A Beer Label Is Advertising and a Legal Document

There are two aspects of labels that impact breweries: First, designing a label that attracts consumers; the second, accommodating state and federal labeling requirements without distracting from the intent of a label, that being, selling beer. The most important task of a label, in addition to supporting the branding, is to get the consumer to feel like they know and trust the brand and by extension-the beer.

For a label to be effective it must perform 3 critical functions: branding, marketing and selling. ‘Branding’ is how the brewery and its products are perceived by the public. ‘Marketing’ is how a brewery gets the brand/product message into the marketplace, creating the ‘trial’ and repeat buyers. ‘Selling’ is about articulating a craft beer’s attribute story. Sometimes people are not aware of a subliminal desire to try a new beer, but a label creates the epiphany, some might call it an impulse buy.

The label is a complete package: it tells the story of company values, it projects those values through a product label to a target demographic, and it brings reality to the consumer concerning a product’s attributes (beer style, taste, and quality, etc.). Even without visiting a craft beer taproom or brew house, people form opinions of a beer from how a label appeal to them.

Getting labels on any alcoholic beverage isn’t done without government; local, State and Federal. For myriad reasons individual States, the TTB, and even the FDA have regulations stipulating specific information that must appear (and conversely, must not appear) on a Craft Beer label. Alcohol content, ingredient, ancillary ingredients such as fruit, and beer style will stipulate what governmental body gets involved with a label beyond the TTB.

Here is an example of the complexity of beer labeling. I have a working knowledge of what ‘Lite” means and have never searched for carb counts or fiber content in a “Lite” beer. But laws/regulations require detailed information about nutritional values in ‘Lite’ beer and not in regular beer. Thus, the FDA is part of the “Lite” designation and “Average Analysis” statement about nutritional values that allow the “Lite” designation. Go figure.

I feel most consumers are like me, they do not pay much attention to beer labels; food labels are a totally different subject. Label size and legally prescribed content makes a label very precious real estate to help brand and sell a craft beer. Consumers-do not despair. Options do exist to find out the fun stuff about the brewing of your favorite beer; it is called QR codes. More about that later. Interestingly, labeling laws not only apply to the messaging, but it also dictates font, contrasting colors, size of font, bold versus not bolding, location, etc.

Reading a label on an aluminum can is a task that leads to annoyance: light reflecting from a shinney can, small print, color of font against a background color, the image, and trying to find the ABV information (which may not even be there). Maybe at your next get-together, someone will be overwhelmed to know the fiber or protein content before they consume the beverage.

Relative to ‘law and labeling’, the EU regulatory body for beer has mandated beer labels contain ingredient and “energy” values (nutritional analysis) of the product. “The Commission essentially says that alcoholic beverages should comply with the same labelling requirements as other food products and, therefore, they should indicate on their labels an ingredients list and a nutrition declaration,” reports the law firm Keller and Heckman LLP

Here is a statement why nutritional information, as on a package of sausage, should also apply to beer in the EU. “We hope that by providing more information at least gives people a choice. We are praising the brewers because the information is on the label. Having off-label ingredients and calories, online, is just not good enough,” Mariann Skar, Secretary General of Eurocare. I say, in the U.S., if you want to know more about a beers chemistry than a human can comprehend in the span of an atom’s half-life, go to Google, it’s free. A label hasn’t enough room to teach food chemistry 101.

This is brought up because ingredient lists and dietary percentage values (Average Analysis Statement) are now very prominent on food packaging in the U.S.; ingredient lists, and values could apply to beer also. However, now would be a good time for the craft beer industry to look at QR codes, Barcodes and NFC (Near Field Communication) as an off-packaging/label way to be ahead of any regulatory change. It may have already started.

As noted above. To add confusion on this subject, the category of Light/Lite/Low Cal beer does have ingredient list requirement not relevant to regular beer. With light beer the FDA has some authority. Even the ABV listing on a beer container may or may not be shown in certain states like NY. Adam Teeter writes in VinePair, “Some states may require the breweries in their states to list ABV, but that is up to the states.” Moral of the story, if you are looking for the ABV in your beer it depends on State laws if it is allowed or required on the label.

Lauren Steele writes in Men’s Journal, “An initiative to encourage awareness among beer drinkers of what’s in their bottle or can, the largest beer companies in the country (including Anheuser-Busch, HeinekenUSA, and MillerCoors) will begin printing nutrition information on their beer labels. In the new guidelines proposed by the Beer Institute, labels will list calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat alongside alcohol by volume. Labels will also include ingredient disclosure.”

It should be noted that the wine industry has been paying attention to consumer awareness of the alcohol content. There are some trends showing consumer aversion to high ABV in beverage alcohol products. So far, the TTB accepts that beer ingredients are barley, water, yeast and hops are acceptable ingredients without listing them on the label.

As an aside, testing for ingredients and nutritional values can be expensive. Some craft brewers offer an array of beer styles and performing tests for nutritional values for small batch beers or seasonal beers could be cost prohibitive, not to mention small quantity label runs.

Because a brewery can’t put a beer in a container with an approved label, I have spent a lot of space addressing the subject of getting a label approved. But the ongoing task is selling to the consumer.

The real purpose of labels from a consumer’s perspective-it’s all about branding, marketing and selling beer. Beer brands compete for shelf space while simultaneously vying for the attention of consumers, and labels having strong creative designs will drive success. Strong creative labels must tell a visual story and have demographic targeted copy, both must be within the constraints of color, design, fonts, and graphics (per TTB regulations), says Global Vision. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Craft beer has a unique set of creative consideration’s inherent with designing a label, after all it is about the beer consumer. Pre-Pandemic, they can be defined as having upscale incomes, higher levels of education, a tendency to explore products and a growing base of women consumers. The trick is getting face time with these consumers.

Peruse the shelves at Total Wine & More or BevMo and judge for yourself the creativity behind the label. “Craft brewers are extremely entrepreneurial and that connotes people who are creative and innovative. Much of their creativity is in their products and that naturally spills over into labels, packaging, and logos and naming conventions.

There is some science to designing and using design to build a brand, create a market and sell products. But most people developing craft beer label designs will tell you, “There are no set rules to follow when creating product labels. There are strong suggestions”, says Mark Trumper of Creative Pro.

Ultimately, the consumer is the judge on how well the beer label communicates the brand, marketing and sales message. Before a label is put on the can or bottle, displayed on a coaster, shown on the taproom electronic beer board, there should have already been a lot of considerations given to the label.

We have mentioned, maybe too much, the general requirement of labels, but the specific legal requirements will be address more fully later. The new beer to be offered by the brewery in a taproom, local retail outlet, restaurant or brewpub must compliment (not compete) with the brand image of the brewery. For example, the label on the beer should promote the tenants of what consumers think the management/company is about.

The label will then need to be targeted at a specific customer demographic. If the consumer is not familiar with the brewery and has no experiences with the brand, then the label must be attractive enough to command shelf space.

Issues of labels is really about the consumer whether it be legal or design. Covid-19 has fostered some major changes on the craft beer market. And those changes will carry on for the foreseeable future. In the March 2021 issue of Packaging World, Anne Marie Mohan reports some changes that already are being felt:

  • People seem to be experimenting more with alcoholic beverages, with 23% of consumers trying new-to-them beverages.
  • Consumers are choosing what are perceived as “healthier” options (including ingredients).
  • Thirty-three percent of consumers are trying new beers.

Beer seems to be getting a larger share of the expanding alcoholic beverage market via “trials” of new brands/products. Logically, craft brand consumers seem to be willing to branch out with trials. That may include taproom exploration, off-premises, beer events, pairing experiments (as Stone Brewing has done a lot of work with), etc.

The following are thumbnail explanations of TTB label requirements. The TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) reviews more than 100,000 alcoholic labels yearly in addition to making field visits to breweries/distilleries/wineries to ensure approved labels conform to production standards. The regulations for labeling of malt beverages are more than 1,000 pages and explains the exceptions. These exceptions involve other Federal Agencies such as the FDA, States, and other countries.

No matter the container your malt beverage comes in, breweries are required to have the prescribed TTB content on the label. Cans, bottles, crowlers (32 oz.) and kegs, have the same content requirements. For the sake of brevity, the focus on a 12 oz. can of domestic beer with no additives or deviation in grain outside of barley.

The complexity of navigating through the TTB and FDA to get a COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) issued so a brewery can start packaging their beer, is a daunting task and might require some outside assistance. If all the “t’s” are crossed and “I’s” dotted the approval process can take 4 days, but do not count on it.

There are many issues that will dictate design cost, such as branding, state laws, distribution, packaging, formulation, filing forms, etc. From a printing perspective a new, yet simple, label can cost about $350/2,000. Shrink wrap labels, foils, design complexity, shapes, etc. will add significantly to the cost of printing.


A quick view of what is required.

Requirements Defined

Brand Name-

  • The name is most likely the name of the company and will be the most prominent.
  • Placement-Front
  • Font Size-Depends on the size of the container but must be legible with contrasting background (probably a logo or branding image).

Class Designation-

  • Class of malt beverage are such titles as beer, lager, stout, etc.
  • Placement: Must appear on the front of the container, parallel to the base of the container.
  • Font Size: Minimum 2 mm tall for containers greater than 8 fl. oz. (A nickel is 2 mm thick.)
  • Legibility: Must be legible and not part of other content

Name and Address-

  • The name and address of the producer/bottler or packer must appear on the label. It gets more complicated when using shared facilities or using a contract brewer.
  • Placement: Front, back or side of container.
  • Font Size: Minimum 2 mm tall for containers greater than 8 fl. oz.
  • Legibility: Legible and on a contrasting background.

Net Contents-

  • Contents must be shown in standard U.S. measurements. If desired, can ALSO be shown in metric measures in addition to U.S.
  • Placement: To appear on the front of the container in a normal reading position.
  • Type Size: Minimum 2 mm tall for containers greater than 8 fl. oz.
  • Legibility: Legible on a contrasting background, and not part of other content.
  • Must be expressed in American measure, in addition it but may also be expressed in metric measure, e.g., “1 PINT (473 mL)” is acceptable. A
  • In 16 oz. and larger containers, volume cannot be shown in a “ounce’s”. Example: 1PINT, 4 FL. OZ.

Alcohol Content-

  • The amount of alcohol contained in a malt beverage is an option by TTB standards. However, in the case of “ALC/VOL” statements States do have the final say. Some states dictate that NO “ALC/VOL” is to be shown when ordered by State-not ABV.
  • Placement: Take your pick, front, back, or side.
  • Type Size: Minimum 2 mm tall for containers greater than 8 fl. Oz.
  • Legibility: All fonts of the “alcohol content statement” must be the same font and font size, and color as number.

Health Warning Statement-

This is an absolute requirement for any malt beverage sold in the U.S. which contains more than 0.5% alcohol (Near Beer). No room to cut corners here. And forget about using your MS Word to judge sizes of letters. The TTB uses characters per inch as the standard measurement.

  • Placement: Front, back or side of label.
  • Type Size: Minimum 2 mm tall for containers greater than 8 fl. oz. and a minimum 3 mm for containers over 100 fl. oz. (As a reminder a gallon is 128 oz.
  • Legibility: Must be legible, appearing on a contrasting background. Most generally it can be shown in a border style box.
  • The words “GOVERNMENT WARNING” must appear in capital letters and in BOLD font.

    • The statement content must NOT appear in bold font.
    • It is acceptable for the full statement to be in all capital letters font.
    • The statement must appear as a continuous paragraph.
    • May not be condensed too tightly; above all it should never exceed the maximum number of characters per inch.

Optional information that might be added-

  • Country of Origin
  • Lite/Light/Low Cal.-Here is where the FDA gets involved. The label must include a statement of Average Analysis which is for such things as fats, calories and serving size.

*Disclosure of any of the following ingredients is not optional, they must be shown FD&C Yellow #5, sulfites, Aspartame, and Saccharin.

As mentioned earlier, the EU has mandated that nutritional information be included on the label. Launched by the Beer Institute in 2016, the Voluntary Disclosure Initiative asks brewers to voluntarily include a serving facts statement and freshness dating on their products as well as disclose ingredients on either the label or secondary packaging via a list of ingredients, a reference to a website with the information, or through a QR code. I am a big fan of QR codes to present detailed branding and creative information about the brewery, events and initiatives, all QR codes are accessible via a cell phone.

Some things fall into the category of “nice to know”. Craft beer labels are in that category but still doesn’t rise to the level of say-nuclear waste disposal. For homebrewers and consumers labels have become complex and will probably continue in that direction. Maybe someday it will be critical to know the “fiber” content in a casually consumed beer, but it doesn’t seem to impact the average consumer today. The more people know about the rigors of getting a malt beverage to market, it just adds to the experience.

Alicia D. Walker

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