Labeling a locally made beer? It’s a craft of its own

That guy down at the end of the bar, the one staring at the label on the bottle of Great Basin Brewing Ichthyosaur IPA in his hand, isn’t necessarily thinking deep thoughts, you know.

He could be admiring the graphic design handiwork of Garrett Braun.

Braun, the creative director and designer with Furious Creative in Reno, has been exercising his muse for three years on a small canvas — the 6-inch by 3.6-inch labels attached to the bottled beer that Great Basin produces at its brewery along McCarran Boulevard in east Reno.

On that limited canvas, Braun needs to include some legally required information, make sure that potential buyers see the Great Basin Brewing products as they scan a cooler filled with competitors and hope that the design delivers a little emotional punch that helps buyers decide to buy it.

So what was hard about designing beer-bottle labels?

“It wasn’t,” says Braun. “I had fun with it. Sometimes you get into a flow, and it just goes. Any time you force it, you’re not going to get it.”

But just look at some of the decisions, and some of the worries, that faced Braun as he developed just one label, the design that adorns bottles of Ichthyosaur — “Icky,” for short — India Pale Ale.

Tom Young, the founder of Great Basin Brewing Co., provided the graphic designer with a strong start more than two decades ago when he began naming the brews he produced at his brew-pub in Sparks.

Icky. Wild Horse Ale. Bitchin’ Berry Ale.

“I had lots of good names to work with,” says Braun. “That gave me a place to begin.”

The label for Icky logically would include a representation of the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, the giant fish-like reptiles that ruled the seas that covered central Nevada more than 200 million years ago. (It’s the Nevada state fossil.)

But a representation of a skeleton is composed of many fine lines — a potential muddy mess if the printing isn’t precise. And the risk becomes all the greater in the tight constraints of a beer label.

Braun swallowed hard, and decided to use the skeleton.

In the background, behind the skeleton, Braun created a hand-drawn frame. Its distressed appearance is deliberately less-than-precise.

“It doesn’t feel commercial,” the graphic designer explains. “It has the feel of truth about it.”

Given the mission of craft brewers such as Great Basin to differentiate themselves from mass-market beers produced in industrial-sized factories, a non-commercial feel is particularly important.

But along with art comes the law. The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau details the information that must be contained on a beer label — the name and address of the bottler, its alcohol content and the like — and the regulations go into painstaking detail.

The required government health warning, for instance, must be at least 2 millimeters high on containers containing between eight and 101 fluid ounces, and the type is limited to 25 characters per inch.

Another major decision faced by Braun was the color of the typography on the labels.

Beer coolers are dominated by bright colors — think of the red and gold of Budweiser. By contrast, Great Basin Brewing products are branded with deep colors. Icky IPA’s label is dominated by a deep green and black. The label of Wild Horse Ale is a deep brown.

The product name for each, however, is bright yellow.

Braun says the deep colors of the label help deliver a message of quality.

“There’s a danger with packaging if you go too bright,” he says. “Subliminally, people know quality.”

But the yellow he chose for the product names helps shout their names. And that’s critical for Great Basin as it ramps up production and expands its distribution into northern California as well as the Las Vegas market.

Along with graphics for Great Basin’s flagship Icky and Wild Horse brands, Braun also has developed labels for seasonal products such as Bitchin’ Berry and Dawn Patrol, which benefits the Great Reno Balloon Race.

Braun, who has spent more than half his 35 years as a graphic designer, got his introduction to Great Basin Brewing long ago, when he’d head down the company’s restaurant in Sparks with his dad to get a hand-crafted root beer.

A chance meeting with Young at a beer-focused dinner brought an offer for Braun to compete against two other agencies to develop branding for the bottled beer products.

“Tom and I just hit it off,” says Braun.

Like any good graphic artist, Braun stays focused on the product — not his artistic preferences.

“I don’t want to fall into the rut of, ‘Oh that’s the font that Garrett always uses,’” he says.

The knowledge that his work is a key element in the success of Great Basin Brewing’s retail distribution keeps Braun closely focused on the work.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” he says.


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