Ale and arty beer labels

Craft brewers might be the new rock stars, but other talented sorts are helping them look good, as Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Head down to your local bottle store and, chances are, things will be looking more colourful than usual.

It's not the alcopops screaming out to the university girls, although they are still a blight.

Instead, row upon row of craft beers are vying for space on the shelves and increasingly being given pride of place over the generic offerings from the big brewers.

No doubt the main reason for this is the beer itself, being created by an assortment of vibrant characters who have a passion for pushing boundaries and bringing interesting and full-flavoured beverages to the public.

These new beers are being devoured at a rapid rate, a trend flying in the face of flagging overall beer sales across New Zealand.

But as the number of craft beer jumps, so appears the old chestnut of competition.

Walk into a big craft beer retailer - say, New World Thorndon in Wellington, which boasts the widest range of individual beers in the country - and you can be forgiven for being intimidated.

Standing out among the crowd has become increasingly important for brewers of any size, and one of the best ways to do that is a snazzy label.

As Your Weekend discovered, the artists and designers behind New Zealand's trailblazing beers come from a variety of backgrounds but all enjoy a good beer

Shane Cowlishaw is the co-writer of Fairfax's blog The Beerhive. You can follow him at or @BeerhiveBlog.

AUTUMN McGRAIL, Garage Project

It would be hard to dispute that Wellington brewery Garage Project leads the pack when it comes to creative bottle art. Tapping into the capital's creative stream, the company puts as much effort into what goes on the outside of their product as inside it.

Its labels have proven so popular that T-shirts bearing its designs are seen everywhere and framed posters of the artworks provide a welcome second revenue stream.

One of the more recent artists to be shoulder-tapped is Autumn McGrail (pictured, right). Known simply as Autumn in the artistic world, the 29-year-old paints portraits of stylised female figures; a ''little bit low-brow'', she says.

This year Garage Project was looking for a second design to go alongside the traditional skull motif used for its beer brewed in celebration of Dia de Muertos - the Mexican Day of the Dead.

As well as a strong black lager, a second beer brewed with chillis, rose water and watermelon was produced, named La Calavera Catrina. The brewers went on the hunt for someone to design something special for the beer that would also be released in limited-edition cans.

Autumn happened to have an exhibition at Rex Royale on nearby Cuba St, and soon the brewers came knocking.

''They just told me everything they were looking for and I just did them a painting. It was really surreal because [after it was released] I just happened to go to New World - Garage Project didn't say they were going to be in New World - and I just saw this whole rack of them and went 'Oh my god', it's so crazy. So cool though.''

Garage Project co-founder Jos Ruffell says Autumn is the seventh artist the brewery has worked with. It's an area it refuses to compromise on, even if it is only creating a 20-litre batch that will be served on a single night.

''That perhaps is a bit crazy,'' he muses. ''But I think it really comes back to some fundamentals about what we do and one of them is that it's all about the beer. We put a huge amount of effort into the beer and we want it to look good when we present it.''

Ruffell says traditional wisdom in the beer world is simply to use the brewery name and beer style to brand a product, such as Epic Pale Ale or DB Bitter. But Garage Project's aim has always been to present a total package that showcases one simple thing. ''We want the beer to be the hero, not us.''

SCOTT JACKSON, Cassels & Sons Brewery

The Christchurch brewery has some of the most distinctive labels around, and they are definitely created in the most unusual way.

The brainchild of 40-year-old Lyttelton resident Scott Jackson (right), each label starts as a relief print hand-cut into lino.

Drafted to design the labels by co-founder Zak Cassels with the assurance he could do whatever he liked, Jackson says the loose brief made the owners nervous for a while. 

''The gig just kind of grew as Cassels & Sons grew. If they'd originally suggested that I might like to do 20 lino-cuts for them, it probably might have seemed too involved, as I work full-time as an art gallery installer-technician, but I'm glad it worked out. I'm always walking past randoms on the street wearing the T-shirts.''

After carving the lino, many of the labels are taken down to Kowhai Press in St Albans, a one-man outfit run by Peter Vangioni from his garage.

Using a 170 year-old Albion press, the block is inked-up ''old school'' and used to do the printing.

The press has another link to the brewery, being once owned by Canterbury artist William Sutton, a long-time collaborator of well-known artist Tom Taylor who was also brewery owner Alasdair Cassels' father-in-law.

SIMON COURTNEY, Liberty Brewing/8 Wired/Yeastie Boys & more 

Another Christchurch resident, Simon Courtney (pictured, right) is director of Deflux Design and the man behind an array of popular labels.

Working with some of the real characters of the brewing scene - including Liberty Brewing's Joseph Wood, Townshend's Martin Townshend and the Yeastie Boys - has been a highlight of the work that began with some design work for the Brewer's Guild.

That led to New Zealand's largest beer festival, Beervana, approaching him and word quickly spreading across the brewing fraternity.

''It's been fun with the beer guys, it's quite the community,'' Courtney says.

''With these craft brewers, they've all got their individual characters ... it's deeper than just running a business with these kind of guys.''

Those personalities and the social media boom mean customers are buying a piece of the brewers as well as a product, so each brewery's branding needs to reflect that.

A perfect example is the work done for former Taranaki brewer Liberty, now based in Auckland. Joseph Wood was not keen on a standard hop design for his massively bitter 9 per cent IPA C!tra, wanting something to represent its ''lip puckering'' qualities.

The beer has proven one of the most popular in New Zealand and the label, featuring a hop cone sliced in half to reveal a dripping, juicy lemon, is instantly recognisable.

''Joe's pretty mad, so it definitely needs to have that impact out of it,'' Courtney says.

Deflux has just finished rebranding the entire Townshend brand, which was struggling to stand out with its traditional dark labels.

On the books are 8 Wired and Harrington's, with Deflux sitting on so many beer clients that it is almost at capacity for label work, Courtney says.

- Shane Cowlishaw is the co-writer of Dominion Post blog The Beerhive. You can follow him at or on Twitter at @BeerhiveBlog. 

The Dominion Post