Whether brewing craft beer is a hobby or your full-time business, chances are you care a lot about what drinkers see on the bottle when they sample your brew. American craft beer — described by the Brewers Association as “small, independent and traditional” — calls for label design ingenuity and style unmatched by large, domestic brands. Rather than slapping the word “light” on a standard label, for instance, microbreweries aim to establish a distinct brand identity upon the introduction of each new brew. Think of it like this: labels have a major influence on the perceived quality of craft beer; therefore, these brewers (including home-brewing aficionados like me) aim to create craft labels.

Distinguishing between craft and domestic is fairly easy to do at a glance:

With the craft beer industry booming and information about it more readily accessible to consumers than ever before, creating a remarkable beer label design is imperative. Here are five beer label design tips any craft brewer should keep in mind when brainstorming a label design:

1. Get a basic understanding of craft beer history

Image: Brewers Association

By understanding how microbreweries have evolved, we can develop an appreciation for the industry and the people making it thrive today. So I’ll start with a quick (and painless!) history lesson.

  • In 1840, America’s first lager beer was introduced, a departure from the usual colonial ales.
  • In 1865, America was home to about 2,250 breweries, but by 1915 only 1,400 or so were in business. However, in the interim beer production actually rose by 40%.
  • Prohibition in 1920 delivered a brutal blow to breweries. By 1979 there were a mere 89 left. Yet beer production still increased! (Why? Chalk it up to DIY bathtub brewing.)
  • Since 1985, American breweries have been on the rebound — there are currently some 2,400 across the country.
  • Finally, an interesting, if not essential, bonus fact: the first commercial beer can hit the market in 1935, and six-packs were introduced in the 1940s after research showed that was the number housewives could easily carry home from the store.

What does knowing all of this have to do with designing your own label? For starters, it should give you some sense of pride in how far the industry has come. It should also give you some ideas for creative direction. How will your own brand fit into craft brew history? What do you want people to remember your brand, and your beer, by?

2. Leverage “purple cow” branding to set yourself apart

I’ve taken the term “purple cow” from Seth Godin’s book of the same name. In it he declares, “Today, the one sure way to fail is to be boring. Your one chance for success is to be remarkable.” Purple cow branding is the philosophy and practice of standing out from the monotony of others. Think about it — a purple cow among a pack of brown cows would certainly grab anyone’s attention!

Effective purple cow branding requires a specific audience: one that takes pride in the product and values quality over price. Craft beer consumers are an ideal example of such an audience. They’re completely receptive to designs that differ from the mainstream norm, whether funky or sleek. They also tend to be more educated than the general beer-guzzling public about what goes into the creation of their favorite brew, and what sets it part from others.

For instance, most beer drinkers may have heard the term “hops,” but they likely can’t tell you what hops actually are. So you won’t see depictions of hops on major beer company labels – buyers differentiate brands, not beer process or style. With craft beer labels, no branding rules apply.

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Image: Victory Brewing Co.

Victory Brewing Co., which produces HopDevil and Golden Monkey, above, has some of the best purple cow branding out there. As you can see from the other examples of Victory brews below, the company successfully conveys “fun, delicious and quality” in labels that appeal to a wide range of demographics and distributors:

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Images: Victory Brewing Co.

3. Design with pairings theory in mind

Three key things to consider are beer styles, seasons, and events. These influence the entire brewing process starting from conception, and can play an important role in your label design. Rather than limit your creativity, taking advantage of these pairings can be a big help in the brainstorming process. A quick overview:

Styles: There are two main styles of beer, ales and lagers, and countless variants of each including American ales (IPA, Porters, Stouts), English ales (Oatmeal Stouts, Braggot, Barley wines.), American lagers (Ambers, Malt Liquor, Doubles) and German lagers (Bocks, Dortmudners, Rauchbier, Vienna), to name a few.

The Imperial Pumpkin Ale from Weyerbacher Brewing Co. illustrates how a beer’s style can easily lend itself to an eye-catching (and clever) design:

Image: Weyerbacher

The scepter, crown and cape portray the literal meaning of the word “imperial,” which is also the name of the style. (Here’s a nice description of how imperial beer originated.)

Seasons: Know the saying, “Once in a blue moon?” Many beers are only available for a short season, such as pumpkin ales. Think of autumn and winter fest beers, watermelon hybrids, and summer ales. Take advantage of the opportunity to play off of seasonal themes, as Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale label above does so successfully. Seasonal brews make for excellent branding opportunities.

Events: If you’re a home brewer creating beer for an event, such as a wedding or other celebration, you’re likely to want a more creative or personal label. I made a special beer for my cousin’s recent wedding (you can read all about it here) and took the personalization approach, incorporating a photo of the two of them. This is your chance to have fun — take advantage of it!

4. Pay attention to the details

Main label: Incorporating nuanced design elements here can have a big impact. How? Replacing your usual label with an updated holiday version may help boost sales if your beer isn’t seasonal. And if you look closely at the example below, you’ll see the upper right section of each label is designed with the beer’s distinct style in mind. Subtle can be powerful!

Winning design by gled for the 99designs’ Red Rock Brewery contest

Neck label: Beer labeling isn’t limited to just the central real estate on a bottle. Odell Brewing’s neck label wrap, below left, demonstrates how a unique neck wrap based on beer style can help cement the brand identity of each recipe.

Images via Odell Brewing Co and BSP Radio

Cap: The cap is part of your branding and shouldn’t be forgotten – this is one area where craft brewers can learn a few tricks from the domestics. This quirky Lionshead cap, above right, features a rebus, or pictogram puzzle. (The solution? “I’ve had it up to here!”)

5. Make your design brief clear and specific

A good design brief should tell your designer exactly what you’re looking to achieve. Provide details about your target audience, beer style, brewery location, and history — anything relevant you think the designer should consider. Here’s a good example, from Dover Brewing Co.’s 99designs logo contest:

The label hits the nail on the head:

Winning design by Milovanović™

Also include examples of label styles, fonts you like, color swatches mock-ups (if you’ve made any) and anything else you think might inform and inspire the designer.

99designs has hosted hundreds of beer label design contests, you can check out some of these (and review the customers’ briefs) here. I can’t resist sharing one of my personal favorites to provide one last dose of inspiration:

Winning design by Nowitza for 99designs’ Excel Bottling Co. contest

May these beer label design tips help you craft your own remarkable label. (And if you happen to be a winemaker, too — stranger things have happened! Head on over to the blog post on wine label design!)