Almost six months to the day since the pandemic changed nearly every way of life in this country, I found myself in a beer store and on a mission. With just a few days of vacation on Cape Cod, I wanted to stock the house with some easy drinking, yet flavorful beers that could help while away the hours.
The store was unfamiliar to me and so I formulated a plan beforehand. A six-pack of pale ale, a six-pack of lager, and Cape Cod IPA. I donned a mask and went shopping. The Cape Cod IPA was easy to spot. Familiar packaging with the style clearly visible in a large font. Berkshire Brewing’s Steel Rail Pale Ale, a beer I have not seen in quite some time, also had distinct packaging.
This particular store did not seem to have much in the lager department aside from the familiar macro brands, so I took my two finds to the register and was out quickly. The next day I got into the IPA and spent a few minutes going over the can. Cape Cod Beer is one of the older breweries in Massachusetts and has been serving the Cape for nearly 20 years now and for a while it was the only option for locally made beer in the area.
It uses its 16-ounce label real estate to the best possible advantage. In addition to having the brewery name and style clearly on display, there are other touches as well that help offer a sense of place. Being in a big tourist destination, the brewery makes the most of first-time or curious buyers by putting a small MA and its address on the label, along with tour information (something that will be helpful once tours are available again). On those rainy days when vacationers are looking for something to do, a visit to the local brewery is now top of mind.
There is also a photo of a Cape landscape, a dock leading into a marsh, that comes complete with a photo credit and the location. A touch that shows the brewery is interested in supporting other local businesses as well as showing off where it is.
This is in addition to all of the other usual beer information that one expects like ABV and brewer tasting notes.
The Steel Rail Pale Ale was similar in its easy-to-read label, including a quote from writer Lew Bryson who exclaimed that this beer is what “the water in heaven oughta taste like.” With maroon packaging, bold lettering, and a prominent train graphic, the cardboard six-pack box was easy to spot from feet away.
I recalled one of the earliest days of the pandemic restrictions in March when I headed to my local beer shop to pick up a few beers for what I then hoped would only be a short time of inconvenience. Still, worried about airborne germs, even with a mask, my time inside the shop was brief.
Time was not a luxury and so I gravitated to familiar beers, with easy to read labels, and easily spotted from a distance. Bell’s Two Hearted, Pilsner Urquell, and Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. These might not have been my usual choices, but I did not have the luxury of time to sift through new-to-me labels that required picking up cans and hunting for information, if any was even available.
In the earliest days of the pandemic retail beer sales did remarkably well, with established brands leading the pack. Much of this had to do with the “comfort food” mentality. Customers reached for something familiar in a time of worry, but it also helped by having clear labels, spelling out what was in the can (or bottle) from a distance and without having to hunt for information.
Clear labeling is important to attracting customers and as more breweries have pushed into distribution, coming up with strong messaging has been important. Artistic labels are great and fun to look at but for the general consumer clarity is key.
“It’s not just familiar brands, but established styles like classic pale ales, lagers, and even amber ales seem to move faster,” says Christopher Quinn, the owner of Beer Temple in Chicago. “Those beers that had, say, a watercolor painting on the label that looked nice but didn’t offer up any real information did not move in the same way that it might had before all this.”
Esoteric labels with inventive modern artwork have become commonplace in the beer space and thanks to Instagram, some fans can spot a can from their favorite brewery when they see it on offer or know what to expect when they line up for a special release.
While fine for taproom situations, when it comes to traditional retail much of what makes the hazy IPAs, kettle sours, and other offerings from small breweries so attractive to some customers becomes a headache to other consumers.
The metallic font on a slightly different metallic background is tough to read by anyone. Having to hunt for a beer style, an ABV, and the sometimes lack of packaging date on the bottom of a can are all warning signs for some customers to stay away.
As the pandemic stretches on and package stores continue to do well, the breweries that are moving into retail would be smart to re-evaluate their packaging to make it easier to identify, convey information, and entice customers from feet away.
The same is true with existing brands. The industry has seen a number of brand refreshes by older breweries, including Samuel Adams and Bell’s over the last few years that sharped graphics, gave a bit more pop of color to labels, and give the impression of freshness by brands that might seem dated by some.
The beer inside the packaging might be excellent as ever, but if the outside advertising feels old, it can run the risk of staying on a shelf.
There is a lot to worry about right now and that feeling is not going away anytime soon. By offering a story, a bit of professionalism, and some thought to a beer label, the ability to connect consumers from the shelf will be one less thing to be concerned about.
“The pandemic has shown me that there is a case to be made for better labeling, even if you still want to use watercolors,” says Quinn.
This article originally appeared on ProBrewer.com in February 2022. All About Beer’s parent company has a partnership with ProBrewer.com to create original content for that website. New articles appear each week and subsequently are reposted on AllAboutBeer.com.