The Northwoods League is a collegiate summer baseball league in the upper midwest made up of 20 teams and, as of this season, one craft beer. The league, whose alumni include Max Scherzer, Ben Zobrist, and Curtis Granderson, features teams like the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders, Rochester Honkers, and Mankato Moondogs, to name a few.
The Northwoods League’s new craft brew, Five Tool Ale, is of note in the world of sports branding not just because it’s a baseball league’s custom beer, but because its logo was created by noted designer Todd Radom, who many fans know through his work in all of the major sports leagues, and who I know because he created the logo for minor league baseball’s short-season single-A Brooklyn Cyclones.
For Radom, who has designed logos for the Super Bowl, Major League Baseball teams, and All Star Games for the NBA and MLB (and those are just a few of the projects he’s allowed to talk about), designing a beer label for a collegiate summer league was bit lower profile than many of his other projects. But the incentive for working on Five Tool Ale was clear (and malty)
“You give me a beer and a baseball project and we’re going to make this happen,” he said. “I’m a big proponent of both beer and baseball, so this was a project with great appeal.”
The challenge for Radom, who discusses baseball and design as a weekly guest on Buster Olney’s Baseball Tonight podcast, was to walk the fine line between an identity specific to the sport and a mark that functioned as a beer label.
“The dictate here was, it’s got to have a baseball look to it for sure, only makes sense,” he said, “but it should look like the traditional beer iconography to some degree.”
The beer iconography is obvious—not only does the logo fit with the vernacular of a traditional beer label, but it also incorporates barley, one of the four traditional ingredients in brewing beer (along with hops, yeast, and water). The visual nod to baseball, a simple outline of home plate, is not as overt as some concepts Radom worked with early on in the process, which included diving players making the sort of athletic maneuvers you’d expect of a five-tool player.
In the end, he decided to keep it simple.
“When it comes to design, sometimes it’s best to exercise restraint and do a lot with a little,” Radom said.
Of course, the beer’s most obvious tie to the sport is the name itself. In baseball, the traditional five tools, rarely possessed by one player, include fielding, throwing, speed, and hitting for both power and average.
“The name Five Tool not only provides a connection to baseball, but also represents what the Northwoods League is all about,” said Tina Coil, the Northwoods League’s vice president for licensing and technology. “A five-tool player stands out from the crowd by his excellence in every facet of the game.”
Beer and baseball go hand in hand, so creating a logo that combines the two was a creative endeavor Radom felt comfortable with.
“These things can come together in a pretty harmonious way,” he said. “There’s overlap there. Where is the overlap? It’s symmetry, balance—you’ve got these two great words that could be a piece of uniform lettering, but it also could be the label on a bottle of beer.”
The beer itself, which the league describes as a sweet American ale, is brewed by Rustic Road Brewing Company in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It’s licensed by K181 Enterprises, which was founded by Northwoods League Chairman Richard Radatz, Jr., and has a unique origin story for its own name.
“Richard Radatz Jr. is the son of Dick Radatz, former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher who holds the Major League record for strikeouts in a season by a reliever with 181,” Coil said.
As you may have noticed, the craft beer industry has taken off in recent years. The increase in the number of craft beers has placed an increased importance on the design of beer labels. Of course, as in all things design, just getting noticed for being the loudest or the weirdest doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job. Radom kept that in mind as he created the brand for Five Tool Ale.
“As a consumer, I do know that we live in this place right now where the selection of beer is vast, the look of these labels can get a little, maybe ridiculous, at times,” Radom said. “What I really wanted to reflect that this was an official beer for this league…. But it’s baseball, and it is a traditional beer look.”
As a baseball fan, a fan of high-end design, and a person who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, the undisputed capital of craft beer (bring it, beer nerds), this project makes me happy on lots of levels. For the time being, Five Tool Ale is only available in Northwoods League stadiums, which feels like incentive to plan a road trip to the upper midwest.