Generally speaking, looking at the label on a beer bottle isn’t the best way to tell if you’re going to like what’s inside. It’s one of those cases where conventional wisdom is dead on. There’s something to be said for paying attention to the old advice about “books and covers,” even if you never found a book as tasty as your favourite craft beer.
But, that’s not the same as saying you should ignore craft beer labels altogether. For one thing, that would be impossible – we are all visual creatures, and like it or not, we are influenced by what we see on any form of packaging or advertising. And for another thing, there are a few pieces of potentially important information you can glean from craft beer labels.
To give you a sense of what those might be, and why they matter, here are a few things you can tell from taking a closer look at your favourite bottle…
What Kind of Beer is Inside the Bottle
Usually, the label on a craft beer bottle is going to tell you something about the kind of beer found within. Whether it’s a pale ale, an IPA, a stout, or something different, you’ll probably get an immediate sense of what kind of brew you can expect by reading the label.
Note, however, that different types of beers can overlap and craft beer brewers are known for breaking with convention. So, don’t necessarily expect that anything you’re buying is going to taste the way you feel it should based on experiences with similar beers.
Where the Company is Located
Most craft beer labels feature a company name, a nickname for the beer itself, and some kind of indication of where it was brewed. This might be as broad as a province, or as specific as a street address. You may or may not care to know where your beer grew up, but it can actually be useful information.
For starters, lots of us like to support local craft beer breweries, and to know that the beer we’re getting is as fresh as it could be. Also, brewers in different areas have access to different ingredients. They also have to adhere to different standards on quality and alcohol content.
A Little Bit About the Brewer’s Personality
It’s not likely that the brewer will have designed the artwork on a bottle themselves (although this does happen more than you might think), but looking at things like fonts and images can give you a sense of their personality. As a professional designer, I would argue that it can even tell you a little bit about their approach to brewing.
At the very least, paying attention to what’s on the label can give you a sense of what the craft brewer is hoping you’ll think or feel before your first sip. That alone can help you enjoy the beer just a little bit more.
The Story of the Beer
Some craft beer labels will have a short story about where the brew comes from. These can be fun and interesting bits of trivia, although it’s best to take any of them with a grain of salt. The more successful a craft brewer is, the more likely they are to have good marketing and storytelling instincts that could lead them to bend the truth a little bit.
Along with their origin stories, some beers will have awards and other honours printed directly on the labels. Any mark of quality can be a good one when you’re searching for something new to try.
A Glimpse Into the Ingredients
Finally, it’s worth remembering that you can learn a little bit about the ingredients within a bottle of beer by studying the label. That information might not be important for certain types of brews, but it can let you know if you’re dealing with a specialty beer (for instance, one that contains chocolate or coffee), or if the beer contains something you don’t especially like.
For instance, a friend of mine hates the taste of cilantro. It’s a surprisingly common ingredient in summer ales and IPAs, so he checks the labels to ensure he doesn’t waste his money on something he would hate to drink.
All in all, it’s best not to judge a beer by its label. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t give a quick glance to figure out what’s inside before you make a purchase or take your first sip.