The right choice will be cost-effective, on-brand, and on-point with customer expectations.
Upon meeting Sherlock Holmes, John Watson experienced a test of Holmes’ deductive powers. After inspecting Watson’s watch for a few moments, Holmes reasoned that the watch came to Watson from his older brother, an untidy man who wasted his potential and died a drunk. Watson stood, astonished, as the deduction was entirely correct. Holmes’ examination of the watch revealed initials, most likely from an older sibling. The watch was worn and dented, indicating neglect, but was of high quality and costly, suggesting it was a gift, most likely from a fellow member of a wealthy family, probably his father. Haphazard grooves around the keyhole indicated that the owner was rarely sober when winding the watch. With a quick analysis, Holmes gathered much information. Unflattering information.
What does this have to do with your beer cans and their labels?
Your containers will be constantly subjected to a Holmesian inspection whenever they reach the hand of a craft beer drinker. Your label quality, container quality, graphics, wording, packaging, everything will reveal to your customers your level of attention to detail.
Large commercial breweries deal with this by ordering massive batches of printed cans from industrial printing companies. Even though it’s expensive, it gets impressive results. But wrap-around labels and shrink sleeve labels can be just as stunning and durable enough to withstand the torture that time, handling, and moisture exact upon them. Plus, the technology and machinery are far more widespread and easy to add to an existing packaging line.
So, which do you choose? Direct printing or applied labels? How do you decide which labeling method is right for your brewery?
Printed Beer Cans
The first direct printed cans appeared in the 1950s and were primarily used only by major breweries due to cost. In the past decade, products like Tonejet’s Cyclone have given breweries the ability to directly print onto cans without having to send them to a third party. The printing can be done with UV curable inks and coatings to leave a long-lasting, high-quality image, and unlike traditional methods of direct printing, it can be done in more than six colors. The printed cans are more environmentally friendly than labels, too.
Sounds good, but what are the downsides? The first is cost. Traditional printing methods require the cans to be shipped off to a dedicated printer, which can mean massive minimum orders of up to 200,000 cans and potentially long wait times.
If you want to buy a printer, plan on spending a lot of money — as in hundreds of thousands of dollars for even a medium-sized machine. The next major issue is that once the can is printed, that’s it. There’s no redos. That’s the label forever (unless you get really good at scraping off ink—not recommended).
Even if you accept the cost of the machine and don’t mind redoing some cans now and again, there’s one thing the printing process can’t impart: texture. If you want to have the feel of a paper label to give a handcrafted, old-world vibe, or an embossed label to impart elegance and stateliness, you can’t. For every beer enthusiast that appreciates the environmental friendliness of a printed can, there will be another one who feels the experience is inferior to that of a traditional label with a specific tactile sensation.
Printed Labels For Beer Cans
The idea of a can with a separate label can seem odd to those who are used to seeing nothing but macro-brewery printed cans, but it’s an increasingly popular option. Cans are more accepted by craft beer drinkers than ever, and a printed label can give the handcrafted, small-batch look craft aficionados appreciate.
Wrap Around Labels
Now, it’s true that beer cans have gotten lighter and thinner over the years, so it’s reasonable to fear a greater risk of labels not adhering correctly. But, thanks to modern adhesives, properly applied pressure-sensitive and wrap around labels will stay attached in harsh conditions.
Using labels also means you can utilize bright, bold graphics that generally aren’t possible when printing on a beer can. With direct printing, graphic designers need to be aware of which inks will pop on the aluminum and which won’t. With a separate label, your imagination is the limit.
As for paper labels vs. film labels, paper options are waaaaay cheaper. Just keep in mind that paper labels, while they are more environmentally friendly than film labels and have a unique texture, won’t hold up to the rigors of the cooler or the coozie the way plastic can. Even with UV varnishes and sealers, it’s a matter of time before that paper label peels off.
And yes, a film label can have more of a negative environmental impact than paper labels or direct printing. The very properties that keep it looking sharp after hours in an ice bucket will also keep it looking fresh in a landfill. However, if sustainability and ecological responsibility are important to you, just invest in recyclable labels.
Shrink Sleeve Labels
For ultimate moisture protection and scratch resistance, shrink sleeve labels can’t be topped. They work by placing an oversized plastic sleeve over the can, then use heat to shrink the sleeve. There’s no adhesive, just a permanent shrink-wrapped label with awesome, huge, bold graphics all around the can.
Shrink sleeves can be applied to any can size, be it 8.4 oz, 12 oz, 16 oz, or 19.2 oz. The best part about shrink sleeves is that you get those bold, bright, colorful graphics of a wrap around label along with the container coverage of direct printing. The sleeves can be made completely opaque, or you can have clear spaces to let the aluminum show through.
The downsides? Well, shrink sleeve labelers and labels cost more than pressure-sensitive and wrap-around labels and equipment. You’ll make up for it through increased sales, though.
Also, the sleeves have the same potential for negative environmental impact due to waste. But again, as long as the sleeves are themselves recyclable and separated from the container before recycling (a process that’s easier thanks to the lack of adhesive), it’s a non-issue.
You also need to make sure your graphic designer is aware of how the sleeve warps to fit the container, but if they’re worth their paycheck, they’ll be able to adapt the design.
Which Labeling Method is Right For You?
Direct printing is the best option if you have a massive number of beer cans to print and the capital to spend. However, if you have to work within a tight budget and are brewing smaller batches, investing in an entry-level printer and labels is a better fit.
If labels are the way to go for your brewery, download our Brewer’s Guide to Craft Beer and Microbrew Labeling Equipment to learn more about different beer label types, the pros and cons of each, and how to pick the right labeling equipment.