Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form

In the Eye of the Beer-holder

While you shouldn’t judge a beer only by its label (it does need to taste good too, right?), most brewmasters will tell you a creative design will help their brew stand out on a crowded shelf.

John Tranchina
December 29, 2017

While everyone has heard you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the same adage can be applied to choosing a beer based on its label.

There are a lot of different beers out there, and their labels help establish a beer’s identity and reflect the company’s marketing approach. Essentially, the goal is for the label design to attract attention to a beer that might otherwise be overlooked.

Of course, ultimately, the quality of the beer itself is what’s most significant, but how important is a good label to determining sales?

“I think it does affect who buys it a little bit,” says John Hall, the manager of Elixir Wine and Spirits in Broken Arrow. “Most people are going for what’s in the bottle or what’s in the can, and they’re looking for a specific taste profile. But then, whenever they have options within that taste profile, they’ll go with the label.”

While some beers try to catch your eye on a crowded liquor store shelf with loud, colorful designs, others opt for a more muted, classic feel.

Two of Tulsa’s best local breweries take differing attitudes on that front, as Prairie Artisan Ales has a lot of unique, hand-drawn, cartoony labels and Marshall Brewing Company utilizes a classy, old-school label that draws your attention without looking like it’s trying to draw your attention.

“We’ve gone for a timeless sort of classic look to our stuff,” says Eric Marshall, Marshall Brewing’s founder and brewmaster. “Our primary labels kind of have that hand-drawn central image that has a very quality look to it, as opposed to something that’s maybe a little cartoony or something like that, not that there’s anything wrong with a different approach there.”

Still, even so, Marshall’s will be undergoing a slight overhaul to improve its visibility in a crowded marketplace.

“We’re going to stick with that similar central image, but just brighten things up a little bit,” Marshall says. “There’s a lot of brown in our original labels that kind of gets drowned out on the bottle if you’re looking at it on the shelf from further away. We’re about ready to launch here in the next few months a new refresh that just kind of brightens up the platform a little bit. It still has the similar central image drawing but a little bit more white and primary colors.”

One other thing that Marshall tries to achieve, and not every brewer does, is a uniform look across its different stable of beers.

“The thing that we’ve always striven to do with our core brands and our seasonals and stuff, is consistency across the look,” Marshall says. “When somebody is used to drinking one of our beers and we’ve got a seasonal out, they can look at it and know that it’s one of our products without having to do too much exploration. And then, we do some limited-release stuff or some barrel-aged things that have a little bit of a different look or different appeal, but we kind of see that as a stand-alone platform, that we can do whatever, maybe feature a different style of art, or some different artists, let the style of beer dictate the platform.”

Marshall’s El Cucuy, an India-style black ale, fits that latter profile, wearing a brighter, purple-tinged label that is bolder than its other beers.

It is the rare label that becomes even more popular than the beer itself.

“The Yeti from Great Divide, we have people asking to buy our banner all the time because they think it looks so cool, so I’m sure the label attracts people to the beer,” says Austin Jones, assistant manager at Seventy First Wine and Spirits in Tulsa.

“There’s a couple of different brands that do a yeti or bigfoot, and they tend to be really heavy, big beers, lots of flavor, lots of alcohol, so they’re kind of using the big name to show you it’s a big beer,” Hall adds. “Like [Great Divide’s] Hercules. It’s a double IPA, lots of hops, lots of alcohol, so they’re trying to convey the message of strength through the name of it. A lot of beer companies will do that.”

It’s not just the labels. Like the Yeti or Hercules, much of it starts with the provocative names that companies give its beers to begin with, and the label merely reflects that character.

“The beer companies tend to be getting a little bit more vivid and more creative with their labels, especially with naming beers, and then the creative labels kind of follow the names sometimes,” Hall says. “I think a lot of that is just the proliferation of craft beers. They’ve come up with more and more, and you’ve got to get creative with names because there’s so many out there, and everybody’s trying to stand out on the shelf.”

Then there’s the container that the label is on.

“The most recent trend, in craft beers at least, has been a big swing from bottles to cans,” Hall says. “A lot of craft beers, like Great Divide, used to be all bottles, now it’s all cans. A lot of them are shifting to cans only, because you end up with less breakage and it’s a cheaper package, so it’s easier to get to the customers at a decent price. And once you pour it into a glass, it tastes the same, and customers are finally learning that. We like it. It makes stocking a lot easier; the beer stays good longer. Beer skunks out because the light penetrates the glass, and actually transforms the beer. The best bottled beer is in dark bottles, but cans cut the light out completely.”

So just like with books, the images on the cover cannot really convey how good the product is, but it does give some clues, and it’s up to the consumer to interpret them.

Marshall Brewing Company
618 S. Wheeling Ave. | Tulsa

Elixir Wine & Spirits
2409 W. Kenosha St., #177 | Broken Arrow

Seventy First Wine & Spirits
11234 E. 71st St. | Tulsa