Parlez-vous la biere? Lei parle Beer? Do you speak Beer? Kya aap Beer bolte hain? There are a few ideas around the world, as every- one knows, that speak the same language. Of course, money speaks a universal language but many times the language of money reeks of greed, seduction or deceit. Beer, on the other hand, speaks only one language; It is the language of conviviality; the language of fun. No wonder it is often referred to as the king of good times. Over time immemorial beer drinking has become so popular that major international breweries need to package their beer with easily recognizable, iconic beer labels — bottles or cans. In fact the most popular beer brands are so iconic that they are instantly recognizable no matter in which language they appear. But, on the other hand, there is also a detectable language of beer label (or beer can) design that transcends language barriers or cultures and appears on the shelf as the language of beer.
For this article we visited the beer can collection of Ashok Singhal an avid collector of more than a 100 beer cans from everywhere and anywhere around the world. Each can collected by him is neatly displayed (unopened, unused) in specially designed showcases, sometimes along with matching beer mugs, coasters, openers and even matching T-shirts. By doing this Ashok is expressing himself in the fun language of beer of course, but in many ways he also represents a class of consumers that packaging designers around the world need to know. These are the consumers who appreciate the decorative value of a well designed pack just as much as its contents. Such consumers would just as readily buy a product for its packaging instead of the product inside the packaging. Brand owners would surely term this phenomenon the Holy Grail for all successful design. How must packaging be designed such that it attracts more customers to itself and not just the product? This is what all packaging aims for — design better, sell more.
Then, what must a pack designer learn from a rich collection of beer cans from around the world? Let’s take a look at it.
For a fun loaded package like a beer can, being attractive is not difficult. Modern beer can production and printing technology allows designs to be reproduced such that they are a real treat for consumers and collectors alike. The design environment, therefore, is vibrant, colorful and open to thematic, emblematic or novelty design treatment.
Most beer cans in the market today have a two-piece aluminum structure with pull-tab tops designed for easy opening. Special coatings inside the can body prevent the beer from losing its characteristic taste by contact with the metal. Modern beer cans are the result of more than half a century of packaging developments from the first flat-top beer cans which required a church key — a triangle shaped metal opener — to open. The can sizes generally vary from 330ml (50cl) to 500ml but smaller 165ml (25cl) versions are also seen.
Not only does beer have flavor or strength variants, it also has several traditional alternate forms such as lager, pale ale, draught, bitters, stout and so on. The designs aim to cater to this vast range of choices while retaining an overall signature style for the brand.
Colour Colour is very closely associated with
the strength (percent of alcohol content) of the brew in the can. Light ales and draughts are represented by shades of yellow or pale green while stronger beers are represented by red, brown or even black, in the case of Guinness.
There is a heavy reliance on the use of serif or historical typefaces boldly across beer labels. In some cases, this was used to depict the strength of the brew or the year of the start up of the brewery. In any case it is a strong device to gain shelf visibility and suggest confidence about the product.
Very often, due to the heritage value of ageless beer brands classical designs that emphasize tradition and quality are created. Such designs rely heavily on the use of graphic symbols of royalty and heraldry to create an impression of age and history. On the other hand it can also be observed that taking a modern approach towards the design can make just as strong an impact on its own, especially among new age beer drinkers.
For most brands observed, the brand itself appears as the hero of the design and all other information and qualifiers are relegated to the background. Heraldry, graphics and color are used in synch with the brand identity to create the basic brand architecture.
Points of Difference
The origin of the beer and its pedigree in the world of brewing is most often observed as the key point of difference offered by competing brands. By presenting traditional designs in a contemporary fashion an attempt is also made to engage a new generation of drinkers.
Storytelling is frequently seen across the brands as a means of asserting the supremacy of the brand and its heritage. The stories usually include a brief history of the brewery describing its grain to glass journey.
But of course, this cannot be all. The canvas for beer can design is very big. It offers immense possibility for experimentation. There is a lot of history to draw upon. The results could please not just can collectors but the Board of Directors and shareholders of the brand too.
Design responsibly. Drink responsibly. Just don’t drink and design. Or then, maybe — why not?
A brief history of beer cans
American Can Co. began experimenting with canned beer in 1931. The main objective was to create a beer can that could hold up to the heat and pressure of the pasteurization process of beer without bursting or leaking later on to store shelves. Style and branding were not really a top priority in the beginning. In order to withstand the heat and pressure of the process, the first beer cans were constructed of tin and steel and were much thicker and sturdier than those we see today. By 1935, the first commercially produced beer in a can hit the market (in the US). However, beer would still not taste great coming from a can for several decades thereafter.
Once the methods of packaging beer into durable cans had been developed, consumers and collectors found a real treat in the bright and colorful designs that emerged. Manufacturers began releasing special edition and novelty cans with lively images and color schemes to attract consumers and compensate for the canned beer taste.
Some of these early cans, if still in good condition, are now worth a lot of money to collectors. (Check out: http://beercanworld.com/beercans_terms.htm for example.) A brand called Cordell was produced in 1963 by the Haughlie Brewing Company. It featured a tagline: ‘Even the Cat Enjoys It!’ This tagline was included only on one run of the labeling and was removed after complaints from animal rights groups. Nevertheless, it is one of the rarest and most valuable cans in existence and highly sought after by serious collectors.
Canned beer became popular in the 1960s, but consumers still had to put up with beer that tasted more like the can than the beer. Over the years, technology has improved and even craft beer (artisan brewers) manufacturers are now comfortable with packaging their products in cans. Cans are now specially coated with a water- based finish that prevents the beer from coming in contact with the aluminum. Packaging beer in cans is less expensive than in glass bottles and the cans are 100% recyclable, making them an attractive option, especially in today’s economic climate.
Vintage beer can collections are generally comprised of three distinct types of packaging: flat top, cone top and pull tops. The earliest can designs were flat tops and consumers were on their own when it came to opening them. Generally a triangle shaped can opener was used to puncture the tops of the cans and make an opening in this style of can. Soon cone-top cans were introduced and the six pack was born in 1938. The packaging was thick and six packs of beer were deemed too heavy for housewives to pick up on weekly grocery shopping trips. By 1960, the last
cone-top beer cans were produced and manufacturers tried using an aluminum top on steel cans to make them easier to open. In 1962, the first pull-tab beer hit the market, in 1965 ring-top cans were introduced and in 1974 a short-lived push-button beer can was used on some brands. Most canned beers now use the pull-tab packaging.
An attempt was made to launch canned beer in India in the early 80s by Metal Box India. The brand Stroh was designed overseas and launched briefly before it faded away. Today the market offers a wide range of cans from Kingfisher, Haywards, Carlsberg, Fosters, Royal Challenge and others.z
With acknowledgment to:
This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of Packaging South Asia.