Anyone who says they don’t judge beer by the label is lying. Whenever anyone enters the beer aisle of a grocery store or bottle shop, they’re judging the cans whether they know it or not. And if they don’t already have a purchase in mind, they’re scanning for the beer that speaks to them the most, whatever catches their attention in a sea of artistic renderings of animals with hats or anthropomorphic fruit.

To get to the backstory on some of the unique art we’re likely to find on our local beer cans, Nosh spoke with a number of East Bay breweries and artists to see how they attempt to tackle the challenge of setting themselves apart on the shelves. Here’s what they said.

Buck Wild Brewing

Buck Wild Rogue Wave can art
The art from Buck Wild’s Rogue Wave IPA. Image credit: Mike Bernstein, artist credit: Molly McCoy

Buck Wild Brewing
401 Jackson St. (near Fourth Street), Oakland

Of the around 9500 craft breweries in the United States, only 17 of those breweries are 100% gluten-free. Oakland’s Buck Wild Brewing is the only such brewery in California.

“For many years gluten-free has had a bit of a negative stigma attached to it,” Michael Bernstein, the founder of Buck Wild, explained. “So we are really trying to dispel that and what we try to do is market ourselves as just fantastic craft beer that happens to be gluten-free.” 

Bernstein said the artwork on the company’s cans, by Oakland freelance designer Molly McCoy, serves to differentiate Buck Wild in the crowded beer market. As part of a recent marketing push to position the brewery as a “California brand,” Buck Wild has released six new cans with art portraying a theme or landscape synonymous with the state, such as the redwoods, the wild coastline, citrus orchards and the Sierra Nevada.

“We worked our darndest to make sure we were doing something very unique that could stand out from the others,” Bernstein said, “and I really feel like we’ve accomplished that.”

East Brother Beer Co.

East Brother beer cans
East Brother’s attempt to tell the brand’s story through typography and graphic design. Credit: Clara Rice Photography.

East Brother Beer Co.
1001 Canal Blvd. (near Wharf Street), Richmond

Rob Lightner, the co-founder of East Brother Beer Co. was born and raised in Oakland. But with co-founder Chris Coomber, he decided to open a brewery in early 2017 in Richmond, attracted to its great industrial history and its less-prominent position in the region.

“We make classic styles of beers,” Lightner explained, “understated, balanced, easy drinking, not super hyped, of just high quality.” 

East Brother’s can design is also understated, but that doesn’t mean its without a thoughtful design. According to Lightner, East Brother wants to let its product speak for itself, staying “consistent with the beer inside” through simple art.

The line on each can is meant to look like the water line on the freighters off Richmond’s shore, Lightner said, and the muted colors match the freighters’ washed out colors. For the cans logo, East Brother worked with Chicago design studio Good Beer Hunting.

Very little has changed with its cans — or its lineup of beers — in the six years since East Brother first opened. A few months ago, when East Brother launched its first new beer since, the company went back to the drawing board to choose a new color for the blonde ale, said Jaime Dooley, East Brother’s marketing manager. The final pick: a classic-looking green and gold Dooley said was chosen for the colors’ warmth. 

“We’re looking for a color that kind of feels cohesive with everything but speaks to who we are,” Dooley said, “and what the beer is like because the colors also kind of have to somewhat mimic the beer that’s inside.”

Fieldwork Brewing

Fieldwork Pulp can
Fieldwork’s can designs are created in-house. Courtesy: Ian Gordon, director of marketing at Fieldwork Brewing

Fieldwork Brewing
1160 Sixth St. (near Harrison Street), Berkeley
100 West Juana Ave. (near Washington Avenue), San Leandro

Fieldwork Brewing is constantly developing new beers, so they decided the best way to develop artwork quickly is to create templates that allow them to swap in images “to match the vibe of whichever beer is going in the can,” said Ian Gordon Fieldwork’s director of marketing. 

The brew team creates the beer and also names it, so when it gets to the design team it’s all about finding imagery that suits the name. Fieldwork originally worked with Gamut, a San Francisco design firm, for its can art. Gordon, one of Gamut’s founders, eventually moved to Fieldwork as its full-time marketing director, so the company’s designs are now created in-house.

Some of these templates include their Adventure series labels such as Pulp or Fog Ripper. Another is a full panel layout which is artwork-based, such as Slaying Power. Belgians have their own style, with gold and birds, such as Annette and Lilith

If Fieldwork’s label designs had to be described in a couple of words, Gordon says it would be “wanderlust, evocative and understated.” 

Since Fieldwork doesn’t distribute to stores, they don’t have to compete for shelf visibility. Instead, Gordon said, “we are competing for visibility in peoples minds, so we’re always looking for novel ways of shaking things up, standing out, and making something memorable.”

Roses’ Taproom

Wish You Were Here beer cans
Wish You Were Here was a Hazy IPA Roses’ brewed a few times during the pandemic “when we couldn’t have folks in our space.” Courtsey: Roses’ Taproom

Roses’ Taproom
4930 Telegraph Ave. (near 49th Street), Oakland

Hillary and Luke Janson met at art school, so they had a clear creative vision for their future brewery: light, airy and warm. They wanted the space to “feel like a hug when you walk in,” Luke said. It only made sense that when they decided to open Roses’ in 2017, the company’s can art had to parallel this sentiment. 

For every new beer that they release, the Jansons pull from their running list of names, concepts and visual language. Though their process varies, different lines of beers, such as lagers or fruited IPAs, have the same sort of “visual language,” Luke said. He’s the main designer for Roses’ can art, though the company sometimes commissions the help of other artists for special can designs.

Roses’ is always experimenting, rotating its beers, wines and seltzers. That means Luke does a lot of label-creating. Through trial and error, he’s learned that their most successful labels “wrangle the materiality of the can,” using a sticker with a metallic base that allows them to print the art over can-looking material. The result, Luke said, is a “twinkly effect.”

Transitioning from larger-scale art to that on a beer label is about changing expectations of what level of detail will actually end up on the can, Luke said. Some textures and colors that exist in one medium will not translate once printed on a can. 

“Figuring out the right way to translate that materiality into what is ultimately a different product has been a learning experience for sure,” he said. 

To make Roses stand apart, Luke often thinks about what’s going to catch consumers’ eyes. “I’m always really proud when the thing inside is the best I’ve ever made, but I’m also really happy when it looks beautiful.”

Two Pitchers Brewing

Radler cans
Each Two Pitchers can depicts a specific character. Courtesy: Tommy Hester, co-founder of Two Pitchers.

Two Pitchers Brewing
2344 Webster St. (near 24th Street), Oakland

Tommy Hester and Wilson Barr met in college as pitchers on a baseball team. 

“We were not very good,” Hester said. “We spent almost all our time on the bench and found the shared love of craft beer.” From that Two Pitchers Brewing was born, a brewery that focuses on craft radlers (a mix of beer and fruit soda, also known as a shandy).

Each of Two Pitchers’ cans displays a specific character, such as the “Disco Queen,” “Water Boy,” or even a pop-top van. Hester and Barr come up with each character, the concept and the layout, then their graphic designer, Marlene Silveira, creates the final design. Hester said the goal is keeping things fun and approachable.

“You don’t need to have a triple IPA that tastes like you’re biting into a pine tree to have something that’s craft beer,” Hester said. “It can be light, it can be fruity, it can be approachable but still keeping that quality. And that’s what we want our branding to be as well.” 

Hester figures that on the shelf, you’ll get a quarter of a second of someone’s time, so it’s important to make sure their label pops and conveys the feeling of their beers. Part of this is having the fruits in the beer included on the label, so people quickly understand what they’re getting into. 

“It’s basically trying to kind of thread that needle,” Hester said, “and both inform and attract in a fraction of a second.”

Wondrous Brewing

Wondrous brewing can
Courtesy image Wynn Whisenhunt, owner/head brewer at Wondrous. Artist credit: Andreas Pedersen

Wondrous Brewing
1306 65th St. (near Hollis Street), Emeryville

After working in Bay Area breweries for a while, Wynn Whisenhunt, the owner and head brewer at Wondrous Brewing, moved to Germany for eight months to study beer making. After learning more about the craft, he moved back to the Bay, opening his own brewery in May 2021. 

Wondrous’ focus is lagers, but it also brews a fair amount of West Coast-style hoppy beers, mixing Whisenhunt’s love of classic German-style beers and his West Coast roots. 

When looking for a logo, Whisenhunt found a Sweden-based designer Andreas Pedersen online. The working relationship was so good, that Wondrous has been collaborating with Pedersen on can designs ever since. 

Whisenhunt will come up with the idea for the label and then email Pedersen to come up with a design. “95% of the time I’m so amazed that he comes up with something, like, so perfect,” Whisenhunt said of Pedersen’s can art.

“I’ve never met him in person, I’ve never even talked to him over the phone,” Whisenhunt said. “We’ve just been pen pals pretty much for the last three years.” 

Whisenhunt said that the goal is a simple, consistent style that people can look at on the shelf and think, “oh yeah that looks like a Wondrous beer.” Wondrous uses its own shape and size of label to help differentiate the cans, Whisenhunt said.

To Whisenhunt, being true to the Wondrous brand is more important than having a complicated design to stand out. 

“Beer gets fun and technical and crazy and artsy,” he said. “But sometimes just having something simple and comfortable and easy to read is great.”

Some additional can artists to know

Erina Davidson

Artist and beer cans
Erina Davidson poses with the cans she designed for Temescal Brewing (left), Davidson’s can design for Rare Barrel (right). Courtesy: Erina Davidson

Erina Davidson is an education program coordinator and artist at Kala Art Institute. While her main focus is in printmaking, she has designed beer can labels for Temescal Brewing and the recently-closed Rare Barrel brewing’s Hello Friend offshoot. 

For Davidson, these labels were one of the first chances she had to showcase her illustrations in a public space. For her first label with Hello Friend, she was chosen from a call for customers to tag local artists through Instagram. Similarly, Davidson was chosen for Temescal Brewing through a call for artists for their sixth anniversary label. 

“I know that there are a lot of graphic designers where it’s just kind of a regular part of their job,” Davidson said, “But for me, this kind of design work is really kind of just a fun way for me to think about illustration or color design, and I just consider myself lucky if I get paid to do it.”

Designing a beer label has very different expectations and parameters than Davidson’s usual art: it has to be a particular size, it has to appeal from different angles, and you have to consider the 360-degree view on the can.

Davidson makes a mix of art that’s fun to look at and with personal style, as well as work that involves her personal narrative and digs deeper. She felt she had to approach the beer labels differently than her other work, by just letting go and making something fun. 

“I personally appreciate all the different designs that I see and I just like seeing other artists take on that format,” Davidson said. “So it was nice to have been able to do that as well, and it was really fun to see something you design on the rack at Berkeley Bowl.” 

Scott Kimball

A futuristic beer can label
The name “Martian City” came from an inside joke from artist Scott Kimball’s childhood. Courtesy: Scott Kimball

Scott Kimball was riding his bike around Richmond when he decided to stop into the now closed Benoit-Casper Brewing. While there, he ran into Scott and Veronica Davidson, who now own Ocean View Brew Works. This coincidental meeting led Kimball to become the artist behind Ocean View’s logo and labels.

The most recent label that Kimball designed for them was a collaboration beer with Federation Brewing. Because Federation’s brand is science fiction-themed, the name for the beer was “Martian City,” which Kimball said is a name taken from a family inside joke: As kids, Kimball and his brother would marvel at the complexity of a big freeway exchange in the Bay Area. 

“It looked like something out of the Jetsons with the swooping going every which way,” Kimball said. “And we as kids, we called it Martian City.”

From that name, Kimball designed a label with hop martians in high tops, a futuristic city and space whales – combining the themes of both breweries. 

For Kimball, the process of can design is pretty flexible. He shows the Davidsons a sketch and if they like it, they go with it.

Kimball said there’re some things that you have to keep in mind when designing a label that don’t come up much in other art styles, such as keeping the front image centered and making it “attractive enough to grab somebody,” while still making space in the design for the legal requirements on the can. 

At the end of the day, though, Kimball says this kind of work is simply fun. 

“It’s just good to work with a fun product that everybody loves,” He said. “Everybody likes a nice beer.”