The Evolution of our Beer Design and Packaging Process

Dan Beer in cans, Design

Those of you who have followed the Black Hops journey from the early days would know that while our distinctive logo remains as our signature identifier, the designs of our cans and cartons have undergone a natural evolution. This came about as we locked down our core range, got our beer out into venues and retail outlets and expanded our brewing repertoire into the diverse world of collabs, limited release beers and recon series beers.

In this post we’ll revisit our original packaging and labeling, before getting into how we do things now, and the design process behind the look and feel of our cans and cartons.

In the beginning..

It’s an interesting exercise to trace back our packaging and label design to when we first opened the doors to our Burleigh brewery (HQ) in June 2016.

In fact if you want to get really old school, take a look at the bottle of our first gypsy brew batch of Eggnog Stout back in 2014, when opening our own brewery was still a twinkle in the eyes of myself, Eddie and Govs.

We had 3 weeks before brewing the beer and producing a name for the brewery brand and a label. Once the founders had agreed that ‘Black Hops’ was the best out of a really bad bunch of names, I googled ‘military fonts’, downloaded the first free font and created our first ‘logo’.

After experimenting with a military helicopter on the label, we landed on a simple black label with the military-inspired free logo and a subtle spotted texture. This logo hung around until we decided to really launch the business seriously in 2015 and make plans for opening our own brewery and taproom, when we went through a full redesign, including the logo we have today.

One we had the new branding we produced our first bottled range of beers, shown in the image below. Note these are mockups not photos, back in those days we couldn’t afford a professional photographer to take pics of our products!

April 2017 was a watershed moment in the evolution of Black Hops, with the launch of our signature beer, Pale Ale, which coincided with us moving all of our beers from bottles to cans, for a whole host of reasons, which we talked about on the Blog here.

The original design of our Pale Ale cans, as well as the 12 pack cartons that they went out in, was work shopped with myself and talented designer Matt Vergotis, who was instrumental in a lot of the early Black Hops logo and package design related concepts.

I found Matt on the website Dribbble, not really expecting to find a local designer but one of the best I found right here on the Gold Coast!

Related: Branding Case Study: Black Hops Pale Ale

We came up with a generic printed can, with individual labels for the beer itself. The can was a simple, striking (almost) black design, with a military-inspired mesh band running along the base and with our logo prominently featured, as well as an enlarged, standalone monogram. We also added our catch phrase, ‘the least covert operation in brewing’, along the top of the can.

The stickers we came up with were quite thin, probably only 20% of the height of the can, so that they didn’t overpower the aesthetics of the can and importantly, so they would be cheap for us to print. As the required information on the cans increased, we made the labels longer to accommodate the new inclusions (but never wider).

Here’s the design of the can next to a beer in the glass, this time done by one of our first professional photography shoots.

Our first can, Pale Ale.

When it came to the cartons, we were looking for a more palatable price point for entering the market, so we decided to go with a 12 pack option, rather than the traditional 24 pack. We were also thinking about the cost to send online and a 12 pack came in under 5kg at a decent price point for the system we were using at the time, Sendle. It’s expensive and inflexible to print full colour cartons, so we printed a generic carton, and a label specific to the beer.

From a design perspective it was a great starting point for our journey, and we were recognised in industry circles at the 2017 AIBA Beer Awards, where we received a gold medal for the Pale Ale packaging.

Our first Pale Ale carton

Back then we didn’t really have a core range, we were selling mostly in kegs and had mainly taproom releases. The decals for those releases were labelled the same way as our normal core range beers and were rarely put into bottles.

In 2018, we bought our own canning machine and all of that changed. All of a sudden we could put any of our beers into cans, so we gradually worked on a core and extended core range and some experimentation around limited releases.

We rolled out a simple strategy for our ‘Recon Series’ batches where we could print the labels in house, and in some cases experimented with full wrap labels for more striking can designs.

Our approach to design and packaging in 2020

As we’ve continued to grow our brand over the past few years, the look and feel of our cans and cartons have undergone a natural evolution. We now have a few different types of can designs, which we’ll now delve into.

Core Range: Fully Wrapped Prints Cans

When producing a can of beer there are basically 3 choices:

  1. Print the whole design on the can,
  2. Cover a normal can with a label or shrink wrap
  3. Print a design on a can and also cover it with a label.

Our first cans were option 3, we were pretty early with this option. Modus Operandi were the first I noticed to do this, with a silver can and a unique angled small sticker. Our design was pretty unique using a 100% printed can as well as a heavily contrasting label to produce a design that looked as close as you could imagine to a printed can, but worked for a small-scale brewery (because labels are much easier to print, than cans). This design has become almost the norm now among craft breweries for this reason. Pay the overheads to print a single can, and then just get new labels for every beer you brew.

In 2019 we decided to make the move away from this method, to fully printed cans for our core range beers. The main reasons were:

  • We always knew we would do it once we got to the scale that justified it and instead of wait, we decided to go a bit early anticipating that before too long it would make sense (it didn’t take long).
  • We felt our brand was getting a bit tired and generic, given a lot of other breweries had cans that now looked like ours.
  • Labelling cans take a huge amount of work from designing them to creating them, to ordering and printing them and having them in the right quantities. It’s overhead work for the Chair Force that we could do without.
  • The packaging line has a lot of moving pieces and removing the need to label the beers helped enormously with efficiencies, loss of beer, sanity of packaging staff, sanity of me going down and asking them to make the labels straight – the list goes on.

So towards the end of 2019 we updated our six Core Range beers (Mid Range, Send It, Lay Day, Pale Ale, Hornet & Super Hornet), to fully printed cans. We get the cans manufactured and printed at Visy. We went on a tour there recently it’s pretty impressive. They can turn a big roll of flat aluminium into 60,000 fully printed Black Hops tins in under an hour.

There are also a few small design issues solved by removing labels, such as the labels not being perfectly vertically aligned and the Black Hops logo never lining up with the beer name. We were happy to live with those compromises when we were small, but ultimately we wanted to get to a size where it made sense to put our beer into fully printed cans.

On our current printed cans we reverted to a modified version of our catch phrase ‘Made by three mates in Burleigh’, which we tweaked to say; ‘Made by three mates on the Gold Coast’, to acknowledge the opening of our second brewery, Black Hops II.

The new cans have been received really well, and it’s so awesome to see a fully shelf of perfectly aligned BH tins in a craft beer fridge!

Extended Core Range & Limited Release – generic black cans, printed with strip labels

Limited releases are still in the original format

We use a modified version of our original can design (which we talked about earlier) for both our extended core range (Eggnog Stout, Pink Mist, Ginger Cider) as well as some limited release beers, such as Caribbean Crusher and California Love. The reason we still use these ‘generic’ cans for these beers is because we don’t brew them in quite as high volume as our core range, so they don’t meet the 60,000 printed can order criteria as mentioned above.

On that topic Visy just sent an email this week about dropping this 60,000 limit to 50,000 and doing even smaller volumes for a fee, so it’s becoming more feasible for us to do fully printed cans even for limited releases and smaller volume beers.

Our strip labels are printed by Ultra Labels. We do the design of the strip labels in-house off an Illustrator template, which provides us with time and money savings. Leah and I both know how to do the basics in the Adobe Suite, which has come in handy over the years. When we had the original labels designed we took handover of the files in full. A lot of designers don’t want to do this but that’s a deal breaker for me when working with designers and it’s always part of the deal. The labels are then added to the cans by our canning line crew as part of our in-house canning process using a Tronics labelling machine.

Related: Things To Watch Out For When Canning Beer

Recon Series: in-house printed strip labels

From left to right: Recon series label, full wrap sticker X2 (printed in house) and strip label and generic can.

For most of our taproom-only limited releases (Recon Series beers), we use a generic shiny silver label and our normal generic Black Hops can. We started by hand writing the names of the beers and the ABV on the strip label but eventually bought a printer that we could use to print the beer names in house. It’s a TSC TTP2410MT printer and it means we have a decent looking can for all taproom releases, without the organisation required for designing and printing labels. There’s a compromise of course, all of these releases look the same but they still look nice and can be printed by the Chair Force team as late as the day of packaging.

Custom labels are also super expensive at small volumes, which was another big driver. While a big order might get as low as 15c per label for a full wrap label, small orders could be as high as $1 per label. No customer wants to pay an extra $4 per 4 pack for nice looking labels.

So the Recon Series solution is a compromise solution for smaller batch beers that don’t justify the time and cost of a fully designed and printed label.

Feature Limiteds: full wrap labels

Full wrap, in-house printed can labels.

Sometimes it’s worth the effort to design and print full wrap labels. We do this in the following situations:

  • For staff anniversary beers, the team like seeing their face on a beer label!
  • For beers brewed for Taproom events, it’s often better marketing to have fully printed cans leading up to the event. They are also better sellers, so if we have a lot of people coming to the taproom, we like to have some eye candy in the fridge.
  • For some monthly limited releases where we have time and a solid idea for a design. For example in 2019 we did Troposphere and Tri-State IPA in fully printed cans.
  • Some collaborations make sense in fully printed cans.
  • Our season sours are done in fully printed cans to make them stand out from the rest of the range.

Related: Designing beer cans

We print these labels either through Railings or Ultra Labels, who can print very high quality labels. They are costly however, and take a fair bit of time to organise. You also have to be very organised well ahead of time if you want to release the beer when it’s fresh (which we do).

For those reasons we purchased our own in-house full wrap label printer which we are using more and more for taproom releases.

The label printer is an Epson M326a and prints really nice, full colour full wrap labels. The printer itself was not cheap (around $10,000) and there have been a few compromises including:

  • Originally we had issues with the label stock and the print easily scratching off the can. That has been resolved with better stock.
  • The ink and labels are not cheap. Probably about the same as outsourcing the printing. It is much faster though and more convenient to print in-house and we also only ever print the exact number we need which is a nice benefit. If we don’t have enough we can just print 4 or 5 more easily.
  • We have had issues with the labels not detaching from the backing and therefore not being able to be applied by our canning line. We have had more success with the canning line at BHII, but it’s meant quite a bit of staff manually sticking labels on the cans. This is not yet resolved with the printer provider.

Overall, the ability to print in house has been a game-changer for having nice looking tins in the fridge at the taprooms.

The Design Process

I love design and love working on projects for designing cans and I’ve found designers also love working with beer companies! At the moment I’m working with both Daniel, who’s based in the Philippines, and Troy, who’s a local freelance graphic designer who has a business called Troy Designs. There are many others but those 2 are the main 2 who do our hand drawn full wrap labels for cans.

Design is a pretty serious part of any business, but it can also just be a bit of fun. Our taproom releases can vary from designs that may end up being used as proper limited releases all the way through to just a bit of fun for our regulars to take home something different. Sometimes you want to design a beer that stands out on a shelf and sends a message about what you’re about to hundreds of thousands of potential customers. Other times you want to make Govs look like Neil Diamond.

It did sell quickly.

Daniel is an amazing artist, who’s hand drawn work first featured on the cans of our limited edition BandWagon, the Wagon Wheel Stout we brewed for the 2017 GABS Festival, as well as our Blackmarket Schwarz beer collab with Miami Marketta.

One of Daniel’s designs

Troy has been working with us since he randomly sent us a very cool Send It drawing, which we liked so much that we used for our Send It t shirt design!

Since then we’ve worked with him on some fun can designs, and you can see his great work on our limited edition Troposphere, Tri-State IPA and Tropic Like It’s Hot cans from last year, to name just a few.

One of my favourite of our designs and beers from last year!

I worked with a company in the U.S. called DKNG Studios on the re-branding of our cans into fully printed. In rare cases I will design cans myself but generally only super simple ones. I prefer to leave it to the pros.

In all cases I get the sources files and quite often modify the designs after we take ownership of them. Often the beer descriptions and details can change a bit and little things like the exact size of the label or decal might change depending on where it’s being printed.

The design process is a collaborative effort between me and our artists, and I feel it works better for beers where we have a solid idea of what we want. Where we have no idea of what we want, we tend not to do full wrap labels.

Cartons

Cans and carton boxes

Since opening the breweries, we’ve experimented with lots of packaging options ranging from singles, to 2 packs (for Cali Love), to 4 packs to 6 packs, to 12 packs, to 16 packs, to 24 pack trays and 24 pack boxes.

Last year, with the core range expanding into 6 lines, we found ourselves needing a packaging solution for 6 different beers, plus limited releases in both 12 packs and 24 packs. The 24 packs were handy for packing and delivering efficiently, but the 24 pack price point is a lot for the average craft beer drinker. 12 packs were more manageable price wise, but they couldn’t be efficiently packed and were comparatively expensive. On top of that, our newly purchased automated case packer from Fibre King only supports 16 packs and 24 packs, so we were going to have to choose between one of those sizes.

So around the middle of 2019 we made the decision to transition to 16 pack boxes for the majority of our beers, both core range and also moving forwards, for limited releases. In the 2018 Craft Beer Survey they charted the weekly spend on beer from the average craft beer drinker. The average weekly spend is $56 which is the RRP of our 16 Packs of Pale Ale.

Related: Black Hops moving to 16 packs

Litho Boxes vs Stamped Boxes

When we brought out Pale Ale cans in 2017, our original 12 pack boxes were a litho design, with a shiny and glossy finish and we used a generic box with stickers for each beer. The boxes looked great but it was a very manual process to pack the beer, and the litho boxes and stickers were super expensive.

We got the boxes from a local supplier via China and to get the price down to a reasonable amount (under $2 a box), we had to order 5,000 at a time which was years worth for us at the time. Going via China also meant waiting months for the boxes. And on top of that, the labels for each box were around 70c when ordered in decent quantities, so the overall box was getting close to $3 per box.

So last year we moved to using Carole Park Corrugated Products (a Visy company) who make our boxes locally using a stamped technique. Making our cartons like this has delivered significant cost savings (around 40c per box, even when ordered in small quantities), and a much faster turnaround time for the cartons to be delivered.

For the core range we pay the extra stereo fees to extend our black background all the way to the edges of the box, giving the pack a bit of a point of difference. For our limited releases, we use their standard approach which is white edges.

There’s a few compromises we had to settle for along the way, including a very limited colour palette (painful!), comparatively poor wear and tear on the boxes, and lower print quality. That said, these compromises are well worth it for the cost savings. You have to consider that the vast majority of our boxes are just vessels to transport the beer and end up being broken down and sold in 4 packs. We want them to look good but the end customer doesn’t see them more often than not.

Related: Black Hops Moving To 16 Packs

This is the template used for the whole core range. Printing all the way to the edge gives us a nice fully black box but requires a custom stereo which takes time and costs money.

We hope you enjoyed the post, if you would like to ask us any questions about our approach to beer packaging and design, feel free to jump into our free Facebook Ambassadors Group.