Appreciating the Art in Craft Beer

By Glenn DeLuca


Craft beer is more than just buying a new and different six or four pack and trying it  
OR  heading to your local craft beer bar  OR  checking out one of the thousands of
craft beer breweries for a tour and tasting. Craft beer and art certainly have
connections, not that we should be putting craft beers into museums and walking by
them, no way, that’s a waste of good beer, but definitely beer paraphernalia. Let’s
just think about it.

There’s the art, which some might call science, of brewing beer. I would absolutely
agree there’s a lot of science there, but watch good chefs cook; do they sit there and
follow the recipe line by line; no they just cook based on years of experience and
instinct. So too does a good brewer learn by brewing. And in today’s craft world
where all of us craft beer lovers are looking for the next great brew, we challenge
brewers to experiment with their ingredients and brewing process to see what they
can come up with. So I’d say brewing can also be a fair amount of art.

Then there’s the brewery logo. Every brewer hopes to come up with a catchy logo
that when you spot it you know exactly who it is. Sometimes it’s a spinoff of the
brewery name, like Avery with their capital “A” or Cigar City with their cigar or Left
Hand with yes a left hand or Goose Island with their goose head. Then there are
others who use a favorite symbol, like the old bike in New Belgium or just their name,
like Oscar Blues or a weird figure like Stone or a beer related design like Troegs and
Southern Tier or whatever. Style and color play a big part, but it’s all about drawing
your attention and having you recognize them. Of course that can also be a double
edged sword if you’re not especially fond of a certain brewer’s beers, it makes it
easier to spot and avoid…

Next come the myriad of labels for cans and bottles. Here’s where the brewer’s art
department (as if most craft brewers really hired artists; it’s more likely a talented
friend who designs for beer) can really branch out. Some keep all their labels simply
and similar while others use all kinds of art be it symbols or animals or wacky figures
or whatever; something to draw your attention to that specific beer.  It’s always been
easy for bottling since you can print a million labels and whatever you don’t use you
keep for the next batch or you just dump, although there’s only so much room on a
bottle label as it doesn’t cover the whole bottle. Some brewers, like Stone, have
gotten more creative with their 22 oz. bombers by printing directly on the bottle
avoiding an attachable label altogether. With cans it was a much bigger deal as the
label was imprinted on the can, until they figured out how to make a label/sleeve for a
can. So now you put the beer into the can and then you put the label on, so all you
need to buy is the basic plain can and printed sleeves similar to a bottle label. Using
the entire label gives them a lot more room for coming up with something distinctive
vs. a bottle label.

And last but not least comes my favorite form of craft beer art; the tap handle.
Labeled tap handles were created so the consumer would know what they were
drinking and not get cheated…although there’s little to prevent the bar from tapping
a keg and not putting the proper handle on the tap…except your taste.  Years ago
many tap handles were small and non-descript; basically they had the name of the
beer on it; and that worked, so we saw the Schlitz or Genesee Cream Ale or
Rheingold etc. tap handle. Some of the big brewers realized a more stylistic tap
handle could attract attention, so some got taller, more colorful and more distinctive
shapes. Many early handles were metal, then acrylic and wood and ceramic, so there
are different materials to choose from. Similar to the issue that there’s only so much
room on a can for a label, there’s only so much room between each tap, so they
couldn’t get wider, but could get taller. I must say I laugh today at the wide ones that
interfere with the next tap so the bar winds up turning them 90 degrees so they don’t
interfere and you can’t see the name…guess what, they outsmarted themselves.

To be honest one of the first things I do after I grab a chair at the bar or a table is
look at the tap handles to see what they have. In some cases I need to ask which
beer from that brewery it is, since many bars are not great at updating their menu.
Too many times I’ve looked at the menu and found something I would like and bingo
it ran out. So looking at the tap handles gives me an edge on reality when looking at
the menu. Plus as I said I enjoy the different styles of tap handles. Some are very
plain; take for instance Kane here in NJ. Basically a square edged four sided plain
handle with KANE on it; BORING, but don’t’ get me wrong, they make great beer. I
think it makes sense to use similar handles and put a symbol/object/ornament on the
top, like Victory with their “V”. Or the other way around like Boulevard with the
brewery name on the stem and the symbol on top to distinguish each beer. Then
there are breweries like Stone, who have the same tap handle with their name and
use stickers which they affix to tell you which beer it is. So one tap handle could go
through 20 different beers just by “peel and stick.” Oscar Blues uses a replica of the
can so they are one of the easiest to spot and know which is on draft.

I do have a major pet peeve when it comes to tap handles, and it pertains to the bars
and not the brewers that make them. When taps are on the bar you can sit in front of
them or easily walk by them to purview them. When they are behind the bar, it’s not
as easy. Basically it’s as easy as the amount of light in the bar or those focused on
the taps. I can’t tell you how many bars I’ve been in where it’s so dark behind the bar
I have trouble seeing the taps. So the brewers are, in some cases, making great
pieces of art, and the bar doesn’t realize it’s in their best interest to let us see them. I’
ve been in a few places where the manager tells me how proud he is of the craft beer
selection he has and I can’t see the taps, nor does he keep the menu updated
…really…so you may be proud but you have no customer perspective.

I have spoken with a few managers about lighting up the taps, they take a look and
agree with me, but I’ve never seen it come to fruition. Now adding a couple of small
spots may have to go up the ladder to a higher up, but if you’re the bar manager in
charge I would think you would have enough pull and discussion points to make it
happen. Not to mention when I can’t see them I’m more likely to waste the bartender’s
time asking them to recite what’s on tap.

So next time you’re in the bar, take a moment to look at the tap handles. You
shouldn’t be swayed by a great looking tap handle, the same as you shouldn’t be
swayed by a great beer can or wine label, because it’s the content that counts.  But
when you see an interesting/colorful/wacky tap handle and you like the beer you
certainly will be more likely to try another offering from that brewer the next time you’
re in a bar/restaurant perusing the beer list.

Glenn DeLuca writes about beer and culture of drinking. He may
be reached by writing

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Glenn DeLuca
Outtakes from a life of beer. presents
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