Beer

Cartoons Are Becoming the Beer Industry’s Best New Sales Tool

Breweries are channeling Marvel culture to create compelling graphic labels that draw in a new generation of beer drinkers

Photo credit from left to right: Great Notion Brewing, Boulevard Brewing, and California Wild Ales.

Revolution Brewing needed help from a new kind of hero. In 2013, the Chicago brewery partnered with the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2), the city’s largest convention of its kind. Revolution resolved to brew a fest-specific beer called Galaxy-Hero IPA—a spin on its flagship Anti-Hero IPA—featuring Australia’s Galaxy hops, a then-novel tropical variety. 

Illustrator Ian Law drew an interstellar space traveler with a hop for a head standing atop a strange planet, a spaceship hovering above. Galaxy-Hero was designed as a one-off, but its flavors and visuals proved so popular that it stuck around (Revolution since revised the label) and spawned the League of Heroes, a series of rotating IPAs featured in a variety pack. Each so-called “issue” stars four different Heroes, such as the Valkyrye-Hero hazy rye IPA, an expanding universe unfolding 12 ounces at a time.

Revolution fleshes out the Heroes’ backstories with a Galaxy-Hero comic book that’s now in its fifth issue, with the sixth slated for the 2022 C2E2. When it comes to collecting the latest IPA or comic book, “there’s a crossover,” says Max Bare of Salsa Sharks, who illustrated the comics with Melissa Sue Stanley. “Craft beer fans fit in nicely with comic fans,” Stanley adds. 

Creating cartoons for beer brands is a time-tested ad tactic. In the 1950s, Piels Beer ran a popular ad campaign starring the animated antics of fictitious owners Bert and Harry Piel. That same decade, Hamm’s Beer of Minnesota advertised its lagers with a cartoon bear. Now, to recruit younger drinkers accustomed to superheroes and supervillains flying across screens big and small, breweries are channeling the Marvel universe and bringing comics-style worldbuilding to beer labels. 

Cartoons have “a unique ability to bring new drinkers into craft.” – Dave Knospe, New Belgium Brewing

A vibrant cartoon approach can boost sales. New Belgium introduced its Voodoo Ranger IPA family in 2017, the labels featuring the renegade adventures of a cartoon skeleton that likes to “live Rangerously,” as the slogan goes. The brand family now occupies the top IPA sales slot in Nielsen scans, and Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA trails only Blue Moon for dollar sales in craft. By partnering popular styles of beer with a broadly appealing spokes-skeleton, “we have a unique ability to bring new drinkers into craft,” says Dave Knospe, a senior brand manager at New Belgium.

SevenFifty Daily profiled seven breweries that successfully celebrate comics and superheroes on their beer labels. Up, up, and IPA!

1. Paperback Brewing, Los Angeles, California

Photo courtesy of Paperback Brewing.

Paperback launched in 2020 with a bold, colorful, and darkly humorous design sensibility inspired by the lurid era of pulp art. Delivering menace with a wink, Paperback’s IPA line-up includes Tucked in by Strangers and Bunny With a Chainsaw, among many others. “Every Paperback Beer has its story to tell, and what better creative vehicle than the vintage paperbacks of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s?” says creative director Chris Cesnek. “The art during that time was untamed and wild.”

2. New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, Colorado and Asheville, North Carolina 

Photo courtesy of Lake Beverage.

New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger brand family of IPAs is so popular that its mascot, a cartoon skeleton, now has an Instagram account chronicling its ongoing exploits. “While you may not think of a skeleton as a relatable character, Voodoo Ranger does allow us creative freedom to create fun, comic-inspired worlds for the character to play in,” says Knospe. Current releases include the superhero-inspired Captain Dynamite, starred-and-striped American Haze, and retro-leaning V2K (hello, year 2000). 

3. Revolution Brewing, Chicago, Illinois

Photo courtesy of Revolution Brewing.

Revolution Brewing has found big success with its comic-inspired Hero series of IPAs, led by the flagship Anti-Hero and the year-round Hazy-Hero and Every Day-Hero, a session IPA. Limited releases regularly appear in the tri-annual League of Heroes variety pack that mixes stalwart Heroes with hop-headed characters like Action-Hero, the latest juicy entrant to the mixed pack that brings “the hop battle to your fridge,” according to Revolution. 

4. Kings County Brewers Collective, Brooklyn, New York

Photo courtersy of Kings County Brewers Collective.

KCBC creative director Earl Holloway mines a schlocky horror vein to make the Brooklyn brewery’s gory, graphic, and often comedic labels. Memorable releases include the Zombie line of fruited sour ales and a series of IPAs featuring penguins venturing to space and beyond. KCBC treats each release as a “chapter,” says cofounder Zack Kinney, a strategy that keeps existing customers engaged and entices new ones. “People might not be familiar with craft beer, but they look at a label like ours and are like, ‘It’s a zombie fighting an alien. That sounds interesting and fun.’”

5. California Wild Ales, San Diego, California

Photo courtesy of California Wild Ales.

Wild yeast and souring bacteria are microscopic—and misunderstood. “I created little monsters to give them personalities,” creative director Bill DeWitt, an owner, says of anthropomorphizing the yeast Brettanomyces and lactic acid bacterias Pediococcus and Lactobacillus—all of which are key to creating his brewery’s barrel-aged ales. During San Diego’s Comic-Con, the country’s biggest convention, DeWitt devises special editions of beers with the monsters cosplaying characters from Rick & Morty, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, among others. 

6. Boulevard Brewing, Kansas City, Missouri

Photo courtesy of Boulevard Brewing.

During the 2018 Planet Comicon in Kansas City, Boulevard blew through countless kegs of beer, leading to brand manager Adam Hall’s epiphany: Why wasn’t the brewery more directly speaking to an audience that clearly loved beer? “We were missing a big target,” says Hall. The next year, Boulevard released the juicy Space Camper, a “cosmic IPA” with a label inspired by the superhero-filled Silver Age of comics from the mid-1950s through the 1960s. The IPA is now the brand leader in what Hall calls the “Spacer Camper Universe,” or SCU, a steadily growing line-up featuring characters such as Major Volta imperial IPA and Delta Ray, a “hazy intergalactic IPA.”

7. Great Notion Brewing, Portland, Oregon

Photo courtesy of Great Notion Brewing.

Last year, the Pacific Northwest powerhouse launched an interactive app that lets customers purchase its in-demand hazy IPAs and imperial stouts from the comfort of a phone—a prescient move during the pandemic—and engage with Great Notion’s cartoon multiverse through a series of immersive games. They bring to life artist Chad Eaton’s fantastical collection of wizards, woodland creatures, lumberjacks, ukulele-strumming skeletons, and a nonbinary Sasquatch lookalike named Jamie D. “They are our most popular symbol for our pastry stouts,” says Paul Reiter, Great Notion’s CEO, of the popular, sweets-inspired beers. Reiter also wrote many of the characters’ origin stories. 

Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer.

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