Roughly two months ago, our transatlantic cousins at the Aleheads published this great post on the best beer labels in America. At the time, it crossed our mind to reciprocate – but we were in the depths of our big beer protest month and had other matters to pursue. Now – and on the first day of advent, so it’s reasonably fitting – we reveal our top twenty British beer labels (arranged in no particular order).
The list is by no means definitive, so if you have any glaring omissions, please send them in. We’re trying to stick to bottle labels rather than pump clips, so had to miss a few obvious candidates out (i.e. I love Dark Star clips, but less so the bottle labels). Hopefully there are some here that challenge the Americans – although none hold a candle to this beauty from Caldera. A devil chewing through a spermatic cord? Only in America…
Our first offering is this beauty from Oakham Ales in Peterborough – their highly-regarded Oakham Citra. Their steampunk industrial website lists the other bottled beers – it would be hard to miss Inferno on the shelf – but the grimacing, sprout-like hop on the Citra always makes me chuckle.
There are two trains of thought when it comes to label design – be wild and creative, giving all of your beers suitably exciting bottles – or decorate them all the same, to build a brand identity (apologies for using that awful phrase). The Bristol Beer Factory do the latter, and very well – their Clifton Suspension Bridge logo really works.
British beer is renowned for jokey, sometimes horrendously naff branding. Jeff Pickthall does a marvellous job of naming and shaming over at Pump Clip Parade – but sometimes the quirky and funny do stand out – such as on the label of Whittingtons Cats Whiskers [sic]. Why shouldn’t a cat-themed Gloucestershire brewery feature puss in a bow tie?
Our next great label comes from a brewery suggested to us on Twitter by ‘friend of the BeerCast’ AdamSh. I’ve tried a couple of Derventio’s beers before – but only on cask. Their bottles feature full-on works of art, like this epic scene on their 4.2% golden ale, Emporer’s Whim. Thumbs up for this one.
Yorkshire’s Wold Top Brewery have a range of bottled beers – their regulars are badged with circular labels, some based on an astronomical theme, others named after the beer style. But their seasonals are presented beautifully – such as Against the Grain. It may or may not be ‘World Famous’ – but it’s one of the nicest tasting gluten-free beers out there, and also one of the best-looking.
Going back to our duty protest month, we featured an interview with Justin Hawke of Moor Beer Company. He told us that one of their most prized beers – JJJ IPA – was to be discontinued for the British market due to the heavy tax bill. So UK beer drinkers will shortly no longer get to look at this great label (although their other beers carry a similar design)
Clean, bold colours help a beer stand out from the crowd, and the label of Robert Knops’ IPA certainly does that. All of his three beers – soon to be joined by a bouncing baby porter – have the same visual style. While the California Common looks as if it could be on a Beach Boys compilation CD, I love the rickety bike riding and sacred cow of his IPA.
I also love owls, of course – as every right-minded person does. Somerset’s Cotleigh brewery decided on their brewery theme very early on – birds of prey. Cotleigh’s Long Eared Owl looks menacing on the label, and yet extremely quirky with it. Great tufts. Cotleigh also donate part of the profits to the Hawk and Owl Trust.
Usually content to have minimal, foot of the bottle labels, Meantime’s Union features this great drawing by Ray Richardson. He was also one of the founder members of the brewery, and for their Vienna Lager he went for something more ‘esoteric’ – which I think sums it up nicely. If you visit the Greenwich Union pub, the original hangs on the wall.
A mellow pastoral scene, the label for Humpty Dumpty Reedcutter is also really well done. A man slices through the stems of reeds in time-honoured Norfolk fashion, windmill in the background. As with the Meantime artwork – you can imagine this as a painting on the wall of a pub. Only it would have to be a cosy inn somewhere in the Broads.
The Kernel Brewery are becoming one of the biggest names in British brewing – the right way, by making wonderful beer. All of which is packaged in the same brown-paper, classic labels – each one then hand-stamped with the beer name and abv. This is genius marketing – you can spot them from a hundred yards. Also, the first time I met Evin, he was letting his friend’s young toddler stamp the labels for him.
I just love this label. It’s quite hard to see on the small picture here, but the full-size version shows all the detail – a Melville-esque scene of tragic mariners being devoured by a mythical creature from the deep. It doesn’t hurt that the beer is great, as well. As Skrimshander is delicately-carved whalebone (or teeth), then the label to the beer has to be similarly intricate – as this one is, without doubt.
This might not be the best representation of Green Jack’s Baltic Trader – it was hard to find a photo of the label to do it justice. Served in 750ml flip-topped bottles, their beers are always stylishly presented, and the mighty 10.5% Imperial Stout demands that kind of suitably impressive container.
I really like this one – but…I’m…not…sure…why…
Plenty of birds making an appearance in our best British labels – and here’s another one – Purity’s Mad Goose. The beer is named after the excitable brewery wildfowl that can delivery a swift peck to anyone who gets too close – but this particular goose looks like it’s been cooked, buried and then resurrected for a spot of payback.
Simple can be beautiful. Manchester’s Marble Brewery put all of their beers into pantone-effect bottles that let you know exactly where they come from. Dobber is their strong IPA (Dobber being a big marble) – I also like their identity-stricken sounding Stouter Port Stout.
When we asked on Twitter what labels people wanted to see in our best-of list, there was one brewery that was mentioned over all others. Huddersfield’s Magic Rock have blown onto the beer scene in a whirlwind of well-designed beer – all of which are brilliantly produced for them by Richard Norgate. They also have, without doubt, the best delivery van in the country.
Orkney’s Highland Brewery – aka Rob Hill and sons – are one of the most consistent brewers in Scotland. Orkney Blast is named after a WWII island newspaper. It makes perfect sense therefore to feature members of the mermaid military on the label – the lady on the right certainly seems to be saluting with more than her arm…
Well, here we go. Americans, eat this. It’ll take a very good label indeed to top Watermill Dogth Vader. Yes, that is a canine Sith Lord. Also yes, there is an asteroid shaped like a bone behind him. It tells you nothing about the beer (unless you take a guess that it’s dark – which it is; a 5% stout). That doesn’t matter, it’s fantastic.
So a very good label to beat Dogth Vader? BrewDog Atlantic IPA is more than that. Designed by the brilliant Johanna Basford (who personally I think should do all of their labels), just marvel at the full-size version. She also designed the Sunk Punk label. I don’t think there’s a better beer label out there, on either continent.