Sometimes referred to as the CD covers of the 21st century, craft beer labels have transformed into a canvas for the wild and the weird. Their unique artwork connects with the customer on a deeply personal level, with many people buying new beers based on the packaging alone. Like album covers of the past, beer labels need to convey a few pieces of important information in a small space while simultaneously embodying the attitude of the people behind the product. Where CDs require the “Parental Advisory” warning for music with swearing, beer labels need to follow even stricter guidelines to earn their place on the shelf.
Here are a few tips for designing a beer label that ticks all the boxes for the notorious TTB guidelines:
Government Warning: This one’s pretty important, and it’s surprisingly easy to get it wrong. The main things to keep in mind are as follows:
The letter height must be a minimum of 2m
The text must be in paragraph form with the words “GOVERNMENT WARNING” on the same line as the first few words of the warning.
“GOVERNMENT WARNING” must be bold in all capital letters, while the rest of the warning may not be bold, and can be in all capital letters, but does not have to be. It helps if you choose a typeface that has multiple weights, and condensed fonts are often chosen to save precious real estate on the label.
The warning must be in a contrasting color to the background.
Numbers may contained within parenthesis or be followed by a period (Ex. “(1)” or “1.”.
(Ex.) GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) ACCORDING TO THE SURGEON GENERAL, WOMEN SHOULD NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES DURING PREGNANCY BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF BIRTH DEFECTS. (2) CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES IMPAIRS YOUR ABILITY TO DRIVE A CAR OR OPERATE MACHINERY, AND MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS.
Alcohol By Volume: There are a few acceptable ways to present this (replace 0.0% in these examples with the actual number for the beer).
ALC. 0.0% BY VOL.
ALC 0% BY VOL
% ALC. BY VOL. 0.0
Volume: Same size requirements as the government warning, typically in the same format as the ABV, but doesn’t have to be.
1 PINT (16FL OZ)
1 PINT (16 FL. OZ.)
12 FL. OZ.
12 FL. OZ. (355 ML)
VOLUME 32 OZ.
1 QUART (32 FL. OZ.)
64 FL.OZ. | 1/2 GALLON
1/2 GALLON (64 FL. OZ.)
Redemption Value: encourage recycling, folks! As long as you have the info below in some form or another, there are a lot of variations for the execution here.
CT, IA, ME, MA, VT, NY, HI 5¢ MI, OR 10¢ OK+
CA CRV *contained in a box*
Production Info: This one is slightly less specific, they just want to know who made the product and where. Some breweries put their address on the can, but city and state is usually enough.
Brewed and Canned by “Name of Brewery” in City, State
Brewed and Bottled by “Name of Brewery”. City, State
Brewed, Bottled, and Packaged by “Name of Brewery” in City, State
Alcohol type: abbreviations are great, but you still have to specify the kind of beer it is.
IPA: use “India Pale Ale” or at lease the word “Ale” somewhere on the label. The text can be small, but it’s got to be on there.
Milk Stout: “Stout” and “Contains Lactose” if it does indeed contain lactose.
Label art cannot depict anyone drinking alcohol, getting “drunk” nor can it advertise phrasing along the lines of: “It’ll get you wasted!”. The artwork must also appeal more to adults than children, so be careful not to make your label art easily mistakable for fruit juice or another kid friendly drink. This is relatively subjective to the person approving your label, so keep that in mind when coming up with the concept for your beer label.
An example of possibly inappropriate label art would be a werewolf chugging a beer, cartoon unicorns with rainbows and candy, or a guy passed out on the sidewalk from drinking too much. This is more of a “know your audience” situation, so if it’s too kiddy, find a way to make it more inclined towards adults of legal drinking age.
Now, time to get creative!
With all the legal requirements taken into consideration, it’s time to get to the fun part! There are a few different approaches to take when designing a beer label, but some basic things should be established up front:
Hierarchy: identify the order of information from most important to least: Beer Name, Brewery Name, Artwork, or Beer style? This is important to establish what information you want to communicate to your customers when they first see your can or bottle.
Template: Breweries will often create a template to be used for all their core beer releases, which allows them to swap out the artwork, name, and details of each beer while maintaining the same visual aesthetic. These templates will sometimes have an area dedicated to artwork taking up half the can with the text info filling up the other. More typographic designs may only switch names and colors in the same layout for each beer.
Custom: Another approach often used with one off beers or special releases is a custom label design. This doesn’t have to exactly match the brewery’s normal template (if they have one at all) and tend to focus more on the specific beer than the brewery itself. These can get extra creative with where you place the government required information, how you design the typography and illustration, and different printing effects like foil, gloss, and finish.
Inspiration and Examples: look at what other breweries are doing and see what label designs stand out to you. Collect beer labels you like and reference them for yourself. Go online on Pinterest, Behance, or blogs like Oh, Beautiful Beer.
Stand Out: Go to your local grocery store and take a picture of the beer aisle. Use Photoshop to place your can or bottle design on the shelf next to the competition and see if it stands out. Take it one step further by printing out your label at home, wrapping it around another can or bottle and physically put it on the shelf next to the other beers. If it’s getting lost in all the noise, perhaps a cleaner, more minimal approach would be better. If it looks a little bland, maybe brighten up the color palette or add come striking illustration. Doing this kind of work ahead of time is worth the investment and will generally lead to a better result.
Double Check Everything: This is extremely crucial, and minor mistakes can have huge consequences, so be sure confirm that the UPC bar code, ABV%, Volume, the word “Ale” if necessary, Brewed and Packaged By, and any other specific info are all correct, and confirm it with a few other sets of eyes just to be sure. This is also the best time to catch any typos or unintended visuals caused by the warping of the bottle or can. Sometimes a design looks one way when it’s flat, but looks totally different when wrapped around a cylinder, so it’s important to print out the label and mock it up in real life to see if everything looks as you intended.
Now this basic guide should be a good resource to get you started, but is by no means a substitute to reading the actual legal (and rather boring) requirements, which you can find here: https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?gp=&SID=b85eb147aa578b2ae75c4196f91f1daa&mc=true&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title27/27chapterI.tpl
Below are some other helpful links:
TTB Labeling Dept. - 866-927-2533 (press 8 for malt beverage)
Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM): https://www.ttb.gov/beer/bam.shtml
General mandatory label info: https://www.ttb.gov/beer/bam/chapter1.pdf
Exempt ingredients, that do not require a formula approval: (typical beer ingredients) https://www.ttb.gov/rulings/ttb-ruling-2015-1-attachment-1.pdf
Labeling for added ingredients: https://www.ttb.gov/rulings/ttb-ruling-2015-1-attachment-2.pdf
Acceptable examples: Pineapple Ale, Spice Ale, Ale with Spices