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Can a brewery get away with not packaging its beer anymore?

When the full weight of COVID-19 hit in March 2020, taprooms across the country were shut down. This sparked a mad dash for breweries to get beer into packaging as fast as possible. The most common format was, of course, cans—12oz, 16oz, hand-labeled, pressure sensitive labels, shrink wrap labels—whatever you could get your hands on.

Looking beyond the current moment, I think one of the lasting changes in the beer industry triggered by the pandemic will be the expectation for breweries to continually package their beer—even for those small breweries who have historically focused on taproom and keg distribution sales only.

We’ve now had well over a year to form new habits. Chiefly, grabbing packaged beer from a brewery or grocery store and drinking it at home. There are plenty of people who will get back out there and hit taprooms just as they did before once we’re past this. But there will be a lot of folks with a newly formed habit of drinking craft beer at home. And to serve them, you’ll need to package your beer. 

Once a customer enjoys your beer at home (and has had a chance to build that new habit), this will become the expectation. And it may last well beyond when we no longer have to wear a mask to pick up our beer.

Consistently inconsistent? 

What are the downstream effects on brewery package design systems? For smaller breweries who are packaging their beer for carryout, as opposed to off-premise sales, does it matter if packaging doesn’t billboard on shelf? Does it matter if the packaging is inconsistent or doesn’t perfectly provide a style and tasting notes and all the things we’ve come to know as need-to-haves for consumer packaged goods (CPG)? 

The designer in me says, “Of course these things matter. You’re still selling a beverage and your branding needs to elevate the product.” But the pragmatic, non-designer in me also realizes that without the context of other beer packaging competing for your attention—these cans are essentially small, aluminum growlers. They can be well branded, but they are utilitarian first—simply a means to get beer home. 

Flagship packaging (and flagship beers for those who can produce it at volume) will always be important because it is easy to market and scale. But for the small brewery that has no problem selling everything it cans, the design language could drift to become more inconsistent and individual to each beer release, style and beer name itself. This has actually been happening for years with small batch, hype-y breweries with line-around-the-block beer “drops.” But COVID-19 could accelerate this trend beyond that niche to mainstream status.

Actionable Takeaways

1. Consider building rulesets, templates and guidelines for how you design, position and market new beer releases. If you have to reinvent the wheel with each new launch, you won't be consistent and will spend more time (and $$$) than necessary on design. This will cut into your already diminished margin. 

2. Even if your beer is packaged for carryout only, design it as though it will be on shelf and competing with other local offerings. This will position you to seize distribution opportunities that arise without having to retool your packaging.



Spent is one of the more concise and applicable behavioral economics book I’ve read over the last few years. There are loads of great ideas for how you can use Signaling to tailor your portfolio toward different audiences.

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