Craft beer is more than just what’s inside the can…it’s what’s on the outside that counts.
Think back a few years to a time when beer choice was limited to mainstream lager brands and the stalwart traditional ‘real ale’ breweries. While the former stuck to the plain and simple, the latter invariably had a branding style that represented the traditional; think wheat and barley sheaves, golden hops and country idylls emblazoned on bottles and pump clips. Though this style has its place, it undeniable alienated many potential beer drinkers, lending itself more to the dedicated country pub regular.
The craft beer revolution has offered drinkers something else. Brands like Brewdog, Beavertown and Tiny Rebel ripped up the rulebook and started designing eye-catching labels that matched the disruption that was going on inside the bottle. Their art was loud, brash and colourful, and created a new type of curious beer drinker who wanted more than a lager or a pint of bitter.
I recently had the privilege of chatting to the team at Thirst Craft, a design agency that understands the importance of branding more than anyone. Working specifically within the specialist drinks market, their clients include the likes of Fullers, Lindemans and this month’s takeover stars Loch Lomond Brewery – whose recent rebrand by Thirst has revolutionised the way they’re perceived by beer drinkers up and down the country. With beautiful designs that capture the essence of what the brewery is all about and the place it calls home, the artwork is a seamless blend of the traditional and eye-catching modernity.
Chris Black, the managing director of Thirst Craft, told me their story. Chris was the marketing and sales manager for a leading Scottish craft brewer, while business partner Matt Burns was a beer-obsessed graphic designer. Having worked together in the past, the pair both saw that, while many breweries had a great product, they often struggled to reflect that in their branding and packaging. Together, they believed that they could help breweries realise their full potential and thus, Thirst Craft was born.
Their first client hailed from another of Scotland’s great lochs – Loch Ness Brewery. The rebrand won multiple awards and, as Chris explains: “It put Thirst’s work on the map in Scotland and beyond.”
Now they’re working all across the drinks industry and the globe – with current clients in Alaska, New Zealand, America, Aruba, Belgium and Hong Kong with their efforts expanding to the branding of wine, gin and other spirits as well as beer.
Expanding so quickly relied on a real appreciation of the importance of branding to craft beer. Chris summed this up neatly in one sentence: “Packaging will sell the first beer, the product will keep people coming back for more.” In a time when the number of UK breweries has tripled in the last 10 years, having a product that catches the eye is more important than ever.
Thirst have quickly established an ethos and method of working with clients that powers what they do today. “When it
comes to our work, it has to be creatively rare and commercially right,” Chris explains. “That means creating something that feels fresh and visually exciting, while considering the context, occasion and landscape in which it’s enjoyed to ensure success. Drinks aren’t drunk in isolation – they’re part of an entire lifestyle, and our work needs to take this into consideration in order to cut through and compete.”
In terms of the creative and design process, the team have it down to a tee – perfected over a lot of trial and error. Step one, as Chris tells me: “We immerse ourselves in the brand, understanding their challenges, opportunities and ambition, and delving deeper into their category and target audience.”
Step two, he continues: “We focus, doing any brand strategy, naming or positioning that’s needed, then distilling everything we’ve learned into a clear creative brief”.
Then, step three: “We create our designs, looking near, far and wide for inspiration in art, architecture, nature, ingredients, taste, anything really. This all comes together in a big whiteboard discussion where our initial creative routes start to form.”
Finally, step four: “We hone down the routes and develop and refine until final artwork. Our process is very collaborative internally and with the client to ensure we develop a final outcome we all love.”
Loch Lomond Brewery are just one of the more recent names on the scene to ask Thirst to work their magic. Fiona Maceachern, Loch Lomond managing director, explained why: “Our old branding was beautiful and perfect at the time. It was mature, it was connected to Loch Lomond but when we started to do much more forward-thinking, modern, hop forward beers – it didn’t fit in.
“So that’s when we thought, if we’re going to do these particular styles of beers, we knew what packaging they had to be in and we needed someone to take that forward and make it much more forward-thinking. We knew we had to get the packaging spot on.
“At that point, we contacted Thirst and told them what we were wanting. We needed to make sure we were still, most definitely, a Scottish brand. Everything we do has to look Scottish without being tartan and heather or looking like a shortbread tin, we wanted it to look, most definitely, Scottish – but very, very modern. And they’ve definitely managed to do that with their style.”
“Our approach was to tell the story of the loch from different perspectives,” Chris explains. For the breweries core range of traditional beer styles, they wanted the designs to look fresh but to not alienate their core drinkers. “We still wanted to have a connection with the old designs, using landscape illustrations and interesting colour palettes. We used an illustrator who grew up in the area, Jack Daly, who had a unique style we hadn’t seen in beer packaging before. The illustrations focus on different characters as they explore the area.”
The craft range of beers provided a different challenge. They needed to attract new, younger drinkers and reflect the progressive nature of the beers within. This meant taking an innovative approach. “We went out to the loch with a drone and took birds-eye-view images of the landscape,” Chris tells us. “We then edited the images to have a bold colour wash over them to give differentiation in the range. The end result was really exciting, with the textures we created reflecting the flavours of the beers in the cans.”
The results, as you will see in this month’s box, are stunning. The iconic Loch and its surrounding mountains are captured in vivid, fluid colours that focus on the area’s natural beauty and the adventures that it promises.