How the craft beer industry inspired specialty coffee packaging

Tori Taylor
June 23, 2021
craft beer can design

Craft beer and specialty coffee have always occupied a similar space. Not only do they share customers, they also share the same set of values: artisanal, brand-oriented, and committed to high-quality ingredients.

As a result, trends in one inevitably spill over into the other. One of the most significant of these in recent years has been the use of distinctive designs and illustrations across packaging.

Craft beer companies were the first to do it. Cans and bottles adorned with vibrantly coloured illustrations, some by renowned artists, have been a hallmark of the industry for years. Vivid landscapes, cartoon figures, and even entire comic strips are now the norm, with virtually no limit on what’s allowed.

For specialty coffee roasters, it’s still a relatively new concept. But among those who have partnered with artists, many have seen impressive results, from higher sales to the emergence of cult followings. We take a look at how this approach has helped craft beer companies and what it means for specialty roasters.

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craft beer cans

How craft beer companies have shaken up the sector

Not long ago, only a small handful of breweries dominated the beer industry. Backed by loyal customers and millions in revenue, they had established a seemingly impenetrable share of the market. Small breweries found it almost impossible to make themselves heard, let alone attract sales.

Today, the landscape is vastly different. Cans upon cans of craft beer fill the shelves of grocery stores and bars around the world, with the craft beer market valued at an estimated $22 billion in the US alone

Key to this growth has been the way in which these companies have marketed themselves – namely, by partnering with an artist or designer to create vibrant and distinctive packaging.

Collaborations between breweries and artists have sprung up all over the place, spawning a range of eye-catching labels that compel consumers to buy their products. According to a recent survey of UK craft beer drinkers, the second-most stated reason for choosing a particular beer brand was that the “design stood out”.

The exemplar of a successful craft beer-artist collaboration is the one between Maryland-based Flying Dog Brewery and British illustrator Ralph Steadman. 

First approached by Flying Dog’s co-founder George Stranahan in the mid-1990s, Steadman and his offbeat label illustrations have not only created an immediately distinguishable product, but also shaped the company’s entire brand identity.

“An illustration is a way to enrich a brand’s visual language and say more nuanced things that a logo, colour scheme, typeface, or even words cannot convey alone.”

Today, Flying Dog sells a whole host of merchandise featuring Steadman’s illustrations (alongside their beer), from posters and tap handles, to t-shirts and playing cards. In 2013, they even held a month-long exhibition of his and other renowned artists’ work, titled “The Gonzo Collection”.

London craft beer company Beavertown has been equally successful thanks to its partnership with illustrator Nick Dwyer (now in-house creative director).

Their iconic cans adorned with Dwyer’s vibrant drawings of skulls and spacemen have generated a cult-like following around the brand. In addition to their beer, they sell prints, glassware, and apparel featuring the designs, which have undoubtedly helped them stay on top in the saturated market of craft beer. 

As Michael Bowers notes in an article for Toptal, “an illustration is a way to enrich a brand’s visual language and say more nuanced things that a logo, colour scheme, typeface, or even words cannot convey alone”.

Label artwork in the specialty coffee industry

In recent years, the coffee sector has witnessed a marked increase in the number of partnerships between roasters and artists.

Drawing on the success of companies like Flying Dog and Beavertown, these partnerships have spawned colourful, quirky, and distinctive coffee bags that now line the shelves of grocery stores and coffee shops around the world.

But like many craft beer companies, specialty roasters have sought these collaborations not only to create their labels, but to help shape their brand identity. Specialty coffee has an air of the “handmade” about it, which makes illustrated designs the perfect fit for its packaging. The rich backstories of coffee origins only strengthen this bond.

Khomanta Coffee is just one of a number of examples in which the artist has been able to tap into the stories of both the brand and its coffee to produce a striking packaging design. 

Their bags feature a pastel-coloured illustration by designer Alejandro Gavancho of a woman wearing a manta, a traditional blanket worn by women in the Peruvian Andes. The creative design captures the coffee’s origin, while also creating an attractive bag that consumers want to own.

“There is always a comment about the packaging when [Khomanta] are at an event or fair alongside coffee brands,” Gavancho explains in an article for Sufio. “The packaging always stands out from the competition, attracting the public through the image [of the woman].”

Other roasters, such as California-based Cajé Coffee, sell their products in packaging reminiscent of brands like Beavertown. Cajé’s bags showcase an array of cartoon coffee beans, palm trees, sharks, pineapples, and milkshakes that pay homage to summertime in southern California and demand attention on the shelf.

Rather than depict the coffee’s origins, they’ve chosen to highlight the roastery and the Santa Barbara region to entice customers looking for something local. This demonstrates the far-reaching potential of partnerships between artists and roasteries.

specialty coffee packaging

Top tips for label design

Before launching into a partnership with an artist or designer, there are a few important points to consider.

Do your research

Finding someone who not only understands your brand, but also aligns with your values and brings ideas to the table is crucial. Taking the time to hunt for the right person is well worth it; Beavertown, for example, rotated artists before landing on Nick Dwyer, who they realised could give a unique voice to their brand.

Make sure to ask for a portfolio of work and arrange a chat to ensure they understand your values before committing to anything.

Know your audience

Understanding who buys your coffee and what motivates them is key when designing your coffee packaging. There’s little sense in representing your local area if the plan is to sell your coffee far and wide. Equally, highlighting origin on your coffee bags may be less important than flavour notes if you’re targeting consumers who want a quick fix.

Barcelona-based Caravelle uses different coloured landscapes for each of their beers to represent flavours as they know that this is what interests their customers about their beer.

Be consistent

Coming up with unique packaging is one thing – but customers also need a product with which they can become familiar and recognise when they see on the shelf. There’s little sense in winning someone over with quality coffee and attractive packaging, only for them to be unable to identify it a month later. 

Consistent branding across all products (including the website and social media pages) is crucial. This could be in the form of a logo, font, colour scheme, or artist – so long as you give your customers something that helps them pick your products out from all the hundreds of others.

sustainable coffee packaging

At MTPak Coffee, our team of expert designers can help you create distinctive coffee packaging that reflects your brand, attracts attention, and sets you apart from the competition.

Using high-quality printing methods and fully sustainable materials, our packaging options will not only protect your coffee, but also shape your brand identity and showcase the quality of your product to consumers.

For information on our coffee packaging design services, contact our team.

Photo credits: Khomanta Coffee

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