Libelous Labels!

In choosing the seasonal beers for my Beers of Winter article, I employed techniques from several scientific fields, including aerodynamic engineering (how else was I supposed to calculate my maximum speed when traveling from the liquor store to my fridge?). Ah, who am I kidding? I just chose the beers with the coolest labels. Which brings up a fascinating question: Do pretty labels mean better beer?

You’re not going crazy; the question seems stupid only because it is. Yet we judge books by their covers every day, and not just when the books have beer inside of them. Our world bombards us with advertising, and in the world of marketing, presentation is everything. Even I, beer(ein)stein, have purchased beers based on the appeal of their packaging.

The real question is, does the label make a difference? Before I give the short, logical answer (“of course not”), I’ll provide a broad suggestion about discerning the good from the bad by looking at the label. First, if a beer brandishes a flashy label covered with stuff that resembles Windows 98 clipart, it’s probably an adjunct lager like Bud Light or Natty Ice. These labels also usually lack any information about the actual liquid inside. It’s just “beer.” Craft breweries, however, often use one of two styles: those that showcase a unique sense of style and creativity, and those that look a bit crude or cheap or even like an afterthought. Should we assume that breweries who pay more attention to their packaging might also put extra effort into crafting better beer?With this question in mind, I went with my wife to a local liquor store. She’s a skilled photographer who studied graphic design in school — and she likes pretty stuff, so her guidance seemed invaluable to my experiment. Together we surveyed hundreds of bottles. Our conclusion? Some beer labels look good, others look gross. Impressed, Watson? Just wait. This articles still has time to become more pointless.

OK, some labels rubbed us the wrong way. Anderson Valley, Hoppin’ Frog, Moylan’s … on each, the label-work seemed lazy, recycling the same elements on every bottle. And don’t get me started on imports such as Unibroue, whose labels look like ‘80s fantasy novel covers. This is all based on personal preference, of course. For example, I interviewed some buyers who disliked Flying Dog’s Gonzo-themed labels, but several others would make you bleed for insulting Ralph Steadman’s art. But here’s the M. Night-style twist: Each of those breweries makes great beer!

Now that you’re good and confused, I’ll complete my experiment by drinking the beer I bought at the liquor store. Fade to Black is an export stout from Left Hand Brewing, a brewery I’ve subconsciously snubbed until now because I didn’t like their labels. But this new seasonal beer inflamed my interest with its etched black and white artwork and Gothic lettering. The ale inside also enchants; it pours bulletproof black with a compact, light-mocha head that exhales coffee and roasted wood. Chocolaty malt sweetness and darkly toasted bread hit the palate first, followed by an onslaught of burnt espresso beans and smoke. Even the aftertaste evokes freshly brewed coffee.

In conclusion, my research suggests that some good beers have good labels, while labels on others are ugly as sin. On the other hand, some bad beers have good labels. And other bad beers … bad labels. Or something. Let’s look at this a different way. Instead of picking the prettiest bottle, take a look at what’s written on those labels. Does it name a style like dunkel or wheatwine or bière de garde? Does it list ingredients, alcohol content, or IBUs? If you see at least a few of those items (or others, e.g., info about specific gravity or degrees Plato) somewhere on the label, it’s a good sign that the brewers are serious about beer, regardless of their proficiency with Adobe Creative Suite. Respect brewers who respect beer and you’ll always drink the good stuff.

No Responses to “Libelous Labels!”
  1. Ben says:

    i can get behind this circular writing style. and your distaste for things that just say “beer” on them.

    i am going to be taking a break from beer-buying for a short while, so i hope i come back to the world of no inhibitions to great reviews of beers i must try.

  2. Shawn says:

    i appreciate your nod to aerodynamic engineering. thanks. also, i never noticed how your website shows you pictures of the hyperlinks as a preview before you click on them. cool.

    btw. your question of maximum speed is more of a performance issue; assuming all other considerations constant, the max speed of the vehicle in question would be far more dependant on the engine than it would the aerodynamics of the car. i can’t totally speak for the performance of the shopping cart/driver combination while in the liquor store; perhaps aerodynamics come into it a little more if you were running really fast through the aisles wearing a trenchcoat or holding an umbrella vs a speedo or something.
    just thought you’d want to know. 🙂

    • Scott says:

      Yes, maybe you are correct, good sir, but what about the, uh, velocitation of my, um, acceleroptrix? Hmmm?

      Just kidding. I knew someone would call me out on that little joke … I know nothing about aerodynamics! Good thing this is just a blog about gettin’ drunk 🙂

  3. Deb says:

    Wow, Shawn sounds just like an engineer! 🙂

  4. fil says:

    I’m not sure which was more tangled, the article or the comments! either way, enjoyed both. =^D. Keep ’em comin’

  5. Kris says:

    you make me laugh – and keep us up to date on good beers

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