Labeling: Creating Beer Characters

Kentucky’s Against The Grain Brewery has stood out for a number of reasons since it opened. One is its label art. Illustrator Robby Davis shares his story and creative process.

Robby Davis Oct 24, 2019 - 6 min read

Labeling: Creating Beer Characters Primary Image

Before I started working with Against the Grain Brewery (Louisville, Kentucky), I worked in advertising and did a lot of client-based work. Some of it wasn’t too creative or fulfilling, so I started doing character work on the side and would sell those drawings at art fairs and markets. I wound up meeting ATG Founder Sam Cruz when he saw one of the illustrations and pulled me aside and mentioned that he was opening a brewery and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing artwork for the labels.

I said yes, of course, and then heard nothing for a few years until he called me out of the blue and mentioned that the brewery had gotten off the ground. That’s how I got started with them back in 2011.

We decided on six different characters to help focus their six different categories of beer: session, hops, whim, malt, dark, and smoke. We were able to build the brand around those characters. Each style has a story to tell, and we can be creative in that context. We wanted the branding and the packaging to bring the mentality of the brewery to mind, and the characters tie all the beers together. Then the individual beer names have their own story to tell.

I usually never taste the beer before I do a label. Sam sends me some thoughts, a story about the beer, even some images to help me on my way, and then I just go with it. We just did a rebrand for A Beer. It was an American pale ale, and it was rebranded as a Pilsner. The brewery wants it to become a flagship, so we wanted the label to convey the beer a lot. It falls under the session category, so the session character is there, but Sam sent me pictures of old school NASCAR pictures and the movie poster for the 2006 movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby because he wanted the label to be really over-the-top America, in-your-face America. We want it to appeal to everyone.


Usually the process goes quickly. We do a quick collaboration; there usually isn’t a ton of feedback; we do it quick and roll with it. But for the rebranding of A Beer, because of the rebrand and the fact that it will be more widely distributed, we did more concept art than usual around it.

The name is usually 90 percent decided when they tell me the idea, and the category dictates the character, but sometimes we don’t have a story or direction for the beer, so I improvise. With some of the early beers—such as Citra Ass Down, The Brown Note, and 35 K—we were just trying to do something weird, something to stand out because the weird art is what they were drawn to in the first place.

The milk stout 35 K is a call back to Sam and brewery Cofounder Jerry Gnagy’s old brewing days with a story to tell that I was able to illustrate a bit.

Sometimes we’d do a label just to give the TTB a hard time because they were always giving us a hard time. We’d send stuff knowing that it would get a denial—sometimes because of the art, sometimes because of the language on the label.

The Brown Note is where we got really weird and wanted to push the boundary of what’s acceptable and what’s too gross, or used to be considered too gross. But, I’m glad they stuck with it because it’s good marketing one way or the other. Love it or hate it, people know that beer and that label.

The marketing is important. People judge a book by its cover, and when it comes to beer, once they buy it because they liked the label, they usually like the beer. For example, people buy The Brown Note because there’s poop on the label, but then they really like the beer and just keep buying it. I get tagged on Instagram a lot for the art, but there’s usually a comment that the beer is a nine or ten.

We always want to have an image that stands out. It’s harder today than it was when we started. But, there’s still a lot we can do, a lot of things to explore. I want to create a body of work that is creative and recognizable, and the more beers that go into it, the more the brand is strengthened.

There’s still fun stuff we can do.

Photos: Courtesy Robby Davis/Against the Grain Brewery