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Vancouver craft brewers take pride in what goes in - and on - their bottles

Ultimately, it’s the beer in the bottle that counts - but the label is what first turns heads. That’s the view of marketers and designers engaged in British Columbia’s flourishing craft-beer scene. It’s a growing, multi-million dollar market offering more choice for consumers but fierce competition for small-batch startups trying to lure customers from increasingly crowded shelves.

Parallel 49's Toques of Hazzard Imperial White IPA.

Courtesy Parallel 49/Combination 13

Parallel 49's Toques of Hazzard Imperial White IPA.

Ultimately, it’s the beer in the bottle that counts - but the label is what first turns heads.

That’s the view of marketers and designers engaged in British Columbia’s flourishing craft-beer scene. It’s a growing, multi-million dollar market offering more choice for consumers but fierce competition for small-batch startups trying to lure customers from increasingly crowded shelves.

“We find having branding that pops on the shelf has been critical to us getting liquid to lips,” says Chris Bjerrisgaard, marketing manager at Parallel 49, an East Vancouver brewery that works with Vancouver designer Steve Kitchen (Combination 13) to produce some of this market’s boldest labels.

“You see all kinds of branding efforts now - high design, wacky cartoon styles like ours, whatever you can imagine, really - it's out there.”

One thing’s for sure - this isn’t your dad’s staid stubby of beer.

Cam Andrews, partner and creative director of another East Van brewery called Bomber, thinks that the biggest change in labels over the last five years is simply the sheer number on the shelf. And they’ve always been designed to be conspicuous.

Bomber Brewing's Superpest Double IPA.

Courtesy Bomber Brewing

Bomber Brewing's Superpest Double IPA.

“For Bomber, we wanted to create a brand that is nostalgic and part of Canadiana, I want people to see our cans and feel a sense of familiarity, like they’ve seen them before or, better yet, their whole lives.”

It’s also a matter of pride, says Richard Hatter, creative director of Nanaimo-based design firm Hired Guns Creative. “It's not just corporate branding, anymore. Now it's taking the big-beer model of really polished design and crossing that over to craft beer, and now that's become more polished than big-beer design. So it's really neat to see that transition.”

Adds Parallel 49’s Bjerrisgaard: “Ultimately our goal is to put out a product that we're proud of in every aspect, without compromises. But I think it resonates with people - they know we're doing what we want to do without apology.”

Greg Lindsay, director of marketing and sales for Victoria-based Driftwood Brewing Company, says craft-beer marketing is evolving with the growth of the industry. “All of us work hard to create our identity inside and outside the bottle.”

That’s why his brewery recently turned to Hired Guns to help transform its brand.    

“The competition factor in B.C. specifically has been huge with the number of breweries coming online in the last five years,” says Hired Guns’ managing partner Leif Miltenberger. “Suddenly, there's a whole lot of fighting going on for shelf space, and one of the best tools in a brewery's arsenal is packaging design. And that's driven the level of design up.”

And, Hatter suggests, if design quality goes up, so can sales.

Driftwood's Fat Tug IPA.

Courtesy Sean Fenzl

Driftwood's Fat Tug IPA.

“For Driftwood, it's helped open up new doors into the States and across Canada. When a government buyer is looking at new products coming into their stores, especially from out of province, they're looking at packaging first to see if they can sell it, then they're thinking about the type and style of beer that's in there. So packaging is going to open up new countries and markets before your product.

“[Increased] sales are obviously the number one thing we're concerned about from the client side. But if we have killer artwork, if we have better artwork than everyone else, then we're going to do that."

Branding is the bait and the beer is the hook, says Andrews. “If well executed, design can help sell beer. But it can only help sell beer once. [Then] the beer has to stand on its own legs.

“For the most part, beer branding in Vancouver is well done. I think that most of the breweries have developed identities that relate to their beginnings. The test for everyone, will be whether the beer can hold up the story.”

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