category-iconWomen of Beer

Meet the Women Changing the Face of Craft Beer

April 09, 2020

By Sarah Freeman, April 09, 2020

“Don’t assume it’s always a guy making it,” says Sarah Hedlund, creative director at Toppling Goliath Brewery. Hedlund has been working for the brewery, known for its Pseudo Sue pale ale, since 2016. She’s the woman behind the company’s redesign as well as all of its beer names and labels. But like the work of many women in the beer industry, hers goes largely unrecognized. “We do have a lot of sales team members who are out on the streets and they always have people telling them, ‘Oh you should tell your graphic designer he does a great job, his artwork is super cool.’ I think they all get a kick out of correcting them.”

Last year October reported on women who were reshaping the beer industry by changing how it appears on the shelves. Until recently, it wasn’t uncommon to see a busty blonde adorning a bottle of blonde ale. Recently though, as the craft beer industry continues to mature and set aside its DIY roots for a more professional approach, women are leading the charge when it comes to elevating beer design. “We don't want to alienate anybody,” Hedlund says. “We don’t want to put anybody in a position where they feel uncomfortable purchasing our product because of the artwork—ashamed walking up to the teller with it.”

Like Hedlund, these designers are producing some of the most exciting art you’ll find in a refrigerator.

Ashley Swope, lead designer at Brooklyn Brewery

“I was always drawn to packaging,” says Ashley Swope, a Pratt graduate and lead designer at Brooklyn Brewery. “I find it incredibly interesting how consumers interact with something on the shelf and what causes someone to pick it up and spend money to bring it home.” She became interested in beer after seeing the variety and creativity on display in her local beer aisle. She started working at Brooklyn Brewery in 2017, where she oversees packaging design for the brewery’s more familiar beers and designs the labels for the brewery’s new Brooklyn Limited line.

With the latter, she can flex her design skills through labels like Total Request IPA, which features a line-drawn head nodding to music. “I try to make the profile on Total Request to be a little more non-binary. Step one is recognizing the moment you put male or female on the artwork, it’s going to start to skew one way or the other, so I try to avoid doing that,” she says. “I feel like most craft breweries are focused on producing cool pieces of work that are really cool, really enticing, and welcoming to allow anybody to buy their beer. We’re moving away from directing it too heavily to one person or another.”

Lindsey Tweed, designer for Tröegs Independent Brewing

“There’s been a broad trend toward elevating the level of craft and the design and the illustrations that beers are featuring,” says Lindsey Tweed, the designer responsible for Tröegs Independent Brewing’s labels. “The market has become so crowded. A lot of breweries are realizing that one way they can differentiate themselves is by taking the design of their packaging seriously.” After working as a graphic designer of alt-weekly newspaper Philly EDGE, Tweed took a creative director role at a marketing and advertising agency. Her work balances a passion for hand-drawn illustrations with a professionalism that comes with years of working for such agencies.

In 2015, Tweed was brought on for Tröegs’ redesign, which was inspired by the first label she created for the brewery, Hop Knife. The design—featuring an array of hand-drawn hops—didn’t fit with the brewery’s aesthetic, but rather than changing the Hop Knife design, the brewery decided to take on a new brand identity overseen by Tweed. “I’m happy with where we ended up with that, because it ended up being a hybrid between a lot of the old-school craft beer design that was out there and some of the newer trends,” Tweed says. “We were able to clean it up a lot and keep that cohesion across the whole family that I think is really important. You want people to walk in and say, ‘Oh, there’s the Tröegs shelf.’”

Natalie Rengan, graphic designer at Hudson Valley Brewing

Former high school art teacher Natalie Rengan has been involved in the family business, Hudson Valley Brewing, since her husband Mike Renganeschi was homebrewing on their porch. These days the operation is more professional, with Evan M. Cohen’s illustrations as well as Rengan’s designs wrapped around every can and bottle of the highly sought-after beer. “One of the things I try to do is pair his work, which tends to be fanciful, busy, and often pattern- or comic-based, with sort of a paired-down, clean, modern aesthetic so the illustration could shine and also we’d have a very modern-looking product,” Rengan says.

“We are, as a whole, really artistic people and think really deeply about the decisions we make,” she says. “I think we try to bring a sense of intentionality to everything we do, from our marketing—in terms of trying not to do some of the ‘brew boys come out’ gender-specific marketing—to how we package our product.” This ethos is most visible in Brightfield, a collaboration with The NoMad Hotel. Inspired by the dark and moody bars and lounges throughout the property, the beer was a departure from the brewery’s usual white labels, instead featuring a black label on a matte black bottle. “I feel like these days I see a lot of disparate design, like you can see a label and not immediately recognize what brand it belongs to. One of the things I really strive for is to have a set of rules for us that make it immediately identifiable as a Hudson Valley label—and then when you break those rules, it makes it a lot more exciting.”

Megan Penmann, designer for Other Half Brewing

For Megan Penmann, what started out as the occasional freelancing project turned into a gig that involved designing hundreds of labels for Other Half Brewing, the popular New York City brewery. Until December of last year, she designed anywhere between 20 and 40 labels per month. “You don’t have time to second guess your design choices and you don’t have time to make a ton of revisions or even refine stuff with that volume and with limited resources,” she says. Penmann still makes several labels for the brewery each month.

“We had sort of a filter: ‘Does this feel Other Half-y?’ Which would mean: is it fun, is it bold, is it pop-y, is it bright?” she says. Through this lens, coupled with Penmann’s passion for typography, she came up with labels ranging from the Miami Vice-style vintage sports car on Party Booster to her many food-themed labels such as the pizzeria-inspired Dollar Slice. “We tried to do a good job of not making those designs feel masculine or feminine, but more just fun—fun for everybody. There’s a childlike playfulness about most of the labels, so I think that’s appealing to a lot of people.”

Sarah Hedlund, creative director at Toppling Goliath Brewery

After graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Sarah Hedlund’s first package design job was with a toy company. She landed at Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa in 2016, where she was thrown in head first with the brewery's first major rebrand. “I quickly learned that graphic designer was a hilarious understatement for the amount of work that they needed,” she said. In her role she oversaw design, merchandising, event planning, and social media. These days she’s focused on the former, designing everything from event posters to T-shirts.

“My big goal when I came on board was to clean up the package artwork and elevate the art to the product itself,” Hedlund says about her early work, which involved redesigning the brewery’s most popular beer, Pseudo Sue. Since then her work has graced “more labels than my brain is capable of remembering,” including Sun Reaper, a new beer adorned with the image of a woman in front of an eclipse. “I get pretty proud whenever I can put a woman on a beer can that’s not overly sexualized or half-naked. Before I came here we didn’t have a single woman on our packaging.” Hedlund fixed that shortly after she joined the Toppling Goliath team by changing the image of a man on the Intergalactic Warrior label to a woman.

Ria Neri, co-owner of Whiner Beer Company

When Ria Neri and her partner Brian Taylor decided to open Whiner Beer Company on the south side of Chicago, they knew that they wanted bold design to be one of its defining characteristics. After getting quotes from several reputable designers, the duo realized their design dreams didn’t fit their startup budget. Fortunately, Neri had a background in art and design, she came up with the cartoon cast of characters that have since come to define Whiner. “At first Brian didn’t trust me,” she recalls. “And I didn’t trust myself, honestly, but we needed to do it, so I just did it.” 

Among the many design decisions overseen by Neri—including the decision to have recurring characters, from a mohawked cat to a ninja cat, appear on multiple labels—she and Taylor also opted to put some of their sophisticated beers (think dry-hopped peach saisons) in cans rather than the traditional 750-milliliter bottles. “From the beginning we had this highbrow-lowbrow sense that we want to go with,” she says. “For me, being on the buyer side of things from the beginning, I thought that these beers deserved to be celebrated in a manner when you should enjoy these beers whenever you want.” Not all of Ria’s decisions were well-received, with her early work being criticized as “too cute.” She took this in stride, saying, “For me, that was the successful part of it, when people were criticizing what I was doing because it wasn’t like other things out there. That’s what I wanted.”

Jess Graham, art director at The Alchemist

After a knee injury sidelined her “ski bum” lifestyle, painter and illustrator Jess Graham started working for The Alchemist, first as a server in the original brewpub in Waterbury, Vermont and then as freelance designer. Eventually she became the brewery’s art director. You can find her art all over the Stowe brewery, from the mural on its silo to the bottles of Petit Mutant sour ale. While label design is one of the smaller aspects of her job, much of her time is spent designing newsletters, coordinating social media, and producing other visual assets for the brewery. Graham also brings in guest artists to collaborate with The Alchemist, such as inviting En Masse from Montreal to paint a mural on the brewery’s ceiling.

“From the beginning at the pub, they always brought in artists,” Graham says. “They had a rotating display of painting and prints and sculptures hanging from the ceiling.” In 2011 the first cans of the beer that would put The Alchemist on the map, Heady Topper, rolled off the canning line. Almost as famous as the beer itself is the image of a man’s head exploding on the label, drawn by Dan Blakeslee. “That’s the worst conversation to have at parties, ‘No, it’s not me,” Graham says about the art on the iconic beer. You can, however, find Graham’s work on the brewery’s specialty and seasonal beers. She also works closely with Blakeslee as well as founders John and Jennifer Kimmich to maintain the brewery’s commitment to the arts.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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