Tapping into design: craft beer and communicating flavours through packaging

Over the last two years I’ve been working towards a Master’s degree at the University of Alberta. My final research project brings together my two favourite things: design and craft beer! So I’m sharing my preliminary findings from “A Case of Beer: A study to determine if the visual design elements of Ontario craft beer packaging communicate their unique flavour profiles.”

The reasoning behind the research

The focus is to examine whether or not the unique flavours that differentiate craft beers from their competitors are effectively communicated through product packaging. The Ontario Craft Brewers Association states that: “it’s taste that we’re obsessed with, and taste that distinguishes us from other beers.” The rapid growth in the craft beer market in the last five years shows that consumers can actually taste the difference. But can they “see” the differences in flavour through printed packaging?

Tastes can vary widely, even within the same type of beer. For example, one India Pale Ale (IPA) can have a completely different flavor from another IPA. Lake of Bay’s Brewery describes its 10 Point IPA as “primarily citrus (grapefruit) with a subtle pine note. After the first scent, the malt aromatics come through – slight hint of toffee with some mild aromas of hay and straw. The body of the beer is roasted malts, dark toffee, a gentle molasses flavour and a touch of black licorice.” In contrast, Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery describes their Smashbomb IPA as having “grapefruit, lime, apricot melon, lychee, pineapple, mango, papaya and other tropical fruit flavours and aromas.” It’s often difficult to understand the flavour profiles of a specific beer, even within the same brand. Therefore, researching whether or not there are consistent visual cues that represent “toffee” or “citrus” for example, and whether or not consumers understand these visual cues, will help determine if craft beer packaging effectively communicates important flavour differences to consumers.

Study structure

Study participants (148) completed a questionnaire to identify flavours correctly for seven Ontario craft beer labels. Below is an example of one of the beer labels chosen for the study.

They were asked to select the flavours they believe are represented in the label from a list of twenty. Below is a word cloud showing which flavours were selected most frequently (chilies and chipotle being the most frequently identified flavours for Channel Ocho beer).

 

Preliminary findings

Three insights emerged:

  • Even the participants who proved to be the best identifiers of flavour selected the correct responses less than half of the time.

So, not even the top identifiers were right 50% of the time. Even the most accurate participant only identified 45.2% total flavours correctly, followed by another who identified 41.9% – all the way down to those who identified only 3.2% of flavours correctly (i.e. only one out of 31 flavours). The self-identified “craft beer experts” were not part of the top scoring group.

 

  • When there are additional words, phrases or descriptions on the front of the craft beer label, it’s those additional words that become the most important visual cue used to identify flavour.

This proved to be true when additional words on the label hinted at specific flavours (i.e. “Strong beer brewed with orange peel and spice” on Great Lake Brewery’s Winter Ale label). However, additional words were not helpful when they didn’t reference flavour directly (i.e. “All natural no preservatives” on F&M Brewery’s Harvest Ale label). This revealed that no one visual cue (fonts, colours, images/graphics, beer name, additional words, etc.) was consistently chosen as the most important when making flavour choices.

  • Font choice doesn’t matter very much when communicating flavour.

“Fonts” was consistently chosen as the least important visual cue used to make flavour choices for six of the seven labels in the study. It’s possible, however, that fonts presented on the labels offer subconscious information to steer participants towards one flavour or another. This is a different question for a different study.

Conclusion

Brand owners have little research available on how to communicate key messages through packaging design. Unique flavours are craft brewers’ competitive advantage – but that doesn’t mean that specific flavour nuances are effectively communicated to, or decoded by, consumers. I look forward to finishing up my research and presenting it to members of the craft beer and design industries in the coming months. Cheers to all good things brewing!

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.