Iconic monks: German beer label design, part 2

MonkBeers - 1 (2)It seems that one of the most popular and frequently chosen icons of good, German brewing is a happy monk. On a quest to learn as much as I can about the many, many different German beers available while living in Germany, I have noticed that the image of a friendly, smiling monk — usually hoisting aloft some type of beer-filled container — adorns a surprisingly large percentage of the German beer labels I have seen while wandering through numerous German Getränkemärkte (beverage markets). A little bit of Internet research helped me gain an understanding of why Germans often equate monks with good beer.

According to the Drunken History web site, the earliest beer brewing in Europe was done in individual homes, which allowed for a huge variance in the style and quality of home brews.  Monasteries started brewing as a way to pay taxes, remain self-sufficient and serve their communities. Monks dedicated time and effort to learn how to brew and were able to significantly increase the quality of beer.  Monasteries across Europe were supplying good beer to their communities during the middle ages and beyond.

That long history and reputation of monks as brewers of good beer has definitely contributed to the iconography used on many German beer labels. Below is a gallery with scans of the beer labels I have collected that feature monks.

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German beer packaging and label design, Part 1 of ?: Schönbuch Bräu

I am an American, but my job takes me to many different places around the world.  In the past 10 years or so I have been fortunate enough to live and work in a few different countries in Asia and Europe.  Living in a place gives you time to really learn about the little things you might miss during a shorter visit.

In the autumn of 2013, I relocated from the Tokyo, Japan area to the Stuttgart, Germany area. Since then I have been taking a self-led crash course in German (and European) beer label and packaging design. You see, I’m a bit of a graphic design nerd. I have worked in advertising, marketing and public relations for years, so I can’t help but pay attention to things like typefaces and color schemes in the designed world that is all around us.

Beginning what I hope will become a series of posts about the aesthetics, themes and styles of European beer packaging design, I have decided to start with labels from one of the breweries closest to where I currently live.  Below is a photo of some labels from Shönbuch Braumanufaktur:

Please forgive the bad iPhone shot, I didn’t have time to break out the lights and my good camera for this first beer design blog post. I’ll go into more detail on the labels (above) later, but first I want to compare and contrast German beer marketing and design with U.S. beer marketing and design. There are actually some interesting differences.

In the United States, a few large breweries have a virtual choke-hold on the vast majority of the U.S. retail beer market. Even with the growth of craft beer breweries, very few big, corporate breweries command more than 70 percent of overall U.S. beer production and sales.  Their marketing and design is well conceived and slick, but doesn’t really offer a lot of variation and truly distinctive style (or flavor) among the major brands.

The craft beer movement in the United States has introduced lots of new ideas in beer brewing and, consequently, beer product packaging design. Many of those beers and designs are quite good, but some … not so much. The vast majority of craft beer design is about differentiation from the big beer companies and about looking forward, which can sometimes (not all of the time) leave brewing traditions (and good package design discipline) out of the mix.

The story in Europe is a bit different.  The sheer number of old-school, traditional breweries with long histories in their local communities and regions is almost overwhelming here in Germany.  According to Wikipedia there are more than 1200 German breweries producing about 5000 different brands.  Keep in mind, Germany is significantly smaller than the U.S. with a fraction of the population.

Big, corporate brewing companies do exist in Germany (e.g., Becks) and across Europe (e.g., Heineken), but they don’t control nearly the same percentage of the beer market in Germany as their big corporate counterparts do in the U.S.  Unlike in the States, large breweries in Germany represent only roughly 30 percent of the German beer market, according to the Aktion Gutes Bier website.

Unlike many U.S. craft brewers, the small, local German breweries don’t have the same need to position themselves as new and different to stand out from the big corporate breweries.  As a result, the beer product packaging and design of these small, local breweries include elements of old-school tradition while simultaneously incorporating some modern design sensibilities.

In a little less than two years, without really trying, I have managed to acquire hundreds of beer labels from across Germany and western Europe. In this blog I hope to show many examples of European beer packaging and label design and point out the traditional and modern elements.

If you look at the photo of the four different labels (above) from Shönbuch, you’ll see that they do have a basic design language and some modern elements. The one label that is markedly different is from a special Christmas beer (Weinachts means Christmas in German).  The labels are designed for big, half-liter, single-serving German beer bottles.  The big label goes around the fat part of the bottle and the smaller label runs down the neck of the bottle. If you look more closely at one of the labels, you’ll notice a modern twist on a very traditional idea:


See the shield-shaped icon with a dude holding the beer mug in one hand and a shotgun in the other?  That dude is an old-school German hunter (Jäger). There aren’t many more traditional archetypes in Germany. The Schönbuch is a big forest near the brewery that has had hunters tromping around in it for hundreds of years.  So, they take this old, traditional archetype and turn it into a modern icon representing their brewery.  I may be weird or extremely nerdy, but that’s cool to me.

There’s arguably no other celebration in modern western society linked to tradition more than Christmas. In their Weinachts bier, Schönbuch regresses their icon back to the archetype it represents, showing a rather jolly looking, Kris-Kringle-esque hunter holding their same beer and shotgun combination:


I personally love the idea.  I’m not loving some of their type choices in this one, but they can’t all be winners. Overall, the imagery and design works, for me at least.

German pronunciation tip:  when you see the vowels with the little dots over them (English speakers call them umlauts, but the Germans actually have different names for each vowel), they change the pronunciation.  For example, bräu, is pronounced kind of like “broy.” In Germany, Löwen Bräu is pronounced kind of like “Lew-ven Broy.” Those commercials from the 70s and 80s who pronounced it “low-en brow” were doing it wrong. What? I’m just saying…