Don’t be coy, you can just say it. Your beer is better than the name brands! Now, it’s time to take your passion to the next level… but convincing strangers to try your brand is a lot harder than convincing your friends and family. You’re going to need powerful beer labels.

LÖBRAU beer
Does your craft beer have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with Löbrau? Via Futurama.

There may not be a better time to go into craft beer than right now. Craft beer is just now hitting that sweet spot between quirky trend and mainstay business, with craft beers now posing serious competition against “big beer.” According to statistics from the Brewer’s Association, craft brewing is quickly cementing itself as a viable—and profitable—industry, with microbreweries and brewpubs continuing their rise to satisfy demand. As of 2014, craft brewers made up 11% of the volume share and 19.3% of the U.S. dollar share.

But what does that mean for you, the small-time brewer with lots of heart and an even heartier beer? It means there’s no point in waiting to realize your big-brewery dreams. The problem with most small-scale brewers, though, is they don’t know as much about marketing and design as they do about hops and fermentation. That’s where this article comes in.

Here, we’re going to talk specifically about how to create perfect craft beer labels to compete with the even the biggest beer brands. This guide outlines everything you need to do for a catchy and memorable beer label that will get noticed on the shelf:

Beautiful, unique beer labels for fabryka piwa by Martis Lupus.

Before you label: figure out your brew’s brand personality

We hate to bring up ancient history, but Socrates has some great advice about craft beer packaging: know thyself. That doesn’t mean you have to sign up for a weekend yoga/detox retreat—even if they do have beer yoga these days—what it means is before you get into the fun part of designing a beer label, you need to know where your product stands from a branding perspective.

To simplify things, ask yourself these 3 key questions:

  1. What is your product?
  2. Who is your customer?
  3. How are they buying it?
Panther Piss is a classy craft beer with a funny name, targeted at 21-30 year olds. Which label do you think is right for their brand? By Suxzero
By gcsgcs

First, you need to know what you’re selling. Is it an ale or lager? American, German, English?  Why should people choose your beer over others? These are all crucial for developing the personality of your brand—and will dictate what specifically you need to communicate through your beer label.

Next, narrow down your target customers. Not even the Beatles could charm all those angry moms and dads (or Dean Martin) who hated rock and roll; your beer will sell better if you stop trying to satisfy everyone and focus on meeting the needs of and marketing to a small, select group.

bright fun IPA label
Whats the perfect moment to drink your beer? Bright, fun IPA label by Wintrygrey.

You want to consider tastes and preferences; is your beer for craft connoisseurs or young people trying to have fun? More for the post-work happy hour crowd, or free-spirited, music-festival-attending Bohemians? On top of that, you’ll need to consider more practical elements, such as income and—more to the point—where your target customers prefer to buy their beer.

Which brings us to the last question: how are they buying it? Does your target customer go to the local distributor, or do they prefer ordering online? Do they buy it by the case or six-pack? These are critical decisions that have trickling effects on all aspects of marketing, not the least of which is the label.

Like people (or your favorite stout), your brand’s personality will end up being complex and layered. Once you’ve fleshed it out, you’re ready for the next step: communicating that complex personality in a single glance of your beer.

A quick note on bottles vs. cans

Before you jump headlong into design, you need to resolve that epic brewer’s conundrum: cans or bottles. That’s a topic worthy of its own discussion—I highly recommend this Thrillist article for a great comparison of the pros and cons—but it ultimately comes down to personal choice.

Bottles or cans? Wood Boat beer label designs by Bence Balaton.

From a design and marketing perspective, knowing your brand personality and target customer will help you figure it out. Making a hefeweizen perfect for picnics and beach BBQs? Portability might be the most important factor in choosing cans. Got an Belgian that pairs well with dinner? For both technical and aesthetic reasons, you’re probably going to go bottle.

For the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on label design, which implies bottles, but many of the principles are equally applicable to cans.

Designing your beer label

minimalist beer label
Minimalist beer label by Susan99.

Unfortunately, you don’t have the luxury of allowing everyone to taste your beer to see how great it is. While word-of-mouth, contests, and free samples are all effective methods of promotion, at the end of the day, your label’s branding is still going to account for most of your first impressions.

Knowing your brand personality is a good start, but it’s just the first step. Now you have to translate that personality into a visual brand identity. In other words, you need to take that warm, friendly oatmeal stout that’s going to be sold at local pubs, and figure out how to visually communicate that concept to the world.

To do that we’ll look at colors, typography, style and imagery.

Beer label colors

The element of design that is best at communicating personality with just a quick glance is color. Science has shown that each color sparks a unique emotional connotation, acting as a useful “shortcut” for marketers and designers to communicate brand complexities with just a momentary glance.

>>Wanna know more about colors in branding? Read this in-depth article on the topic.
Which bottle color is right for your beer? Label designs by Bence Balaton.

Before you start picking out the colors for your label, you want to think about the colors of (1) your bottles and (2) your beer. There are three common beer bottle colors: clear, brown and green.

In terms of functionality, brown bottles filter out ultraviolet (and regular) light, which protects the beer and keeps it from getting skunky. If you’re brewing something hoppy, it’s a no-brainer to go brown, but beers with little to no hops aren’t as susceptible to the light, so you can consider clear or green bottles. There aren’t any functional reasons to pick one over the other, so it’s mostly an aesthetic and cultural choice. Green bottles became popular after WWII, when there was a shortage of brown glass in Europe. Because these beers were extremely high quality, the green bottle became a status symbol for good beer. It’s less commonly used by craft brewers because of it’s very specific association with a few prominent European beers (e.g. Heineken, Stella Artois, Carlsberg). However, it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to make!

Once you know your bottle color, you can start picking label colors.

Green bottles are traditionally paired with black and white labels, perhaps with a pop of red (which is complementary to green). Brown bottles offer a neutral background for your label and really any color works. The most common are warm colors: oranges, golds, red. Shockingly, this is also the color of beer! Using a color scheme like this reminds customers of your product and provides a more traditional feel. It can also help a customer easily identify what variety of beer you’re selling: red ales use red labels, ambers use amber, stouts a dark brown. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. An alternative color scheme can make your label stand out as something more modern or playful, if that’s the brand you’re looking to create.

Traditional colors for beer labels are warm ambers and reds. Summer pils label by Kirill D.
But designers these days are using every color imaginable in their labels! By Mila Katagarova

Clear bottles are unique in that the color of your beer becomes the background for your label design. Many brewers who use clear bottles play this color up in their label, either with a label color that nearly matches, or that contrasts.

Label shape and size

Label shapes are a consideration specific to beer-makers. Do you want a traditional shape and size, or something custom (die cut), which will make your bottle stand out, but may increase the printing cost? Do you want a separate label for the neck, front and back, or do you want one label that wraps around the body? Do you want to go with standard paper, or maybe something unique with a transparent background?

These labels for Marina use custom, die-cut shapes for both the bottle and neck wrap labels. By MANTSA®.
This label for Butterfly Effect uses a standard square label and no neck. By Tristan Rossi.

To make these decisions, you’ll want to start with your budget and then determine what’s important. Standard beer bottle label sizes are 2.75” x 4.25”, 3.25” x 4” and 5” x 2.”

Another consideration is the type of bottle: 12 oz. standard, 20 oz. bomber, or some custom container of your own design. Not even knowing the size is enough; there’s also variations of bottle shapes. Stubbies, longnecks, growlers or even some custom shape like a cone. Make sure you have this all figured out before you start designing so everything goes together!

Typography

Beer label design for Siris Cellars by designbybruno
A modern adaptation of old-fashioned typography for Siris Cellars. Beer label design by designbybruno.

Like colors, the fonts you choose communicate a lot about your brand personality. Serif fonts (the ones with little feet) or script fonts give your label a more classic feel. Sans-serif fonts make it more modern. It can be tempting to go with a really fun, crazy display font, but remember that readability is very important. You want customers to be able to read your name so they can remember you. And read the rest of the words on your label so they can make an informed purchasing decision.

Style and imagery

traditional beer label
A more traditional beer label by ed-creative.

Traditional beers have a traditional label style: one prominent color, large name (maybe over or next to a crest) and some subtle texture or abstract images for visual interest. With the rise of craft beer, though, labels have become an art form. We see everything from cartoon-like illustration to hand-drawn masterpieces to photographs to extreme minimalism. Style should be dictated by your target audience: If you’re targeting younger customers with your wild or even experimental flavors, you might want a label that’s outlandish or a bit trippy. If you’re targeting a classier crowd, you’ll do better with a minimalist label, forgoing a cartoon mascot.

modern beer labels
Modern beer label with a geometric design by Multipraktik.

Once you have your style, you can decide on imagery. How do you do that? Figure out what makes you unique. Do you use very specific ingredients? Show them. Have a cat that’s become the brewery’s unofficial mascot? Incorporate him into the design. Using a brewing technique from a specific culture? Utilize design styles from the same region. Have a clever name? Play that up.

L’Augustin is the name of the brewers’ baby. They intentionally paired it with a scary goat image to create a dark humorous feel for their beer. By sapienpack.
Duel uses a clever play on words to dictate their label imagery. By MANTSA®.
>>Want more inspiration? Check out 30 crafty, creative beer label ideas.

Words are design, too

Your craft beer label visuals aren’t the only way to communicate with prospective buyers… don’t forget about words.

Beer label for Dry Dock Vanilla Porter
Dry Dock Vanilla Porter uses words well. Aside from having the descriptor “dry” in their company name, they make a point to advertise the vanilla flavor 3 times on their label. Dry Dock label by pmo.

As mentioned above, you want to reach out to your target customers, meaning a porter brand will want to reach out to porter drinkers. The most obvious way to do this is to first have the word “porter” on the bottle, and then highlight the word through visuals.

It’s best to take a methodical approach at this step: list out the best keywords to describe your beer, and then prioritize them so your designer knows which ones to emphasize over others. To get you started, here’s a list of common beer keywords you can borrow, or read through to help inspire new ideas:

  • Adventurous
  • Aged
  • American
  • Artisanal
  • Australian
  • Barrel
  • Belgian
  • Bitter
  • Black
  • Blonde
  • Canadian
  • Creamy
  • Crisp
  • Dark
  • Dry
  • Elegant
  • English
  • Fruity
  • Full-bodied
  • Full-flavored
  • German
  • Handcrafted
  • Hearty
  • Hoppy
  • Homemade
  • Home-brewed
  • Irish
  • Layered
  • Malty
  • Macro-brewed
  • Micro-brewed
  • Mellow
  • Organic
  • Robust
  • Rich
  • Sharp
  • Smoky
  • Smooth
  • Thick
  • Traditional

As you may have noticed, a lot of these words describe taste, making them good foundations for further design choices. Especially with new customers, people tend to latch on to single ideas before they form deeper opinions. Unless you take the initiative to give them something to latch onto, you may find your brand associated with negative ideas, like “expensive” or “boring.”

Don’t forget the fine print

As fun as beer is, don’t forget that it’s a mind-altering substance, and as such has lots of legal requirements surrounding its sales. While these extend to every area of your business, here we’ll talk about what’s needed on the label.

beer label fine print
Make sure you know what information is required to go on your label. Kazek Pake Ale label by MANTSA®.

According to the US Brewer’s Association, these are the areas you’ll need to concern yourself with for legal reasons:

  • Net contents: how much beer is in the bottle, i.e., “12 oz.” Depending on how much, you made need to use different measurements.
  • Alcohol Content: legal requirements may vary state by state.
  • Legibility: You have to be careful here, because legibility requirements may impede design choices. Mandatory information must appears large enough to read, in an uncomplicated font, set against a contrasting background and should be separate from promotional/explanatory text.
  • Type Size: A deeper legibility requirement is the size of the typeface itself, as well as the characters per inch. See this pdf for details.
  • Beer Class and Type: “Malt Beverage,” “Indian Pale Ale,” etc. As mentioned before, this isn’t just a legal necessity, it’s good branding!
  • Name and Address: Mainly for business reasons, but also so your fans can send you drunken love letters.

And if you want to sell your beer in stores, you need to remember to leave a space for a UPC code. Requirements may be different depending on where you live and where you want to sell. Make sure you do your research so you can have the most up-to-date info for your designer.

Think outside the bottle

What else do you need designed for your beer? A box? Caps? A glass? A tap handle? By Blagoje B.

Beers are rarely sold as singletons. When it comes to design, it’s not just the label you have to think about, but the packaging. This includes both six-pack and twelve-pack containers, bottle caps, and perhaps a beer tap hap handle.

Designing packaging is not difficult if you’ve already handled the label design. Think of your packaging as a design label on a different canvas. Why? Your label and packaging should always match: imagery, typography, color scheme and personality.

Consistency is an essential in branding, so outsiders should be able to link your packaging to your bottles/cans immediately just by a single look. The alternative is worse: if your packaging and individual labels don’t match, it makes your brand look disjointed and unprofessional, almost as if you decided to use someone’s else’s box!

Find the right designer

There are 3 main approaches to getting your label designed: DIY, freelancer or crowdsourcing through a contest. Larger enterprises also have the option of hiring a design agency, but odds are this will be outside a craft brewer’s price range.

While DIY might seem like the most natural choice for a small business, design is more technical than most people think. Designing your beer label top-to-bottom all by yourself is a lot like foregoing a lawyer in court and representing yourself. Unless you’re a designer by trade, you’re better off working with a professional.

Which leaves either hiring a freelancer or crowdsourcing your design through a contest.

Talisman beer labels
Talisman had the label for Bel’s Fury designed in a contest. They then worked with the winning designer, MANTSA®, one-on-one to create the labels for the rest of their lineup.

Most of the brewers that design their labels on 99designs start with a design contest because it gives them a wide range of ideas and styles to choose from. Through these contests, they meet designers from around the world, and often end up developing ongoing relationships with these designers, working with them to create labels for their next brew, boxes, logos, and websites.

Beer label materials and production

clear beer label
A clear label can give your beer a unique look. By MartinJK.

Once you’re all designed, it’s time to start thinking about printing. Most beer labels are printed on coated paper (to handle the condensation), but some craft brewers do choose to go with a matte paper for aesthetic reasons. This is when you should start reaching out to your local printer for pricing, or consider using a service like Sticker Mule.

If you’ve gone with a traditional rectangle or oval, it should be pretty easy to get your labels printed. If you’ve chosen a custom die-cut label, keep in mind the increased price and possibly production time.

You’ll also want to consider how you’ll be applying the labels. Fixing labels to bottles by hand can be long and tedious, but it’s undoubtedly cheap. But if you’re serious about mass-production, you may want to invest in a machine applicator.

Tapping your true potential (obligatory beer pun)

pale ale label
Pale ale logo by Tristan Rossi.

For better or worse, much of your success in the beer brewing industry depends on more than just how good your beer tastes. You could have created the best beer in the world, but if your marketing is lacking, no one will ever know about it. Like it or not, if you want people to fall in love with your beer’s taste, you have to first impress them with your label.

Ready to get a label for your beer? Launch a label design contest today.

This article was co-written by Kelly Morr. Research and additional information provided by Alex Bigman.