The Good and the Bad of Craft Beer Packaging

Jun 30, 2015

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Last week I found myself in a familiar position—standing in the beer aisle staring at 6-packs, waiting for one to speak to me. Even narrowed to just pale ales and IPAs, I was confronted with more than 10 viable options. Shoppers raced by, some reaching into the cooler for something specific, others standing behind me engaged in the same ritual I was.

What were we staring at exactly? Of course it’s beer, but more specifically it’s the packaging that contains it. Because aside from remembered samples, that packaging was the only clue we had to help us make our choices.

The U.S. has more than 3,000 breweries producing somewhere around 30,000 unique beer styles vying for attention at any given time. That's a saturated market with limited marketing dollars, which makes packaging more important than ever. We have some thoughts about what’s working right now and what’s smelling skunky.

The Good:

Clean Design: Since craft beer hit the shelves, it’s been inundated with complex illustrations and seemingly hand-drawn designs. Now to stand out, designs are getting cleaner, simpler, and easier to read. That’s definitely a good thing. Check out Austin Beerworks and Einstok.

Example 1 Cans
Example 2 Einstok

Mouth-Watering Packaging: When five o’clock comes around, people buy beer that makes their mouth water. However, in the move to differentiate from the illustrated, busy design style that craft beer is known for, some labels have become too stark with little visceral appeal. The good ones find that special balance between clean and “that makes me want to drink a beer”. No-Li and Creature Comfort are doing it well.

Example 3 Creature Comforts
Example 4 Noli

The Billboard Effect: Picture the beer aisle. Individual cans and bottles packed together in 6- or 12-packs, sitting next to beers of the same brewery. When all that brand’s designs have consistent elements and come together to create a larger display, the visual impact is hard to ignore. Look to New Belgium for a good example.

Example 5 New Belgium
Example 7 Boulevard

Packaging That Has its Priorities Straight: Before it can even appeal to consumers, the packaging needs to protect the beer and keep it tasting as good (or better) than the day it was bottled. Beer lovers appreciate a protected beverage.

I have my eye on the fully enclosed 6-pack that blocks more light than the standard bottle carrier we typically see in the U.S. (It makes a good surface for that billboard effect too). Back Forty Beer Company and Boulevard Brewing have experimented with the closed boxes.

Example 6 Truckstop

Gender Inclusive Beer: More women are drinking beer than ever and it’s great that brewers are moving away from the man-centric beer design (We’re definitely not proponents of pink cans, just good design that doesn’t put off half the population).

Example 8 Red Brick
Example 9 Ogden

The Bad:

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  • Should be Empty:
  • Cans: They’re beach-ready and fun to look at, but I have to give cans the thumbs down for now. Aluminum cans are still lined with BPA, that chemical linked to all kinds of health issues a few years back. The portability just doesn’t outweigh the toxicity. I’m not-so-patiently waiting for the day when researchers find an economical non-toxic liner for aluminum cans.

    Hops and barley: I love hops as much as any millennial beer lover, but let’s face it—almost every brewery uses imagery of hops and barley on their packaging. There’s nothing ownable about it. You’re better off leaving the ingredients at home and uncovering what’s truly unique about your beer or brewery.

    Example 11 Hops

    Facial Hair: There’s no problem with beards on people (I hope), but the trend of beards on beer labels has gotten out-of-hand. It’s about time this fad makes its way out. I sure don’t want to be seen holding a mustache brew—talk about cliché millennial.

    Example 10 Beards

    So here’s to avoiding the obvious, getting down to what’s special about beer, and giving drinkers a glimpse into the exbeerience they’re about to have. Get it? Like experience, but with “beer” in the middle? I’m good.

    Now if I could only figure out what to drink…

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