Not all labels are created equal.
Generally speaking, a craft brewer is also a craft beer fan. Not necessarily, but it’s rare. So, as beer drinkers themselves, they have an appreciation for the experience of drinking a beer and know that a great percentage of the experience is enjoying the container. The artwork, the texture, and the story told in the text, all need to support the enjoyment of the beverage. Labels are carefully chosen for this experience. Front and back paper beer can labels feel charmingly antiquated. Clear plastic wrap around labels feel modern and spartan. Shrink sleeve labels create large canvases for cool graphic design.
As a brewer, these label choices present a problem. How labels are applied is drastically different depending on the types of labels used. Some label materials are sensitive to environmental factors during the labeling process while others aren’t. If you make a decision to use one kind of label and then decide to switch to another, it might mean you have to invest in a whole new piece of labeling equipment! So, what’s your priority for labeling your beers?
If you’re looking at your bank balance more than anything else, you probably want the least expensive labels possible. In this case, you’ll want plain paper. Keep in mind that while these labels are indeed cheap, they are also fragile. Every craft beer drinker knows the feeling of pulling some beers out of a cooler and experiencing a soggy label falling to pieces in their hands. Paper labels just don't handle harsh environments well. Unfortunately, this is true during manufacturing, too.
Moisture and condensation are a problem for any label that relies on adhesive, but especially for paper labels. The steps needed to ensure that paper labels get applied properly and stay on bottles for as long as possible may negate the cost savings you’re looking for anyway:
- Ensure optimal temperature in your packaging line area.
- Store your paper labels in airtight bags.
- Practice warm bottling.
- Closely monitor and adjust equipment to avoid static electricity buildup.
- Inspect equipment and containers for any sharp edges that can scuff or tear your labels.
Now, there are ways to make paper labels hardier with techniques like laminating and varnishing, but they’re still not going to be as robust as other types of labels.
If you want your beer’s artwork to be in-your-face and eye-popping, you probably want it to cover the whole container. In this case, you’re probably going to be interested in shrink sleeves. A shrink sleeve label is just a plastic sleeve that a labeling machine drops onto a container, which then moves on a conveyor belt through a heat tunnel. The heat causes the label to shrink and permanently affix to the container. Shrink sleeves are more expensive than traditional front/back and wrap around labels, but they make up for this through increased sales.
However, that’s not to imply that front/back and wrap around labels can’t be just as artistic. Clear beer can labels can make the aluminum part of the design and clear labels on bottles can incorporate the bottle color into their artwork. Now, you do have another consideration with front/back and wraparound labels, and that’s the application process. A wrap around machine will be able to apply labels in one pass. A bottle that requires front/back labels might have to make two passes if the labeling equipment isn’t designed to apply two labels at once.
A Word on Neck Bands
Speaking of applying more than one label, what if you want to have neck bands, too? They sure do conjure the feeling of classic British ESBs and porters, don’t they? Well, your labeling equipment will need to be able to handle applying labels to bottle necks. Necks present a challenge because they’re not perfectly cylindrical. Also, you’ll need labels that match the specific taper of the neck. Of course, if you’re only labeling beer cans, this isn’t an issue.
To give beers an elegant, old-world feel, you might not be able to resist the charm of rough paper after all. Or, you might want to give your bottle and beer can labels a more modern feel with smooth plastic or vinyl labels. But, whether you choose paper or plastic, one technique that is a sure thing for adding some class to your labels is embossing. Wine labels have used embossing for decades to impart an elegant tactile sensation.
You can have either paper or plastic labels embossed, and they’re a great choice for seasonal beers or specialty brews meant to mimic wine bottle design. What you’ll have to remember about embossed labels is that they’ll need to be specially crafted for you and will cost extra. The process to emboss labels adds complication and time, so you must factor that in when getting ready to package your beers. Also, your labeling equipment will need to be able to accommodate labels of varying thickness and texture. If the label gets too much pressure, it can crack. If it gets too little, it can peel. If the labeler isn’t able to handle the texture, it can slip. This can take adjustment, repair, or just getting a new labeler.
Let’s look past the life of your beer. Once the container is empty, what’s the next step? Depending on the type of label you’ve used, it may be difficult or impossible to recycle your beer cans or bottles. While the push for making beer cans more easily recyclable has led to advancements such as direct printing, there are other solutions, too.
One solution is to encourage your customers to remove the labels before recycling. If you use paper labels, they can come off with some hot water and elbow grease. Plastic wrap around labels can be cut off. Shrink sleeve labels, while they appear to be inseparable from their containers, have no adhesive and can also just be cut off.
Download the Craft Brewer’s Guide to Labeling Equipment
Still having trouble deciding on what label is right for you? Get advice from the pros in Pack Leader USA’s Craft Brewer’s Guide to Labeling Equipment. We explain trends in the industry, how to evaluate your packaging line, types of labeling machines, and more. We’re here to make sure your labels are well applied every time your packaging line runs, whatever type of label you prefer!