Whether you're getting production started or you're exploring new label options, the labels you choose will influence and impact customers.
Choosing a beer label is like deciding the right outfit for a given activity or occasion. Heading to the beach? Swim trunks and sandals. Going for a run? A t-shirt and running shorts. Formal event? You'd better be in a suit and tie or evening gown. Before you determine how your beer will be "dressed," picture it sitting in a mix-and-match beer store cooler or the hand of a customer — what would make it appropriate for the occasion and visually appealing to the right audience?
Craft beer isn't one singular beverage, despite movie characters asking the bartender for "a beer" and never getting asked in return, "uh… what kind?" Craft beer recipes are just as diverse as brewery branding and label designs. Beer labels should be just as unique and compelling as the beer itself. Labels should represent your beer in graphic form, giving the customer an immediate and intuitive sense of what to expect at a glance.
For example, if you're brewing a barrel-aged stout, you need to be careful that your container doesn't suggest that the beer is an IPA. If the can or bottle is emblazoned in greens and golds with images of hops, these visual clues will cause any beer snob to form question marks over their heads as they pour a liquid the exact color of crude oil into their glass.
Once you know how your beer should be dressed for the occasion, you're ready to decide on a label type for your bottles and cans. Ultimately, your decision will impact which labeling machine works best with those labels and your packaging line.
It’s not uncommon for microbrewers to start with paper labels. The problem with paper is that it’s unreliable in the face of moisture and has a tendency to peel off or get soggy and tear. Ice buckets, condensation, and sweaty or wet hands can turn nicely designed paper labels into mush. There are methods for extending the life of paper labels with sprays and overlays. However, they are only temporary measures, and the labels will still be damaged far quicker than other label types made of waterproof materials.
If your brewery wants to create vintage-inspired labels for classic styles or aesthetic reasons, perhaps the downsides of paper are just a hazard you’re willing to accept. Paper does have a tactile experience not found with other label types, thanks to its rough texture and handmade appearance. But if you’re going to apply an overlaminate to protect the paper anyway, then you’re losing the paper’s uniqueness and adding cost.
Paper labels are your cheapest option in terms of purchasing and application processes. You can run them through a front/back labeler or wraparound labeler for the best results, but they can also be applied by hand. However, hand application is a painstaking process with mixed to poor results compared to machine application. If it’s your only option, it is preferable to labelless bottles or cans, which will get you in trouble, anyway. Your best results will be with a dedicated machine that will apply labels evenly with no tearing. Label machines seem like an expensive option, but small tabletop machines are far more economical than continuing to pay a dedicated labeling employee. Paper labels are an economical starting point for breweries in their early phases. They can even appeal to environmentally conscious consumers if using recycled paper. However, if you’re looking for a label that will withstand harsh conditions, there are better options.
Pressure-Sensitive Film Labels
Pressure-sensitive labels are usually made of polyester and polypropylene films and resist moisture far better than paper. They're made from films that stay fresh-looking even in harsh environments like coolers and pools. They are more flexible and will resist tearing or ripping on assembly lines and store shelves, too. When made with a UV varnish, they are resistant to fading from sunlight and offer a choice between a glossy finish or matte finish depending on your design. UV varnishes can even be applied to create a rough texture to mimic the feeling of paper.
In terms of design, pressure-sensitive labels have another advantage over paper labels that will give more options when creating your brand image on your bottles or cans: they can be transparent. This means you can either show off your beer's rich appearance in a clear bottle or incorporate the color of the bottle into your design. On cans, this means you can reveal the aluminum behind the label. This gives any clear space on the label a shiny, metallic effect.
Pressure-sensitive labels can be applied by hand, just like paper labels, but if you're already upgrading over paper, it makes no sense to do it manually. Film/laminate labels will be pricier than paper labels, but the professional look and resistance to damage (as long as they're properly applied) can win you over new customers. Front/back labelers and wraparound labelers can apply labels faster and more accurately than any human hand. The upfront cost may look daunting, but if long-term profits are your goal, pressure-sensitive labels applied by an automatic labeling machine will offer professional-looking results consistently.
Shrink Sleeve Labels
For ultimate protection against moisture and complete coverage of the container, shrink sleeve labels leave others in the dust. Adhesive-free shrink sleeves are placed over a bottle or can, then placed in a heat tunnel that causes the label to shrink and grip the container. This coverage gives far more space for label designs featuring stunning graphics. They can be opaque or transparent, just like pressure-sensitive labels if you want to use the color of your cans or bottles in the design. Care must be taken so that the graphics don’t warp as the sleeves shrink, but modern printing software has largely eliminated this problem.
The cost of shrink sleeve labels is about 25% more than that of paper or pressure-sensitive labels; however, hand labeling isn’t a possibility. But shrink sleeve labeled products more than make up for this once they hit the market. Studies continue to show that consumers respond more positively to shrink sleeves than to smaller labels and assume that the beverage is more valuable than it really is. With a 150% increase in surface area for branding for such a slight price increase, shrink sleeves have become a highly popular option.
Other Label Types
Other methods of labeling bottles and cans include direct object printing, which applies images directly to the container, and non-adhesive clings, which are vinyl materials that use static to adhere to bottles or cans. Direct object printing can create a unique tactile sensation with its raised ink, but the cost of equipment and the fact that it’s more difficult to achieve bright, eye-catching graphics have convinced breweries such as Stone to transition away from direct printing and over to pressure-sensitive labels. Non-Adhesive clings offer the ultimate reusability but have to be applied by hand and are far more expensive than the options mentioned above.
Starting out with the right labels and label machines will keep you from making costly errors. Read our article 3 Common Beer Labeling Mistakes to get the tips you need to achieve the best results. After you’ve chosen your label type (material and application method), explore our craft beer labelers to find one that will make labeling a breeze, saving you time, money, and unwanted downtime.
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