This week I want to talk about a big part of craft beer that rarely gets discussed; Labels. With all the new breweries entering the marketplace, having an eye-catching label can be a huge driving force when trying to get your beer off the shelf and into peoples’ fridges. I know that what’s inside the bottle is the only truly important part of purchasing beer but there is no way of knowing what a beer is going to taste like without actually tasting it, except for the brief descriptions on the bottles or maybe a recommendation from a friend or trusted beer-reviewer. With these options exhausted, an interesting label is all we really have to go on, but what makes for a good label?
The first thing that a potential customer will notice is obviously going to be the appearance of the label. This includes the fonts, colors and graphics used. This is something that beer makers rarely change once a template is chosen to make their beer more identifiable. For example, Long Trail labels all have the traditional red oval with a cartoon graphic related to the type of beer and the name clearly printed in red on the bottom. The uniformity and ease of recognition make their labels seem like they were trying to mimic a hiking trail marker. Another example is Flying Dog which goes in a totally different direction. While all of their labels do have some sort of uniformity, it’s very tough to actually see what you’re getting without carefully reading the bottle. They use original artwork from Ralph Steadman, famous for his work with Hunter S. Thompson, which can be rather abstract and difficult to quickly decipher. Mr. Steadman also draws the name of the beer for the label which is usually made up letters that vary in height, thickness, color and style within a single word. This could be helpful in a way if a potential customer actually has to pick up your bottle to read it. Some others include Stone Brewing with their gothic style writing and ever-present gargoyles, Tommyknocker and their cartoon miners that look like they easily could’ve followed the Smurfs on Saturday morning when I was a kid and Smuttynose who prints the beer’s name in a clear, rather boring, font above an old artistic photograph.
Another aspect of a label that I find important is how informative it is. One of the first things I look for, after the style obviously, is the Alcohol By Volume percentage (%ABV). Whereas I used to be immediately drawn to the higher, stronger beers, now I want to know how many I’ll be likely to drink in a single sitting. Higher ABV’s are usually a lot slower going down and I usually only drink one or two before switching to something else. Lower ABV’s usually mean a beer will be what is called sessionable, which means more of them can be drank in a single “session”. Another bit of information that can be found on most labels is where the beer was brewed. The region a beer come from can greatly impact what kind of flavors are imparted in the beer. Many breweries have their malts and hops shipped from all over the country, if not world, but many also use locally grown ingredients. The pH levels in local water, altitude and humidity are also factors that can play a big part in the end result of a beer. Some labels will even go as far as listing the different malts and hops that were used during the various stages of the brewing process.
The main reason I wanted to talk about labels and their importance is that I recently made a huge mistake when selecting a beer. A few weeks ago, I was at a friend’s house and had run out of the beer I brought along. He doesn’t drink craft beer and so he showed me where he kept a few singles people had left in his fridge over the past few weeks. There wasn’t much of a selection but I found a Sierra Nevada that I was content with. He then grabbed a stubby bottle that had a yellow label with a green and purple hummingbird on it and offered it to me. It was called Nectar IPA which sounds good but I just couldn’t get past the label. I did think this would be a good beer to pawn off on my girlfriend though. It was adorable, how could she not like it. Well I was right, she did like it and after taking a sip, so did I. Unfortunately that was the last one and I, like an idiot, gave it away and drank something I’ve had a million times simply because I didn’t like the label. Since then I now buy a 6-pack of them a week and, because most people don’t grab for the hummingbird beer in my fridge, my girlfriend and I usually get to enjoy all of them. They pour a nice copper color with an orange hue to it and capped off with a white bubbly head that leaves very nice lacing as it goes down the glass. The aroma is the obvious reason the beer was given the name Nectar IPA. It has a nice flowery hop smell that I would hang from my rear-view mirror if they made an air-freshener of it. The hops come through in the taste but are complimented nicely with a caramel malt flavor as well. For me, the truly remarkable thing about this beer is the mouthfeel. The beer is thin but not too dry and is perfectly carbonated which makes it extremely sessionable and easy to drink an entire 6-pack in a single sitting. This is even more remarkable when you see the 6.8% ABV printed on its label.
I wanted to share this story to hopefully dissuade any of you from making the same mistake I did. While a label can be helpful when selecting a beer you have never tried before, a graphic should not be used for your final determination. If beers were chosen based solely on the artwork on the label, I would be a very rich man since I am lucky enough to have Jim draw all the labels for my homebrew beers. I take a lot of pride in my beers and am usually proud of the end product but they pale in comparison to the labels Jim creates for me. Are there any labels that stand out in your minds as being the reason you tried a beer, or didn’t try one like me? Let me know in the comment section. Tagay!