How craft beer turned the can into a canvas

3 Dec 2018

In 2012, Brad Shaffer and Jason Klein founded Chicago’s Spiteful Brewing on a budget as tight as the lid on a jar of peanut butter. They maximized scant square footage by installing both brewhouse and packaging line on wheels for simple swapping, as they didn’t have enough space to do both simultaneously.


The buddies brewed and self-distributed endless distinct beers, from the mango-infused Whale Tickler double IPA to God Damn Pigeon Porter, a porter flavored with peanut butter, raspberry, maple syrup and more. The beers were packaged, not kegged – a more profitable path. However, bottling and canning a constant stream of beers requires labels, and that’s where they hit a speed bump.

“We could do a lot of things to get the brewery to run, but neither of us can draw for shit,” Klein said. Swift label creation and approval was paramount. “There’s nothing worse than a double IPA sitting there without a label.” They hired artist and illustrator Luke Snobeck as Spiteful’s first employee, who gave comical beer names (Group Texts Are for Wieners, Can’t Someone Else Do It?) a consistent underground-comic look, evocative of Adult Swim on ‘shrooms. “We wanted an element of recognition, but we wanted the labels to be captivating at the same time,” Klein said.


Today, Spiteful’s cans arrest eyeballs at beer stores, separating themselves from the visual pack. That’s no easy task. Store shelves are mobbed with fruited IPAs and funky beers overrun with feral yeast. Deploying eccentric ingredients is no longer a novelty meant for standing out, especially with quality beer everywhere. So the next great differentiator is the package, and specifically the can.

“It’s a blank slate that you can wrap 360 degrees,” said Christian Helms, owner and creative director of Helms Workshop, an Austin-based design firm whose work has driven the aesthetic of breweries such as Modern Times BeerFullsteam and Boulevard Brewing Company. “You can’t interact with a piece of brand messaging more intimately than a can.”

Beer cans have become premium visual currency, the markers of good taste. Scroll through a beer-focused Instagram feed, and you’ll likely spot Other Half IPAs outfitted in bold, geometric cans; the acid-tripped sci-fi and fantasia of Pipeworkscans like Lizard King pale ale; or Modern Times’ gorgeous typographic treatments twinned to a vibrant color scheme. What’s inside the can might ultimately matter most, but the outside is dang crucial too.

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