress was seeing what brewers are doing for their communities all the way from a local level to a global level. Gabe Barry from Brooklyn Brewery gave us a great history lesson regarding beer and its power to bring communities together. Describing pubs and taprooms as shared spaces where people can interact and talk with others shines a positive light on the kinds of places we may take for granted, and she encouraged us to view a good beer scene as having potential for positive change. This is before we even look at all the charitable donations made by breweries across the UK and beyond. The grassroots nature of most craft breweries tends to foster an attitude of generosity and sharing, which is a great thing to see.

Embrace Your Controversial Opinions

The brewers congress was also a safe place for people to voice some more controversial opinions, and you know what, people were all too nice—or tipsy—to get angry about it. Here are a few of our faves:

‘You know these Citra IPA’s everyone is drinking, don’t you think they taste just like the lager & lime we used to drink in the 70’s’
Miles Jenner, Owner of Harveys Brewery

‘Sell your brewery, and you will go to beer heaven’
Anders Kissmeyer, Nørrebro Bryghus

‘We should be looking to America to get a healthier balance between Craft Ale & Big Brewers as Craft’
Sam McMeekin, Gipsy Hill Brewing

‘Craft beers are all under-baked and worty’
Rod White, Assistant Professor (of brewing) at University of Nottingham

‘I try to feel what my yeast feels like sometimes’
Yvan De Baet, Cofounder & Brewmaster, Brasserie De La Senne

‘You can’t get drunk with eye shots, or soaking your feet in vodka’
Dawn Maskell, Director of the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University

Brewing excellent beer is no longer enough

This title is lifted from a great talk by Anders Kissmeyer, global brewing titan, best known for his work with Carlsberg and Nørrebro Bryghus. His point was that in today’s saturated market, making excellent beer is a given. Especially in the ‘craft’ space, uniqueness and individuality is key. This of course is not just in your beer flavours, but also the personality you present, be that via your brand or the way you communicate to consumers. This might explain the habit a lot of craft brewers have taken to keep pushing for new flavours, new hops, new techniques.

This habit however was much derided by many speakers at the congress. Mark Tranter from Burning Sky brewery said “People want you to make something new; you just want to make something good.” The practice of squeezing as many hops as you can into a brew, with tonnes of fruit etc… seems to be becoming a dangerous ‘my penis is larger than your penis’ competition (ahem, Yvan De Baet’s words, not ours).

As a branding studio we see that uniqueness and personality are more than just your core product, it’s the story you share with the consumer, the journey you take them on. Although, as Roger Ryman (brewing director at St Austell’s) says, “Marketing will get people to try a drink once… good beer makes them want to drink more”. The tough truth here is you need to do both, make excellent beer and then develop an excellent way to tell the consumer about it.

Craft (Your) Beer (Brand)

15.10.19

In years gone by, when I was a student at art school, the choice of beer in the union bar was poor: Lager, Heavy or Guinness. Or, if you were a fancy pants, you might be lucky enough to get a can of Red Stripe. There has been a revolution in the beer scene since those days. Walk in to any bar or bottleshop today and the choice is overwhelming, from the vast number of breweries now making beers, to the wide range of styles available.

Good design is key to helping the modern consumer navigate those said bottleshop shelves and taproom lineups. New challenges are cropping up for breweries that were once able to guarantee sales on beer quality alone. Here are a few basic lessons we have learned over the years:

Build trust and recognition in your core brand.

Consumers trust a brewery like they used to trust a record label or publisher. Once you realise that a certain brewery makes tasty beer, you’re obviously going to be comfortable choosing one of their other beers. Help the consumer recognise your brewery by reflecting your overall brand in every can.

Stand out from the rest.

Look at what all the other beers on the shelf look like and do the opposite! There are only so many ways you can copy Beavertown before everyone looks the same. It’s common sense; by making your design different you will make it easier for the consumer to notice you.

Be authentic.

The days of brands hoodwinking consumers with made up back-stories was over in the 1950’s. Today’s consumers want a brand they can trust and believe in.

Don’t underestimate the visual sophistication of your audience.

Everything is looking more sophisticated year on year; movies, video games, fashion, kebab shops. When your target audience see how cool things can look, they are no longer going to be seduced by a design your best friend’s flatmate’s nephew has knocked up on his laptop with a hooky copy of Photoshop.

Basic lessons however only equip you to deal with basic challenges. The recent explosion in the beer scene requires breweries to develop designs that move and grow as fast as the choice of beers does. In the early days of craft beer, producing a single ‘craft beer’ was enough. As consumers demanded more variety, a wider selection of core beers was required. A label system designed to fit one beer style needed to be stretched to fit a wider selection. In Scotland, we saw Innis & Gunn’s original red label, being used in blue to differentiate their Rum Cask variation. Breweries with a wider range of core beers, like Brewdog, required a much wider colour palette to accommodate all their beers. But, how many colours can you add to your palette before customers confuse the ochre of your lager with the burnt orange of your pilsner?

A cherished brand in the design industry is Brooklyn Brewery. The brand and basis of the labels was designed by the legendary Milton Glaser, the famous designer behind the ‘I heart NY’ logo. The labels employ combinations of colours that allow them to visually define a much wider range of beers than single colours could. However, even these guys are struggling to come up with new combos to differentiate their beers. We’ve recently noted that in addition to flipping the colours on the label for each beer, they have also introduced different textures. The orange and green of their East IPA is used again on their Orange IPA variation, but it’s in tandem with an orange peel illustration to keep the label distinguishable.

We might assume at this point we have a handle on how to develop a label system that can grow and develop as you do: A strong core brand; bold headline type defining beer style; a colour palette (of single colours or combos); and texture or illustrations to add a further level of differentiation.

Problem solved? Naw, nae really.

We’ve found new curveballs entering label strategies. Suddenly one-off, seasonal beers are becoming more of a priority for brewers than their core range. This offers a huge amount of variety to consumers, but a real headache to designers. We can handle a slowly growing core range, as you have time to optimise on work on each label design. But with seasonals, new labels are required with much more frequency, and beers can be dropped just as quickly. We have the same challenges of stand-out and differentiation for a label that might only be on the shelves for a few weeks before we need to be ready to develop a new one.

To be honest, when I say it’s the designers’ problem, what I really mean is it is the breweries problem. Most breweries can’t afford to hire external design studios to design every one of their experimental seasonal beers. Instead, we have begun developing label template systems for our clients that, alongside a little training, allow the breweries to design their own labels. These very often have areas where variables can be introduced to differentiate the new beers. We don’t rely wholly on colour but allow multiple ways to personalise a beer whilst still remaining ‘on brand’. We can’t forget that first golden rule of building trust in your core brand. Making labels that look different for the wrong reasons often dilutes your core brand, eroding this trust.

The next curveball (and I am sure not the last) is the recent trend for collaboration brews. Again, brilliant for the consumer, it’s bringing amazing new beers and the best features of our favourite breweries together in delicious harmony (think Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan singing together on Nashville Skyline – David) (think Linkin Park & Jay-Z combining forces on Numb/Encore – Jonny). To tackle this new nightmare for designers we still recommend a template approach, like the seasonals, but this time it includes the added complexity of a second brewery brand (who’s logo and personality often need to be incorporated).

It’s not easy, and we also realise that trying to rationalise a design approach for each new industry fad is not the only solution. Keeping things clean is important both in the design process and the brewing process, but allowing space for creativity, allowing the wild yeast to add some funk, is also a door we must leave open. Some of our favourite label designs break all the rules: the candle stub design for Ominipollo’s Maz pale ale is a modern classic, where colour, brewery and even beer name are all thrown out the window (or round the back).

However, you can’t fight all battles, on all fronts, at the same time. Helping breweries define their priorities at the outset of a project is key. What is your brief? Do you want to develop a label that will make your beers appealing on a supermarket shelf; develop a label that will build loyalty with a local community of superfans; develop a beer label that optimises e-commerce opportunities; make a splash on Instagram; gets rival brewers jealous; make your ex notice you again, etc. etc.

Whatever your priorities are, a good designer can help you get there. We’d recommend your best friend’s flatmate’s nephew, we heard he has Photoshop!

(adapted from our original article featured in the October 2019 edition of Brewers Journal)

Five takeaways from the Craft Brewers Conference

30.04.19

As you might have heard, we don’t just drink beer. No, our relationship with the beautiful brew is much deeper than that. You might call it our muse. But our inspiration doesn’t just come from guzzling the stuff down—we also take to putting ourselves in the shoes of brewers to better serve them.

So when the Craft Brewers Conference came to Denver, our resident American put on his coolest hat and braved the booths to see what’s happening in the industry. Here are our five takeaways from #CBC2019:


1 Ingredients matter.

The Denver Convention Center is a scary big place and the floor was crawling with farmers and salespeople pushing hops and barley. With the big names in craft brewing now available in Colorado supermarkets and ever-increasing consumer consciousness, brewers have got to be picky with what they put in their beer. The moustached dude dropping $6 for a can at his local shop cares where those hops come from and we designers need to help brewers put that information front-and-center.


2 The merch game has transcended simple branding.

In an overwhelming space, it was Brist MFG’s booth that really caught our eye—and for good reason. Their quality hats (given away for free!) and 90s throw-back Hawaiian shirts, gave off relaxed, too-cool vibes in an otherwise sterile space. Think about how this applies to your brewery’s merchandise: cheap logo t-shirts are no longer enough. Felt baseball caps, real flannels, technical hoodies and other quality wares should be in your future if you want today’s consumers to hit the town sporting your logo.


3 Quality print finishes are still the exception.

Surprisingly, quality still doesn’t seem to be the norm with packaging. Although some craft brewers work with artists and designers to push boundaries, most of what we saw on the floor at CBC was pushing efficient but uninteresting print finishes and can wraps. Just like with fine food, you don’t simply experience it with your taste buds. You also drink it in with your eyes and feel it with your hands. As long as you can work within the bounds of regulations, it looks like there’s plenty of room in the craft space to do something special with packaging.


4 Look up from your phone.

It’s the bane of our times, isn’t it? We met some amazing people, formed meaningful business connections and learned a lot in just a couple hours at CBC. One interaction really stands out though: one that didn’t happen. A company threw a lot of money at a booth, only to be squandered by their representatives sitting down to stare at their phones (they were middle-aged men, by the way, don’t blame the millennials). This is less about brewing than a general reminder that engagement is a human phenomenon and nobody is safe from apathy if you let it waltz in through the front door.


5 There’s just a LOT going on.

Hops. Barley. Water. Kegs. Cleaning systems. Brewing technology. Label printing. Regulations. In-house canning. Marketing. Merchandise. Branding. Sustainability. Brewing is not a simple endeavor; you could spend three days at CBC and still fall well short of stopping by every booth. It’s sort of like running a brewery, actually: there’s just more to do than you have time for. So, pick your battles and delegate what you can. May we humbly suggest design?

Why have just one logo?

17.01.19

Logos can be boring. Being stuck with one can be especially yawn-inducing. Don’t you wish we could have lots of logos to play with—get some variation in there to keep things interesting?

Most logos these days do have variations: different colour combinations; screen/print versions; animated versions; even responsive adaptations for different screen sizes. There’s also the more old-school approach of having both a logo and a logotype (think Nike, sometimes with the word and sometimes just the swoosh). This is all fine and dandy, but I’d classify all these options as variations of one logo.

Even our fluid typographic logo for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery would likely count as one logo if you had to choose. Why do we limit ourselves? Consistency. Yeah, I get it, and I agree in most cases. With limited budgets and a saturated market, brands need elements that make them easily memorable (what marketers often call ‘strong brand recall’).

Did you need to see that old scripted logo to fill in the blank? No? That’s brand recall.

As illustrated above, we reinforce brand recall with more than logos. We establish tone of voice, colour palettes and image strategies to establish recognition even when the logo is hidden. If we have a wider colour palette, then we often lean more on the other assets for consistency. You still with me? For example, if the colours keep changing in your ads, we’d probably need to make sure the logo or type was prominent and more consistent.

If we accept that principle, then surely if everything else was pretty strong in your applications, why not mix up the logos a bit? Sound crazy? Would it ever work? …well yes, actually, it already does: look at Major League Baseball teams.

Baseball teams aren’t happy with just having one logo, and they’ve proved it with their garb for over 100 years. America’s past-time and oldest sport has a rich visual branding history. The Home team will most often just have their logo on their shirts (a blackletter ‘D’ for Detroit), but when they play away from home they’ll change that to their city name. They’ll even change the font.

They will have a cap with their initials on it when playing Away (Cleveland Indians) but roll out their cheeky (and controversial, but that’s another discussion) face marque when playing at Home. It’s obvious, really—when playing in Cleveland they don’t need to remind the fans what city they are in—why not have a bit of fun instead of using the same old logo?

Could this approach work for corporate brands? For example, do long-time employees really need the name of the company emblazoned on every page on their door entry card? How about simply their name in the brand’s typeface, or better yet, their own personal version of the corporate logo? Some brands already do this a bit in the public sphere; Google famously mix up their homepage, changing the logo to celebrate certain dates.

Packaging of course is another example, where instead of one monolith logo, we often see a range of visual identifiers, arguably, different logos. Another client O Street have worked with is Dewars, who have a logotype for Dewars and one for John Dewar & Sons Ltd; they also have a signature and even a Celtic knot.

Our recent branding for McHenry Brewing Co has a bunch of different logos. It may be dangerous for a new brand, but in the context of beer we felt we had the scope to be playful. Okay, we’d been watching a lot of baseball, but with tight control of the core brand red-orange colour we felt we were in safe territory to maintain consistency, too.

I guess this comes back to a common theme in our work at O Street: questioning established norms. Do we really need to do it that way because everyone else does it that way, or should we focus on what that particular brand needs to achieve first and come up with a new way of delivering that? Also, do we need to be that precious with the brands we make? Can a bit of variation actually help add personality without damaging the brand?

We’re looking to find out. Are you?

How to Brew a Brand

07.11.18

Beer. Our studio has an undying love for the craft. We’ve been known to swing by Fyne Ales for a brewery tour and a wee keg or two of ale. Our team has been caught up first-hand in the wonder of the scenery, the care of their community and the craft of their beer.

The question is, how do you communicate that wonder to someone deciding what to drink at the pub or shop? That’s exactly what Fyne Ales asked us to do when they needed a rebrand. Through their own extensive consumer and market research, they’d realised that their beer owned a ‘safe’ supermarket perception.

We set out to change that.

Beginning our design process by taking a brewery residency on the farm itself, we spent time with the Fyne Ales family. What became clear was that their brand didn’t fully reflect the story and ethos that we found on the farm. And it’s not only us that saw it that way—much of the team felt like the brand wasn’t bold enough, it was inconsistent, and that the traditional style really didn’t match the exciting things going on in the mash tuns.

What we found was a family company rooted in their place in the world, with a growing community and two eyes on the future of craft brewing. Immersing ourselves in the brewery meant we had firsthand research to draw on when it came time to leave the wellies at the door and take things to the studio desk for a design-led workshop.

The emerging theme was clear: be yourselves.

Not to oversimplify, but we really believe that’s it. Fyne Ales is in the heart of Scotland. They are a family. They make real craft beer with care and integrity. In this era, the key to success is to wholly be themselves. As the poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder wrote: “Find your place on the planet. Dig in and take responsibility from there.” The trick for us—and this brand—was to represent that visually.

With research and values in place, we could get to the the fun bit: the creative. We played around with rebuilding the FA logo in seemingly endless different ways. Before long, there was a favourite—a confident ‘FA’ drawn from planks of wood. Fyne Ales is a brewery on a working farm: a Farm Brewery. We made it a cornerstone of the identity.

Putting this creative concept to work, we built a full brand identity that started at the barn door and evolved to include textures and patterns from the substance of the brewery—from keg pallets to cowpats. This library of patterns is one that can continue to be built upon as long as there’s interesting objects to be found on the farm (which there will be, until the end of time).

The resulting brand system was borne by crafting and testing designs—from choosing brand typography that works for long or short beer names, to balancing the hierarchy of a bold brand presence alongside a clear beer name, and a rich background of textures.

Building a brand is more than creating something that looks cool. It’s delivering a comprehensive suite of assets that conveys story, setting and dedication of the craft to every person that touches it.

As for the finished packaging? Well, you can see that in all its glory here.

Highland Gems: three places to visit near Aberdeen

28.08.18

It’s easy to knock Scotland’s tartan-carpeted tourist economy, but boy-o-boy can we do things well, too!

O Street are just back from a top secret new project in the Highlands (more about that soon), and it was with great delight that in the space of 24 hours we discovered three absolute gems to phone home about. Here’s three must-stops within a short drive of Aberdeen airport, whether you are here as an international tourist or a Lowlander up for a Highland adventure.

The Craigellachie Hotel

Home to the recently launched Copper Dog small batch blend (a point of pride on its own), this hotel also has two bars and a top notch restaurant. One venison burger and two craft ales down, I observed tattooed waiters working a packed, jovial atmosphere and thought to myself how unexpected it was to be feel so hip 4 hours north of Glasgow’s Finnieston. I can’t vouch for the hotel, but if the informal bar is anything to go by this place is a serious classy act.

The Macallan Visitor Centre

I’ve been to many distilleries in my time, but nothing quite like this. We all love the traditional distilleries (The Glenfiddich down the road from here is a great example), but driving into the car park at The Macallan you quickly realise this is a whole new experience. The strikingly modern architecture is almost hidden from a distance, created to sit un obtrusively in the wild mountainside. Approaching the main entrance by foot from the car park, the scale and size of the building is breathtaking.

Many other whisky experiences seem frightened to loose themselves from the shackles of traditional shortbread tin ‘Scottish-ness’, and for very good reason: it’s what many tourists and whisky drinkers want to see. With this new visitor centre, however, The Macallan have been brave enough to try something new, avoid the safe bet and present whisky in a brand new way. I loved it!

BrewDog, Ellon

We’ve been lucky enough to work with these guys in the past and are unashamed fans of what they have achieved. Somehow still positioned as craft, BrewDog have experienced meteoric growth—new breweries in the US and plans in place for breweries in Australia and China—that has turned them into a serious global beer player. In the current economic climate, it’s a Scottish business success story we should all be boasting about.

Approaching the brewery from the road outside the sleepy rural town of Ellon, massive brewery tanks tower over a huge complex of buildings that house BrewDog’s worldwide HQ. Inside their thriving office building you could easily be mistaken for thinking you are in the beating heart of a Silicon Valley business, or trendy east London tech giant. Further to the office building there are two taprooms, a merch shop and the soon to be opened experimental brewery Overworks. I’ll be coming straight back when that’s open!

So, next time you’re considering a weekend adventure, stuff Barcelona or New York and get your behouchies up to Aberdeen.

David,
O Street