Three red triangles, two of which are on Bass labels
In a discussion last month over at the Beer Advocate on pricing and the inputs that go into setting them, in response to my comments about packaging costs, Lew Bryson commented
I'm not against learning more about what's in a beer, how it's made, why it's special: I love it, it's my bread and butter. But I'm not really interested in a damned balance sheet on each beer.Perhaps unlike Lew, for me to some degree that question of total costs is a real big part of my interest in learning more about beer. I see cost input management is one of the most important factors of whether a craft brewery makes it or not and a key factor that few beer fans entirely understand. I always want to know what goes into putting out the product at that price whether it is a certain type of crystal malt. For example, I was just reading a few excellent pages in Hornsey on the parallel rise of porter and the early investment in a steam engine by certain porter brewers - in that case, scale was only made possible by the concurrent but separate technological innovation and those who didn't adopt did not thrive.
What has that got to do with beer labels? Labeling is an important part of the sale for a craft beer or any beer that relies on brand loyalty. As Edouard Manet showed in his painting of 1882 Bar at the Folies-Bergère, above, they get our attention and, to a certain degree, the label is one way through which people get to know their beer. The imagery is a great part of how the consumer define the emotional association between the product and the beer. Don't believe me? Think of Flying Dog without Ralph Steadman, Magic Hat without their nutty Pythonesque obscurities or even Budweiser without the use of red in the label design as a defining aspect of its image. One of the more interesting things about one of the most important breweries in the world is that it has no label. But, like the British and their stamps that do not name the country of origin, only one brewer can really pull that off and, even so, this fact alone may well make it illegal for sale in some countries.
Investment in the right design and cost effective means of application is an important part of the brewers and the interested beer fan's spreadsheet if the brewer is going to hit the market right and the beer fan is to be comfortable with the value proposition of this beer over that. And, as if I needed evidence of my spreadsheet interest, I've even found myself with labeling process photos after I visit craft breweries. It's part of my interest in their overall brewery operations - not just the product of that operation.
For me, best results come when I'm given the flexibility and latitude to address a label design in many different ways. This happens when a new label design breaks away from conventional design and layout approaches. But with that said... I have to be sure that the approach is not offensive to anyone and it has shelf presence, appeal, communication and persuasion.I wonder if any beer been sunk though its label failing on the sorts of requirements Chris sets out? One might if it fails to hit the mood of the times. We can look at the labels and branding of the golden era of American pale lagers described in Christopher O'Hara's book Great American Beer but would we really buy many craft beers if they all spoke to that era of the beer? I'd suggest that the reliance of Bud, Miller High Life and PBR on their old style branding makes it even more unlikely that a craft beer can succeed without a relevant and stylish label.
In addition to making sure the label speak the language of the brewer's product, it also has to abide by the law. In the United States, the labeling of beer is regulated by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Their handy website provides all the relevant information including that little bit of writing known as Title 27, Category I, Sub-category 1, Part 7, Sub-part C entitled "Labeling Requirements For Malt Beverages". There are rules about what can and must be stated or illustrated about the brand, the strength, certain sorts of additives and allergens, that sort of stuff. Brand names and designs can't mislead - did you know that you can only label the beer American Dortmunder but you can just say Pilsner? I will let you read the rules yourself except to note that at section 7.29(b) there is a prohibition on using words to convery extreme strength:Labels shall not contain the words "strong," "full strength," "extra strength," "high test," "high proof," "pre-war strength," "full oldtime alcoholic strength," or similar words or statements which makes me wonder who the designers of labels for extreme...sorry X-treme beers get away with what they do.
If there is one thing you can count on about beer labels, it is that someone else knows more than you do. Label collecting is a huge hobby. The thing I find interesting about their work is how, to a significant degree, they are archivists of the only public records of many beers that are now lost to time.
There you have it. Within the reality of the beer label is all of beer in a thin one-side sticky microcosm...except, you know, the fluid. History, onerous regulation, artful design, marketing and a strong connection with the consumer.