When Dan Endicott shared the artwork for his newest beer label on Instagram, he generated excitement from his followers — and some concern from closer to home. "My wife texted me, 'Is everything OK?' "
It didn't faze Endicott, co-owner of Forest & Main Brewing Co. in Ambler. A Tyler School of Art graduate, Endicott has made dozens of high-concept, if not necessarily alluring, designs — even developing a sort of Forest & Main mythology, a running story line featuring characters who appear on separate beer labels and later mingle, marry, and go to war. (In the image that worried his wife, for a farmhouse ale called Antebellum, three of the characters sit around a table glaring at one another.)
"It's a huge part of our identity as a brewery: the branding, the artwork," Endicott said. But it's not your typical marketing fodder. "We've never looked at our label like we have to put this beautiful hop cone in front of sunshine. We're very lucky to be able to put strange imagery on beer bottles, and we never think about, 'How would this image help sell this beer?' "
Still, as thousands of new craft breweries have opened around the country in recent years — in Pennsylvania alone, there are now 200, a figure that's doubled since 2012 – beer-makers are looking to differentiate themselves any way they can.
They do so through memorable names (ranging from playfully punny to evocative to shocking or just plain weird) and through labels that verge on fine art, attracting attention on Instagram and loyal fans willing to wait in line for particularly intriguing new releases. To stand out, they've had to push their ingenuity to its limits – as basically every obvious name is taken and, when they infringe on a trademark, cease-and-desist letters tend to follow.
For Jean Broillet IV, owner of Tired Hands Brewing Co. in Ardmore, that's meant a lot of names and a lot of labels: Since launching in 2011, he's made 750 types of beer and bottled or canned more than 100 of them.
At first, he drew all the artwork himself, for the labels and for the doodles on the windows of the brewery that went along with each new beer and held a sort of cult fascination for die-hard fans. "It was an approach to social media, to give people who were viewing our Facebook profile an idea of what our beer feels like, what it tastes like, what it's meant to evoke."
Later, as production increased, he brought in other artists to add to Tired Hands' collection of label art — some of it verging on psychedelic, others with a metal aesthetic.
Coming up with a unique, unforgettable name for each — that's still Broillet's job.
"I always keep a notebook full of things I would name something if it makes sense, whether a song, a beer, a poem, a cat, a dog."
Some are simple (HopHands) or fanciful (Fripp) or clever (Helles Other People). Others are inexplicable, like a recent release called Alien Church.
His wife, Julie, who is a lawyer, analyzes each name he proposes for the likelihood of a trademark-infringement issue. "That's why I make up a lot of nonsensical names," he said.
Developing the artwork is less fraught, more fun. For Helles Other People, a lager, he recruited South African artist Mike Lawrence to develop a striking, black-and-white can.
"It's this psychedelic swirling underworld of demons and flames, open sores, and a lot of things that probably contain pus. But it's a really clean and focused beer," Broillet said.
If the label art doesn't whet your thirst, Broillet isn't concerned.
"I don't think that art should be comfortable," he said. "All of our art should evoke something. It doesn't have to be something that will make you feel good. If we've done our job, we've already convinced you that we make good food and beer. The art is adding another dimension to it."
More brewers are looking at it that way.
When Roy-Pitz, the Chambersburg brewery, opens its new brewpub, Roy-Pitz Barrel House, at 990 Spring Garden St. in Philadelphia this week, the decor will include a large mural and original oil paintings made for Roy-Pitz beer labels. William Helmsley, a fine artist from Maryland who also happens to be a cousin of Roy-Pitz co-owner Jesse Rotz, painted the images, ranging from a portrait of a sleazy-looking man in a tracksuit for a beer called Daddy Fat Sacks to a more tempting image of hummingbirds drinking from beer taps for the Honey Sucker Pils.
The lushly painted works are more elaborate than a beer label has any need to be, really.
Rotz said that when he started brewing in 2008, such works were unusual.
"Now, I think it's become almost a necessity to have good label art and to highlight an artist," he said. "It allows the brewery to tell a story about who they are."
The idea for each artwork, said Helmsley, tends to be developed through long conversations, over a dozen beers in the course of an evening.
He tries to think of the most obvious ideas, toss them out, and push on in search of something more surprising. So, for instance, the hirsute sideshow performer Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy inspired the art for a beer called the Sour Hound.
"I thought this is a guy who probably had a pretty dark history of exploitation by the circus industry. He's probably pretty sour about it. But I wanted to paint him with the corporate reverence you'd apply to a portrait of a CEO or president," he said.
The result, like the sour beer within, is not for everyone. But Rotz is fine with that; he'd rather have an avid, but niche, fan base.
Still, even larger breweries are pushing their branding these days more than in the past.
"The first year or two, we just listed our beer by style," said Chris Trogner, co-owner of Tröegs. "But we started to enjoy more and more developing the name to go with it and the illustration to help tell the story."
He and his brother, John, are constantly texting one another ideas for beer names, debating their merits, and eventually doing what they call the "chalkboard test."
"We think about, if you're at your favorite pub and you look up at the bar and you see this chalkboard of beer names, how does this name stand out or roll off the tongue?"
Then, they check to make sure no one else has beaten them to the same brilliant idea — which is often the case.
They also have to be diligent about defending their own trademarks, as plenty of other brewers might want to offer a Sunshine Pils or Nitro Chocolate Stout.
"As more and more breweries open up, all of us are in the same position of trying to come up with names," he said. "It does seem we've been placing more of those phone calls lately."
So, having a standout label becomes even more important, said Lindsey Tweed, a Philadelphia graphic designer who has worked on Tröegs designs since 2013.
In that time, she's noticed the typical beer label has gone from "looking like someone's nephew did it" to something far more sophisticated.