How Devils Backbone Got the Blue Ridge Mountains Onto a Six Pack

Two years after its acquisition by Anheuser-Busch, the Virginia craft brew gets more polished packaging

Anheuser-Busch acquired Devils Backbone in 2016. Devil's Backbone

During the golden age of travel—before the internet, even before television—Americans who saved up their dollars would wander into a travel office and be dazzled by the color lithographs on the wall: travel posters of romantic and exotic destinations, rendered in a gauzy, dreamlike state so alluring you wanted to step inside. For shipping lines and railroads hoping to lure customers, the posters were the most effective marketing of their era.

All of that pretty much ended with WWII, but the dreamy aesthetic of the travel poster still possesses its power to draw consumers’ attention—and now, that power is being harnessed by an unlikely company: Anheuser-Busch.

Joel Artz (l.), co-founder of Okay Yellow Design Lab, and Dustin Artz, creative director at Familiar Creatures
Jessica Humphreys

Not Budweiser, though. In 2016, A-B acquired a craft brew called Devils Backbone, which enjoyed a loyal following in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Now, two years after that purchase, and 10 years after Devils Backbone first poured from the tanks, the brand has just debuted a new visual identity inspired by travel posters of yore. In this case, the “destination” is Nelson County, a lush and misty tract of 474 square miles in central Virginia crowned by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the northwest. The county isn’t just the home of the brewery, it’s central to the beer’s history and, hence, a fitting theme for the packaging.

“Until about six months ago, you could barely make a cellphone call here, so it very much feels like a destination—that sense of being able to get away from it all, or celebrating slow moments,” said Devils Backbone marketing director Marisa Black. “We wanted to do that on the pack. Not a ton of people know how gorgeous the area is.”

Developed by design shop Okay Yellow with a creative assist from Familiar Creatures, the new packaging features romantic settings that correspond to the multiple varieties the brand sells—an eruption of fall foliage for Gold Leaf Golden Lager, an underwater aquamarine tableau for Striped Bass Pale Ale, and so on. The bottle caps match the predominating colors of the labels and bottle carriers. Each scene evokes the Blue Ridge section of the Appalachian Mountains chain, which is so central to the brand’s identity.

Devils Backbone got its start in 2008, when founders Steve and Heidi Crandall opened a brewpub in Roseland, Va. Despite the comparatively remote Three Ridges Wilderness locale and the economic crisis that struck that year, the establishment prospered. The company began bottling its beer for retail sales in 2011, building it into a regionally popular brand. Eventually, it caught the attention of the mighty Anheuser-Busch, which, reading the winds of change in beer consumption, decided it had better get in on the craft-brewing end of things. Between 2011 and 2017, A-B opened its wallet to buy 10 breweries around the country, including New York’s Blue Point, Seattle’s Elysian and, in 2016, Devils Backbone out of Virginia.

While corporate ownership appears to have changed little about how the beer is brewed, it’s probably no accident that the packaging has evolved into something a little more sophisticated than what had been on shelves until recently. Devils Backbone’s former trade dress—not just its woodland scenes, but its “DB” logo—featured a hand-sketched, rustic quality entirely appropriate for a small brew, but it didn’t quite look like the sort of packaging suited to broad-scale distribution. In the early days, “we had a lot of aspirations for what we thought we were about … But we didn’t have a ton of experience in that field,” said COO Hayes Humphreys. “So, 10 years in, we’re able to send a clearer message about who we are.”

The old packaging had more of a hand-drawn look.
Courtesy Devils Backbone

In fact, it’s arguably more important for a smaller brew than a big-name one to be clear about who it is. Humphreys points out that most consumers identify craft beers with the regions in which they’re brewed. So, in the case of Devils Backbone, while the packaging has become more polished, the imperative to show the Blue Ridge Mountains is more important than ever.

Which is why the top edge of the cardboard carry pack is a craggy, die-cut line that evokes a mountain range. As Black relates, the design team “actually stood out in the meadow, they stood at the bottom of the mountain and took snapshots of the Blue Ridge near the brewery,” replicating that mountain silhouette on the bottle carrier.

Lined up on the shelf, she added, “that mountain range will look pretty neat.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.