If you’ve ever chosen a beer based on the label, well, you’re not alone. Craft beer labels convey more than just information about a beer—labels tell their own visual stories. That’s why selecting a beer often comes down to what’s on the can—not necessarily what’s inside.
Want to learn more about creating your own eye-catching beer labels? Let’s take a look at the history of beer labels, the rise of the craft beer industry, and tips for how, as artists and designers, you can make your own beer illustrations for labels and logos in our very own editing tool, Create.
Throughout this piece, you’ll find examples of great bottle label design ideas to inspire your creativity and inform your beer label style. Cheers!
A Short History of Bottle Labels
Ancient Egyptians were the first to label bottles. Hieroglyphics, seals, markings, and etchings were all used to signify the vintage, type, and quality of wine. By the 18th century, wine labels graduated to the use of parchment and hang tags wrapped around the neck of the bottle.
As demand for wine increased and innovations in printing—like the lithograph—were introduced, labels could be produced en masse. By the 19th century, the first origins of label design for bottles had arrived: Winemakers, like Château Mouton Rothschild, worked with artists (including Picasso!) to create bottle label design ideas to distinguish their products from others.
Unlike wine, beer wasn’t bottled until the mid-1800s. Instead, thirsty patrons brought their own jugs marked with a family seal or coat of arms instead of a brewery-specific bottle label. (Today, you might know these as growlers.)
By the late 1880s, beer bottle label design became standard practice. During this era, breweries sought to distinguish themselves through the use of trademarks. One notable example is Pabst’s eponymous blue ribbon.
Fast forward to the 1980s when microbreweries and brewpubs were introduced to the public. These small, independent, and creatively-inclined brewers took the label design for bottles (largely, those produced by commercial breweries) and made it their own, completely transforming beer label design and packaging.
The Rise of Craft Beer
Craft beer’s star continues to rise. There are now more than 9,000 craft breweries across the United States. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 1,600. And, in 2021, small brewers produced 24.8 million barrels of beer, an 8% increase, despite pandemic-related challenges.
The rapid rise of craft breweries in the U.S. and Canada has ushered in a new era of label design for beer bottles. (Although wineries were the first to partner with artists on labels, they’re often on the more conservative side of the bottle design spectrum. Lately, however, interesting bottle label design ideas are coming from the natural wine community and wine subscription companies.)
For designers and creatives, this is a good thing—there’s more opportunity than ever to design brewery-friendly artwork. The key lies in learning how to make labels for bottles that compete in the marketplace while also staying true to the brewery’s brand.
The Rise of Beer Label Design
In 2019, the craft beer magazine Caña declared that, “From label designs that could stand alone as conceptual artworks to daring aesthetics that define a brand, as the craft beer juggernaut rolls on, its relationship with art rattles alongside at a gathering pace; beer cans are officially the new record sleeve.”
Whether, like Caña, you think of bottle labels as record sleeves or simply canvases on a can, there’s no question that craft beer has “morphed into one of the main sources of and venues for . . . inspiration and creativity.”
According to a Nielsen’s 2017 Craft Beer Category Design Audit, 66% of American craft beer buyers say that a beer’s packaging or label design is “very” or “extremely” important for getting their attention.
Beer Label Design as Art
Beer labels have even made their way to London’s Tate Modern. In 2018 and 2019, the series Beer + Art celebrated the artists behind some of Britain’s most notable craft beer producers by inviting them to show a one-off piece of work alongside a one-off beer from each brewery.
As they put it: “In the world of ‘craft beer,’ [bottle label design] this goes so much deeper than simply ‘good branding.’ The advent of the . . . can revolution has provided a much bigger canvas for designers and artists to make their mark.”
Even Milton Glasser, the legendary 84-year-old New York-based designer has something to say about good beer bottle label design ideas. (He’s also the designer behind Brooklyn Brewery, which is largely credited with bringing the beer label design renaissance to New York City.)
Design Your Own Beer Bottle Labels with Create
First, consider what information you want your bottle label design to include. Some considerations might be:
- Brewery name and logo
- Beer name
- Beer type
- ABV percentage
- Flavor inspirations
- Brewery aesthetic
- Brand colors
If you’re designing for a U.S. brewery, it’s a good idea to be aware of any federal requirements (yep, that’s regulated too, but there’s still plenty of room for creativity). Study some labels of beer to determine what—if any—language you need to include.
Alternatively, if you’re designing homebrew bottle labels for fun, you’ve got a lot of room to play around.
Next, decide on your look. Are you aiming for minimalistic design, something more playful, an artistic bottle label, or something altogether different?
Size doesn’t have to matter here. Truly, when it comes to your bottle label design size, anything goes. If you’re looking for a place to start, choose a product label template from Create or design your own blank canvas using one of the three standard label sizes for 12oz beers:
- 2.75” x 4.25”
- 3.25” x 4”
- 5” x 2”
Keep in mind that you can create multiple components for your bottle label design—many bottles have separate labels on the neck and body, taking advantage of different canvas sizes.
Now, it’s time to craft (your label, not beer). Using design software like Create to nail down your specs is an intuitive and quick way to design ideas for your bottles.
Anatomy of a Good Logo Design
When creating a logo for your beer bottle labels, know this: Your logo must work for more than one bottle. More importantly, it must also work on merchandise, online, and for your retail location. If you’re creating a beer-specific logo, it must also work with the rest of your branding, so keep your brand aesthetics in mind.
Breweries, like all businesses today, are under pressure to get their logos right. As you create your new logo, consider a few questions like:
- What does our ideal audience like?
- How do we want to make people feel?
- What story do we want to tell?
9 Tips for Designing Illustrations for Beer
How can you create artwork destined for the can or bottle? Here are nine tips to help you design illustrations for breweries that lead to eye-catching bottle labels.
Tip #1: Do Your Research
And no, we don’t mean irresponsibly consume alcohol! Blogs like ohbeautifulbeer.com chronicle the latest ideas in beer bottle labels and packaging design, which will help you stay abreast of the components of quality labels.
Or, visit your local bottle shop or craft brewery and pay attention to what’s on the shelves or taps to see what the marketplace is doing. The industry moves fast, so make sure you’re moving along with it.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on Shutterstock’s Creative Design Trends for 2023!
Tip #2: Learn Beer Styles
If you’re creating artwork for the beer industry, it helps to have a solid grasp on the beer styles available. An IPA is different from a pilsner. A sour-forward beer is different from a classic pale ale. Understanding just how expressive and innovative beer is these days will help you develop a visual style to match.
Try a pineapple sour or venture into the world of pét-nats (a naturally fermented wine) and then translate your experience into art. (Again, please consume responsibly.)
Tip #3: Design Art-Forward
There are four* suggested ways to break down a bottle label design ideas:
- Brewery-forward: This puts the prospective brewery’s brand identity at the forefront.
- Beer style-forward: This is all about style, whether it’s a stout, pilsner, sour, or pale ale.
- Name-forward: Ever giggled (or groaned) at a beer’s moniker? Having a unique and distinct name can help set apart beer as much as the artwork itself.
- Art-forward: According to many breweries and designers, the art-forward style reigns supreme. The same Nielsen study mentioned earlier indicates that 71% of craft beer buyers say they like to try brands with bold and interesting packaging.
*One notable exception is the beautiful, nearly information-free bottles of Swedish brewery Omnipollo, created by co-owner and designer Karl Grandin. They don’t play by any of the conventional rules and, because of this, their beer is widely admired and collected around the world.
Tip #4: Design for Distribution
Breweries have to compete in a highly saturated market where shelf space is limited. Brand visibility is at a premium, so it’s important that beer label designs are easily noticeable—whether that’s through the use of vibrant, bold colors, interesting graphics, minimalist lines, local artwork, nice typography, and even photography.
Tip #5: Avoid Insignia or Profanity
This seems obvious, but craft beer packaging should avoid profanity, pornography, insignia, and any statement that implies alcohol content (for example, “strong beer”). Most breweries are required to declare the ABV (alcohol by volume) of a beer, which helps customers know just how much alcohol they’re consuming.
Tip #6: Create a Cohesive Brand
Most breweries understand that they need a cohesive visual language to differentiate themselves from increasingly high levels of competition. This means more than coming up with bottle label design ideas.
When designing brewery-friendly artwork, you must consider all the elements of a brand and weave those together into one cohesive package. Think box design, logo, labels, merchandise design, etc. All of this has to fit within the brand aesthetic of the brick-and-mortar brewery, as well as its e-commerce platform.
Tip #7: Tell a Story
Individual breweries often have a vision they’d like a designer to execute on for specific beers. But, since you’re creating labels without a defined brief, focus on telling a story that can be widely interpreted.
Perhaps your artwork draws on folklore or a period of history. Maybe you’re translating your physical surroundings into illustration. However you’re influenced, let your bottle label designs tell a tale.
Tip #8: Don’t Design Beer Labels for a Single Audience
Craft beer’s appeal is wide. It’s enjoyed by people of all (legal drinking) ages, ethnicities, race, and sexual and gender orientations. While the late 2000s saw label design favor lazy and sexist male-centric motifs (for example, pin-up girls), today’s craft beer world is inclusive, non-sexual, urban, and imaginative.
In short: Don’t design for a specific audience.
Tip #9: There Are No Rules
Like all things design, there are no rules when it comes to beer labels. (Okay, the design itself does play by certain rules, but the point is to have fun with it.)
If the craft beer industry can evolve past the stalwarts of the commercial beer industry (we won’t name any names here) to become the progressive, innovative, and expressive industry it is today, then you too should experiment with style.
We hope these tips will help inspire and guide you to creating label artwork that’s fit for both a canvas and a can.