Swish. Tessellation. Neverender. Dash. While easily recognizable as beer names, some craft fans might need a moment to remember where they were made (Bissell Brothers, Lone Pine, Austin Street and Mast Landing, respectively), even when they see them side by side on the store shelf. That marketing efforts are heating up in Maine’s craft beer scene may be a sign that we’ve moved on to a new phase: beer-to-beer competition.
Maine’s brewery count now exceeds 100, with more on the way. Twelve breweries are slated to be open by fall, and an additional twelve have been announced but are too early in the process to set an opening date.
Though there’s plenty of room in the state for these new breweries to operate, especially in communities that still have no breweries, the shelves are getting crowded. The cost of canning beer has decreased in the last three years, and it is now more likely that new breweries will choose to invest in a small canning line, or mobile canners, to package their beer, rather than use bottles, whose shape and packaging takes up more shelf space. More local breweries canning their beer means even more individual beers fighting for your attention.
When craft brewing started to make a comeback after the lull of the 1990s, branding was a straightforward endeavor that followed the path of most other products being marketed at the time. The brand was first and foremost, usually in a shield-like logo across the front of a bottle label, almost like a family crest. The variety or name of the beer was placed below the logo, always secondary to the brand.
Now we’re seeing the opposite: the beer’s name takes up most of the branding space, relegating the brewery’s name and other information to the background. When you see a Onesie on the shelf from across the room, you probably have to get closer to read that it’s made by Lone Pine Brewing. Banded Horn is undertaking a beautiful redesign of its packaging, but the new designs have reduced the font size of the brewery’s name to the point where it’s unreadable until you’re up close. Austin Street’s cans of Neverender feature a big “N” on the front, but the brewery’s name is relegated to the back.
There are a few possible reasons for this shift. One is that typography-forward design is trending; using large, bold designs that focus on text is becoming more popular in advertisements for many products, not just beer. Short, easy-to-remember beer names that stand out on a shelf help casual conversations turn into purchases. The whole aesthetic is also very photographable – the bright, bold designs with large text are easy to capture with a cell-phone camera, and easily recognized even during quick swipes through social media feeds.
At its core, though, the trend may have a more significant purpose. Craft beer drinkers are notorious for chasing variety. It’s our parents’ generation that brings home the same beers from the same brewery every time. We are getting used to breweries that produce one beer we like and another that we dislike, without letting the beer we dislike turn us off from the whole company.
This shift to product-level branding allows smaller breweries to get a broader audience, because a brewery doesn’t necessarily need to be “known” to get picked up from the bottle shop. On the other hand, it could also lead to confusion among beers that have similar names or labels. At worst, focusing only on the name of a beer can make it more difficult for the consumer to avoid a brand they’ve previously decided they dislike.
The friendliness among Maine breweries has been based, in part, on the idea that they could never make the exact same beer, so they were never “really” competing. But put several breweries making hazy, dry-hopped IPAs with similar hop varieties side by side, and that amity may start to erode. As much as I appreciate the new style of branding, I hope you’ll forgive me for insisting on turning the cans around to read their B-sides.