I’m often told I have the dream job and to be honest I’d have to agree. I get to spend my days running a brewery called Black Hops that I started with my mates Eddie and Govs. Not only that, I spend most of my time working with amazing designers to design really cool beer branding.
Over the years we’ve learned a few things that should be useful to business owners or designers designing beer cans or similar physical products. In this post I’ll cover what I’ve learned to date starting with the overall beer branding process, but spending more time on our approach to designing beer packaging (ie. cans).
Gone are the days of designing one central brand and product. We create up to 100 or so unique beers in any given year and the majority of them are fully branded cans. This article will cover the beer branding process by going over the various options for packaging beer, then looking at the various approaches for different types of releases and ending with some general rules for beer branding design I like to follow.
Remember, I’m coming at this from the business owner’s perspective, not the designers perspective. Don’t @ me!
Beer branding basics
The majority of this article will focus on branding packaged beer (cans). But before you can produce a branded can, you have to have a brand to start with. Other articles on 99designs—like this one about the process of branding—have done a great job explaining how you can develop a core brand for your business. I’ve found that the process of branding will change a lot from one designer to the next, and from one company to the next. That said, the high level steps in that article hold pretty consistently to what we did at Black Hops.
1. Build your brand strategy
At Black Hops this part was pretty easy, we had our name in place well before we started the brewery. Govsie’s military background worked well and with our approach, which basically consisted of sharing everything we learned along our journey. We became known as “the least covert operation in brewing.” We didn’t want to push the military angle too much, though, rather we wanted it to be a subtle aspect of our brand and in our beer names and stories. I feel like this part of branding can easily be overthought and you get to a point where you have everything so perfectly branded that it doesn’t look genuine.
That said, it is super helpful if you stand for something and that thing is something your customers can relate to. This is the essence of a brand strategy.
2. Do market research
This is the fun part—particularly if you’re in the beer game—though our first effort at market research turned out to be not such a great time. When we first met with our original designer for Black Hops we thought it would be great to go down to the local bottle shop and have a look at what was on the shelves. After about two minutes, the bottle shop attendant told us to leave because we hadn’t bought anything!
The research part is important because ultimately your product is going to end up on the shelves next to other beers. So even if you don’t want to do the research component for inspiration for your own design, you definitely should do it so you avoid blending in too much with other designs. I like in person research but all the usual places for designers to share their work are also a big part of the process. 99designs, Instagram, Dribble are a few great examples.
3. Develop your brand identity and style guide
The next step is to work with your designer on a core brand identity and style guide.
Building a brand identity and style guide has been covered on this blog very well already, check out How to Create a Brand Style Guide. I like to keep this broad and flexible because as you’ll see later on in this post, beer brands need to be super adaptable depending on the type of beer release.
For us, the key elements were:
- Brand name: Black Hops Brewing (a play on the term “Black Ops”)
- Story: our story is an essential part of who we are. We started as a simple homebrew created by mates and have grown into a dynamic company. We build this story into everything we do.
- Color palette: our core brand is made up of just two colours, the black (which isn’t black, it’s more of a blue black) and the grey. Our core range of beers also has specific colours. We have a wide range of logos in different formats so our logos can go on black, white, silver or any other coloured cans.
- Typography: in our logo the company name, “Black Hops” is hand-lettered and the word ‘BREWERY’ is in a custom font designed by our designer specifically for us. It has a subtle masculine/military feel to it but it’s barely perceptible. We wanted our logo to be flexible enough to work with all kinds of design approaches. We use a simple sans serif font for most of our copy outside the main logo.
- Brand voice: ours is pretty informal. Wherever possible the founders of the company speak directly to the customer and if not the founders, then the team communicates with our consumers. We try embody the opposite of a corporate style or “planned” brand. You don’t want customers overthinking what we do too much—we make beer, it’s that simple.
- Logo: our primary logo features the hand-lettered “Black Hops” and the custom font ‘BREWERY’ as well as our Chevron image (more on that below). We don’t generally permit designers to change the logo at all but we do have it in a bunch of different versions so we can adapt to different needs. For example, our big stacked logo is too high to be legible on long narrow applications such as bar matts, so we have a small version with just the chevron and the hand-lettered “Black Hops” for those types of uses. We tweak it occasionally for specific uses. The example below is for our second brewery Black Hops II.
- Chevron: the Chevron symbol is a smaller, simple representation of our brand. Our logo is pretty complex and is too much in a lot of cases. On a small social media bio pic you don’t want a big complex stacked logo. Our chevron is the image we try to use when the logo is too complex, or if in a particular application, the person seeing it already knows Black Hops enough to associate the Chevron symbol with our brand.
Creating your beer brand assets
Considering the requirements above, the next step in branding would be to come up with a list of assets that pull in elements from the style guide. Our assets range from logos, to core range beer, to corflute signs, social media handles, taproom design elements and lots and lots of merch (bar mats, decals, shirts, flannos, coasters, stubby coolers, keyrings, limited release shirts, beanies… the list goes on).
Beer packaging options
Despite the full range of assets we create to support our brewery, by far the most important element is designing beer cans. We have a core range of beers, an extended core range, seasonal releases, a monthly bottle shop release and small batch limited releases out of both of our taprooms. That’s a lot of beer for a lot of different audiences!
Before getting into the design aspect, let’s look at the different formats available for packaging a beer can.
Can sizes and shapes
There are different sizes of cans available and different shapes. The main ones here in Australia are:
- 375ml—these are the standard can sizes and the size we use for all of our core range beers and almost all of our other beers. It’s the size beers should be (unless they are super super special).
- 330ml—these are the same thickness but noticeably shorter. We don’t use them, I’m not a huge fan of them. I always feel like I’m a bit short changed drinking a small tin. I feel like my hand has mysteriously grown between drinks. Like the opposite of deadpool. Not quite as creepy, but any unexpected changes in the size of your hand is certainly not good.
- 355ml (or 12 ounces—the standard can size in the US)—as above, the same width but not quite as high. 330ml is obviously taking the piss, 355 feels like you’re trying to hide it.
- 440ml—same width but taller. These are great for smaller releases and big ABV beers that you share.
- 500ml—as above, a bit taller and great for bigger beers and beers you share. The prices can get expensive on beers this big so it has to be special.
You can also get thinner cans (think drinks like Red Bull) that are starting to emerge for Hard Seltzers and RTDs.
Depending on the can size, there are different considerations for design, for example on a 500ml can you have a lot more surface area to work with and the cans can look pretty striking with a solid design.
Our can supplier Visy charges a premium for any can orders that are less than 60,000 in one design. That means you need to be pretty confident in your sales if you want a fully printed can. Luckily it’s only one of a few options for getting a design on a can. Here are the main options.
Fully printed cans
These are great, but as above you need to order a lot of them. There are also some pretty challenging printing considerations. You can’t have too many colours, the print around the top section can stretch, and some colours are hard to make work (white for example is actually a light grey because of the silver can shining through). Super thin sections may need to be outlined to prevent bleed, and you never know exactly how it’s going to look until you do a huge run of cans.
It’s expensive to make up the plates for printing and every time a design element changes, it’s expensive to re-do them. Despite this, our preference for any beer that sells well, would always be to have fully printed cans. There is less waste, they are cheaper in higher quantities, they feel right in the hand and they look professional.
Full wrap labels
The next option is to have a full wrap label that covers most of the can. This gives you a lot more flexibility with the colours and the quantities, but it can add anything from up to $1 to the cost of an individual can (much cheaper as the quantity goes up). Personally, I don’t think silver cans with labels look all that good, so when we do full wrap labels we normally go with a white can (which is actually light grey) or a black can. With the right design, full wrap labelled cans can look almost like fully printed cans.
It does however limit what you can do with the design a little bit. I don’t like a big amount of contrast from the label to the can, so when we do full wrap labels I normally match the can colour to the top of the label (light grey or black).
Printed + label
When we first started out, we didn’t have the sales volume to run fully printed cans. However we didn’t want to use full wrap labels for our main beers either. So we went with a combination. A fully printed can that was designed to take a thin strip label. Another Aussie brewery Modus Operandi was doing this with a large silver can with some branding elements and a diagonal strip label. It looked great. We took this idea and tried to make it into something that looked as close as we could to a fully printed can with the majority of the rich design elements on the can itself and a small horizontal strip label for the beer details. The label was as small as we could possibly make it, just roomy enough to fit the important info, feature a colour point of difference and be as cheap as possible.
From a distance the cans looked as close as you could get to fully printed cans, and in the hand they didn’t feel like a labelled can. Also because the labels were so thin, we could get them as cheaply as 3c per label. This served us well because we could buy 60,000 of our generic printed black can and then just get a new label for every beer. We still use these for some of our lower volume regular releases like our Eggnog Stout, Pink Mist and Ginger Cider.
A lot of local breweries picked up this approach and did the same thing with their cans and this has become a bit of a standard approach for new breweries. It’s still a great option if you aren’t quite ready for fully printed cans for the whole range.
There are some downsides though.
The labels are applied at the time of canning and you can never predict where the beer name is going to end up on the can. Every time we took a photo, we would have to re-apply the label manually to line it up with our logo, but in trade our beers never lined up. It was also difficult to get the perfect height of the label each time and get them perfectly straight. Early on we lost a lot of beer due to troubles with labelling, but we dialled it in eventually.
Shrink wrapped cans are an alternative to all of these options. With shrink wraps you get the benefit of branding all the way up to the lid (or most of the way), but you can do smaller quantities, because you can wrap standard silver cans.
The downsides are that they are more expensive than any other option, slow to organise since you need to get the cans and arrange for someone to wrap them, inflexible in that we can only pack the exact amount of cans that are pre-wrapped, and they also feel a bit unusual in the hand. The shrink wrap is a bit thicker than labels, so the beers don’t feel as cold and take a bit longer to chill. They just feel a bit different. Design wise they look great because they look like fully printed cans, plus they don’t have any of the design limitations of the Visy printing process.
Design inclusion and templates
I like to work with lots of different designers, so when we engage a new one we have some guidelines and templates for them to get started (beyond the normal brand identity and style guide).
Depending on the packaging format, we will have the die lines from Visy or our label printers, so the designer has a file to start with. We also have our own template that the designer can use for some of the main elements and a list of mandatory inclusions. Based on this, we also have our own internal quality check that we perform once we get the design back to make sure it checks all of our boxes.
There are a bunch of mandatory inclusions that we require on our cans based on different legislation and general best practice. I won’t go into the exact specifics here, because they change regularly and change a lot from country to country. In Australia the Independent Brewers’ Association (IBA) offers a good resource for templates for design and we base ours loosely on their guidelines. Our design inclusions include the following and we provide our designers with a .AI file that includes these things:
- Beer name—on the front visible third of the can.
- Volume statement:—“375mL” – on the front third of the can. Text height minimum 2mm has to be small m and capital L.
- ABV as a %.
- Standard drinks icon with the relevant standard drinks—minimum height 14mm.
- Beer description (we normally try to make these fun—we do them in-house, it’s not the designer’s job)
- Beer style if applicable—on the front third of the can.
- Certified independent logo—minimum 12mm in height with 3mm space on either side.
- Brewed & packed location
- Recycling mandatory information.
- Pregnancy warning logo (soon to be a big, red mandatory inclusion)
- GS1 compliant barcode
- Our social media handle and icons
In these guidelines we also list the exact size for our labels and if we are colour matching to the can, we list the exact colour of the black or white can we want to match to.
When we get labels back from the designer, we have a document where we check the quality of the label. On the left hand side of the document it lists all of the inclusions above and on the right we have columns for the signature of two different staff members to sign off on the design (me and Office (Chair Force) Manager Leah). Once we’ve signed off on it, we send it to the printers who have their own process for signing labels off (and getting us to approve again), before printing.
If you think that’s over the top, trust me, we still screw it up from time to time.
Now, let’s get back into some more fun stuff.
Designing for different types of beers
When we make beers at Black Hops we break them into three main categories, and each has a very different approach to design. I suspect a lot of beers made by breweries fall into these three categories.
- Core range and (for us), extended core range beers
- Bottle shop limited release beers
- Taproom and online-only limited release beers
Designing core range beers
The core range beers are probably the least exciting beers to design. That said, core range beers make up 80% of our sales, so the design is critical. On top of that, they sit in massive stacked fridges and liquor warehouse shelves competing with hundreds of other breweries, so that makes things challenging.
The other challenge with core range beers is you don’t only have to sell the product, you also have to sell your brand. A lot of people who come across your beer, may have never heard of your brewery before.
This is what our core range can looks like and what follows is some of the thinking that went into it.
- Up the top around we have our slogan “Made by 3 mates on the Gold Coast” to remind people that they are drinking something independent and made by mates. The chevron colour is taken from the beer colour. The Chevron colour watermark comes up from the main can below. This is the benefit of a fully printed can, you can design all the way up to the lid. That said, you don’t want to overdo it because that’s the last thing people see when they take a sip, so over-designing the top area is usually not a good idea.
- The top half of the can is Black (Black Hops Blue Black) and we dedicate a good chunk to that colour because it’s our unique brand. The logo is just the can substrate shining through. We used our main Black Hops Brand identity here without much change but we also used some sharper mesh elements in some places while aiming to keep it simple. We have a chevron watermark of sorts behind the main Black Hops logo and the mesh element sits under the main line separating the Black and the beer colour (in this case yellow).
- The little down arrow from the Black into Yellow gives us a of a point of difference from the normal colour on dark (or light) cans and also serves as the bottom of the chevron watermark. I think this helps it look like a Black Hops can as opposed to every other 2-tone beer can. We also have a slim silver element between the black and the can colour just to bring in the grey from our logo and make it a bit distinct from the normal dark and coloured 2-tone can, which has become very common.
It’s tough to make a core range product that stands apart from others, but I think DKNG Design did a great job of bringing our existing great assets to life in our new core range cans. If business results are anything to go by, the design has certainly worked, our business has exploded since putting our beer into fully printed core range cans.
Designing bottle shop limited releases
Level two on the fun scale are bottle shop limited releases. We do these every month and they always sell out very quickly. That means we do have a bit of room to move with being creative with the design, because we know the can itself doesn’t have to do that much education on the brand. That said, they are sold in the major retailers which means we still have to strictly abide by all the various labelling rules.
With these releases we normally get a bit more experimental and have a bit more fun. Here are a few examples and the approach we took with each:
The Moondancer beer shown below is a fairly typical bottle shop limited release. It features our main branding elements in the top half of the can but we still have a lot of fun with the can design itself.
Black Hawk and Mega Hornet combo
For our July 2020 limited releases, Black Hawk 8.5% Imperial Stout and Mega Hornet 11% Imperial IPA, we worked with Dave from Maake on doing something a bit different. Some tightly illustrated images, small logo and small data summary on the front gave these beers a unique and coordinated military feel. We matched the label colours to the can and as you can see from the image you’d barely know they were full label cans. Side by side these looked great and got a lot of attention. We got a lot of emails from people around the world who work with Hornets and Black Hawks who wanted to get hold of the beer, and we even sent a few out just for fun. The beer sold out in a week too!
Our next release is Caribbean Haze and with this one we couldn’t fit all the cool stuff into one view of the can so we divided it up into two. We kept the front nice and simple and clean and we made way on one third of the can to include the main design image of a Pirates of the Caribbean-inspired melting sword-swiped pineapple.
This is fun because we can get a nice photo of the Pineapple image and share that before we actually announce the beer (to create a bit of suspense). And we can make it look like a Taproom release where we take a lot more liberties with the design. We measured it precisely so there’s a certain angle where all you can see is the Pineapple.
When the beer was released, so many people who shared photos of the can just showed that angle with the decapitated pineapple.
Designing taproom and online releases
Speaking of taking more liberties with the design, that’s where taproom releases come in. The rules are a bit more loose with these given they don’t need to be scanned out, everyone knows the brand already, and the batch sizes are tiny so the risk of not selling isn’t an issue.
For our recent 4th birthday we decided to release 4 different 440ml beers in a mixed 4 pack. We wanted to make a good effort for the birthday and make sure we nailed the beers as well as the design of the cans.
We went with four black 440ml cans, the beer styles were two black and two hoppy (for Black Hops). In order above they were Murder Hornet, Vermonster, Zappy Birthday and Birthday Cake Stout.
We worked with Dave from Maake on these cans and we obviously took a lot of flexibility in the design. We included a small version of our Chevron so our brand was present, but we were confident that anyone buying these from us knew who we were and didn’t need to see our logo.
I really liked the way he did the ripples on the top of the can as another way of softening the transition from a strong bright colour, to the black can above. It helps to make them look less like labels and look a bit different from the average beer can.
We took a very minimalistic style and Dave also added some fun elements. Zappy Birthday had a barely visible watermark of Frank Zappa on the can and Murder Hornet was…well a bit of a masterpiece.
We wanted to make a splash with these beers and we certainly did. Our website crashed after we launched them and a line snaked out the front of the brewery with people waiting to purchase the beers.
Here are some other fun ones we’ve done:
Get Railed—a staff beer for a bearded colleague called Railo
HQ—Ali’s (an OG taproom manager) tribute to our OG taproom team and customers
Guns and Gose’s—Kearney’s staff beer (we might get sued for this one!)
Black Market Schwarz—a venue collab with a bit of fun
More great beer branding inspiration
In this section, for a bit of fun and more inspiration, I’ve picked out some beer labels that I like from other breweries. A good resource here is the recent GABS Beer Label competition which lists a whole bunch of fun labels from Aussie breweries. These Craft Beer Marketing Awards also feature some great designs amongst the winners.
Balter nailed the minimalist design from the start and have kept the trend going with their latest beer Bunker Buster. A bit of extra colour and a simple quick design pays tribute to their XPA, Hazy and Strong Pale beers that influenced this beer.
Solid name, nice design, Balter always does a great job.
Currumbin Valley Brewing —Mango + Lemon Myrtle Sour
Our neighbours Currumbin Valley Brewing do a great job with their beer and their fun can designs. The brand is recognisable enough from the style but they still have a lot of fun with illustration on their tins.
Counter Culture—Tequila Queen Oak Aged Margarita
Stone & Wood do an awesome job with their Counter Culture releases. I reckon their latest is the best of all. Paying tribute to their first release Killer Kween, they’ve put together an awesome margarita beer and a super fun name and design for Tequila Queen.
I’ve always liked Modern Times beers, they seem a bit less rigid with the can design requirements in the U.S., so the breweries have a lot of fun with their limited release cans.
Almanac puts out some nice looking cans. I found one of our designers on Dribbble because they’d some some work for them.
Garage Project creates some great stuff as well, working frequently with different local NZ artists and designers on can designs.
There are so many awesome beer can designs out there, it’s hard to stop listing them, but it’s time to move on.
General design rules to follow for great beer branding
Okay, let’s wrap this up with a few different design rules I like to follow. Remember, I’m coming at this from a business owner’s perspective, albeit a business owner who has worked in design for a long time and knows enough to get himself into trouble.
Put in the work. As a business owner you are also a designer. It’s not something you can delegate. You can get help with it for sure but you need to understand design. One of my favourite quotes is from Peter Thiel: “Every great entrepreneur is first and foremost a designer.”
The 3 commandments of design:
- It has to look good to your buyers
- it has to feel right to you, and
- it has to work.
Nail those and the hard work is done.
The design problem scale
I’ve found that some design problems are very easy to solve and others are almost impossible. Sometimes the impossible ones are worth attempting, but in any case it’s good to know what you are getting yourself into. Make sure you have a good handle on this scale before tackling a project.
Don’t get feedback
Bad feedback is the enemy of good design. Make a decision, stand by it and then move on. Design by consensus is the worst type of design.
Have a good design process
Make sure you have a good process with your designer. The process should iron out all of the various awkward aspects of designing something and allow you both to arrive at something that you like (with some pain but hopefully without murder). I’m reluctant to suggest too much of a process because sometimes you have a solid understanding and it just works, but make sure whatever you do, it works.
Don’t get too carried away
It’s very easy to delve deep into design, and I love doing this as much as the next person. But it’s also a big trap to go too far. Many companies have made this mistake. There needs to be some balance. If you are designing a beer can that will be sold out within a day, you can afford to get a few things wrong.
As much as I hate the idea of copying people, it would be completely ignorant if I didn’t acknowledge this long held and extremely valuable passtime of every great creator. Austin Kleon said it best in Steal like an Artist: “Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.” Don’t be afraid to be inspired by great designs that came before you.
Remember design is contextual
I get caught up by this all the time and no many how many years I do this, it still catches me. Remember design commandment #3: it has to work. It’s critical to remember that design is contextual and whatever design you see or interact with, needs to be seen and felt in the context for which it’s intended. The obvious example here is that if you are designing a beer can or label, you absolutely must print it out and stick it on a can and put the can in the fridge next to other cans. Any time you are designing something physical you have to print it and put it in the place where it will live and almost every time you do this you will see things you couldn’t otherwise see. I often forget this, but trust me designers also forget.
Don’t be afraid to work with multiple designers
I’ve probably worked with 20 designers in the last few years for my projects. The process ebbs and flows, some designers are good for some projects, some styles come and go. I’m always clear with my designers that we own the design (and all source files) and the engagement is project by project every time. If the designer doesn’t like these terms then the designer is not for us.
Beer branding matters
In conclusion I would like to say a few things. First of all beer is great, please drink it (responsibly).
Secondly, cheers to all the designers who have thought about designing beer labels or have designed beer labels. The design of labels is a big part of our industry and something that gets everyone in the industry excited. We don’t talk about it enough, but it’s massively powerful and super impactful in what we do.
Finally, I hope this post has been useful, if you are a business owner I would encourage you to dig deep into design and make a strong effort in your business. If you are a designer I hope you consider trying to get into the craft beer space, because there’s a lot of fun happening and your skills are much needed!