Ordering a beer at your friendly neighborhood bar these days can feel a bit like walking into a bookstore in another country—there’s a whole lot of options, but it all feels a bit foreign. We’ve gone from having just 89 beer breweries in the United States in 1978 to over 5,300 today—a staggering 5856% leap in just four decades.
I’m certainly not one to complain about lots of options when it comes to beer. In fact, I’ll wear the mantle of “Beer Snob” with pride. But like many people, I don’t actually know much about beer— just that the stuff the microbreweries are making tastes a thousand times better than the yellow swill churned out by the big players in today’s beer game.
I have no idea what I’m ordering many times. If a bar doesn’t carry one of my favorites (what up Sixpoint and Sweetwater), I’ll pick based on whichever brew has the most clever name.
Or whichever beer has the coolest tap handle.
With over 5,000 craft breweries scattered across the country, each making a wide range of beers for all sorts of preferences, beer tap handles are experiencing their own sort of renaissance. Tap handles give breweries a chance to stand out and be noticed. But designing these handles is no easy task.
For one, tap handles have to communicate an insane amount of information in a very limited space—a space crowded with others trying to stand above the noise, too. A good tap handle will not only tell you what brewery a beer comes from, but it will also tell you about the type of beer it is, hint at the flavor, and tell you something about the brand of that particular brewery. It needs to be immediately recognizable, yet unique and original enough to stand out at a crowded bar.
How does one even begin to design under those constraints?
To answer that question, I turned to Anthony Garzzona—Senior Designer at Taphandles, a Seattle-based firm that designs and produces tap handles, LED signs, and other creative products for microbreweries, distilleries, cideries, and wineries across the country.
Designing custom beer tap handles is certainly the type of job that turns heads during a conversation. Garzzona studied industrial design in school, and after a brief stint designing shoes for a major brand, decided to interview at Taphandles.
“It was one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever had,” says Garzzona. “It involved showing my portfolio on top of a wooden beer barrel followed by a ping-pong game with my future manager.”
Going from shoes to handles feels, on the surface at least, like a bit of a leap. But industrial design encompasses a huge range of mediums and fields, and there’s more crossover between the two than you might initially realize.
“Even though they’re seemingly separate things, there’s still plenty of crossover,” says Garzzona. “The form language that you get with a shoe and a handle is similar. Say you’re designing a sweet Nike shoe or a sexy stiletto—the sleek form you have there is going to be really similar to what you might put into a handle for a brewery that is looking for a premium aesthetic.”
Getting Creative with Cold Ones
The creative process of designing a tap handle starts with a client consultation. Designers like Garzzona, along with account managers, get to know what the brewery’s wants and needs are—what is the beer like? What do they want to communicate? Perhaps most importantly, who is drinking it? From there, the designers do research to learn about each brewery’s “brand language”—all to make sure his work is consistent with their brand aesthetic.
Handles can get pretty imaginative—for one of his first projects at Taphandles, Garzzona created a kinetic handle for the brewery Dogfish Head. “The beer was called “Namaste,” and it had this skeleton on top of the handle that was hinged at the hip, sort of like a foosball player,” he explains. “So when you pull the handle to pour the beer, he sort of bows, almost like he was saying ‘Namaste’ to you.”
That tap handle went on to win a GDUSA package design award. Namaste, indeed.
Like any creative professional, Garzzona draws influence from outside the beer world as well. He’s long been drawn to the illustration style seen throughout the artwork on albums for the band Gorillaz, something he brings into his own illustration work and can even be spotted in some of this product designs. Even the film medium brings inspiration to his work. “Movies like The Thing, Alien, Big Trouble in Little China, and all these movies that I discovered with my older brother when I was a kid, they all make up this core of things that I still draw from to this day.”
More Than a Handle
If you’re like most people, the thought of who designed the tap handle for your favorite beer never crosses your mind. Like doorknobs, forks, and faucets, they’re just another item in our world that often fades into the background. But when someone puts care and craft into their creation, they become works of art, with unfathomable amounts of creativity and thoughtfulness in their design.
Craft beer, to me, embodies the spirit of American innovation and entrepreneurship. Many of those 5,300 breweries across the country are small outfits—the hopes and dreams of families who got their start from a passion for doing something the right way. Those tap handles are more than just handles. They’re artistic statements, communicating the spirit of a brewery.
“This is an awesome industry, and one that I never thought about too much until I was actually in it. But once I was in it, I could see how huge it was,” says Garzzona. “I love this job. I get to come to work and draw for eight hours a day and flex my creative muscle. It’s as unique and varied as there are breweries in the country.”