Branding and Packaging

Have you ever bought a beer not knowing anything about it, but you had to buy it because of the way the bottle and label looked? Perhaps the wording on the beer was a big part of your decision to buy the beer (like Arrogant Bastard*), or there was an ingredient that appealed to you?

I hate to admit it, but when it comes to the success of selling a beer in the marketplace, the marketing of a beer is as important, and sometimes more important, than the quality of the beer itself. I’m excited about the branding and marketing of my beers because this is one way of connecting myself with my customers. At the same time, I am reluctant to brand my beers in a way that maximizes appeal for the sake of maximizing appeal. I want the branding to be as authentic as the beer itself.

I’ve been disappointed many times when I buy a beer based on the branding. Yes, I’m a sucker for great packaging. When I buy beers, I think of it as a complete package– if the way it looks on the outside is great, then the beer should be great as well. This is often not the case. On the opposite end, there are some fantastic beers with terrible packaging, and I have devalued the beer inside because the packaging set a low expectation.

I want the branding of my beer to be a reflection of the goals I hope to achieve for the beer itself– quality, uniqueness, and value. The branding should give the first impression that this is a beer worth having in that it is very well made, it is unlike any other beer out there, perhaps it even sets a benchmark of a certain style. I want the packaging to be an indicator of quality and uniqueness, but I want to do so in a way where the cost of the packaging is not the reason why this beer is priced at a premium.

When I buy what looks to be an interesting beer (from a packaging standpoint), I also consider the cost of the packaging versus the cost of the beer inside before I buy. I don’t buy beer for the packaging, I buy it for the experience of the beer. Even though packaging is part of the experience, I’m of the opinion that if the beer can be priced a bit lower because of less costly packaging choices, I’d like to package my beers with value in mind and pass along the savings.

Cans are now becoming very popular in the craft brewing scene, and for good reason. They are lightweight, are allowed in places like golf courses, sporting venues, and the beach (sort of), places where glass containers are unacceptable. Despite the high cost of aluminum, they are also an economical choice. As of this moment, I don’t foresee The Bruery using cans, but I do see a lot of good reasons to package some beers this way.

My friend Gil (BeerAdvocate Handle: SwillinBrew) generously gave me a can of Furious from Surly Brewing, a fantastic IPA brewed in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities. The packaging surprised me at the time, it was in a perfectly sized 16 oz. can, and the top of the can stated “Beer from a can, for a glass”. That states it perfectly– this is not Miller High Life, pour it into a glass, damnit! The packaging demonstrated that this is a quality beer, and at the same time showed that the beer inside is more important than the container it comes in.

On the other end of the packaging spectrum, Belgian (and Belgian-style) brewers have been known for packaging into 750 mL champagne style bottled, either capped or mushroom corked with a wire cage. This is perhaps the most impressive and elegant presentation of beer today. If I was invited over to a friend’s house for dinner, and wanted to bring the ubiquitous bottle of wine beer as a gift, I’d be more likely to bring over a bottle of Allagash Curieux than a four pack of Surly Furious. Even though both are fantastically great beers, I think the packaging that Allagash has chosen projects the image that this beer is on a level playing field with wine. I know I’d rather be given a bottle of Curieux than a bottle of wine!

I know we’ll be packaging into 750 mL bottles, however I’m still deciding the shape of the bottle (champagne style or Belgian beer style) and whether it is capped or corked. The corked Belgian beer style bottle is surprisingly much less expensive than the champagne style bottle, so this is what I’m leaning towards, even though my preference is for the brown champagne-style bottles. Perhaps I’ll use both, the less expensive bottle for beers that should be priced economically, and the more expensive champagne style bottles for when the beer is pure decadence, the bottle would have a lesser impact on price. The advantage of many champagne style bottles is they can be corked or capped. While the cork is nice, it is traditionally used for Belgian-style beers, and could lead to some confusion if I used for non-Belgian-style beers.

Wouldn’t it be wild if I packaged in both the fancy 750 mL bottle and the lowly aluminum can? The can would be great for packaging hoppier, non-bottle conditioned beers, while the 750 mL bottle would be great for bottle conditioned beers meant to age. I don’t think the budget can afford two different approaches to packaging right now, but it’s something to think about down the line.

* I’m not knocking Arrogant Bastard, I think it’s a great beer. However, I do believe the marketing has a huge impact on how popular that beer is.

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