Ale brewers spend no end of time perfecting the liquid in their bottles, but the look and content of the label can sometimes be as important - if not more so - in getting it off the
shelves and into consumers' shopping baskets.
The importance of good packaging was considered by Sainsbury's to be so crucial to commercial success that it included "shelf appeal" among the judging criteria for its inaugural beer competition.
"There is truth in the old saying that people drink with their eyes," says buyer Chris Craig. "Many a good beer has
failed in the supermarket environment because of poor presentation. Customers will not buy a beer that doesn't appeal to them."
Rick Payne, brands marketing manager at Hall & Woodhouse, says the company puts "a lot of effort into delivering attractive labels".
He adds: "We also try to match the material of the label to the beer. We're developing a new organic beer which will have quite a rustic label, for example."
Customers really do read the blurb too, says Payne.
He says: "We do research where we stand beside the fixture and see people spending time, turning the bottles round and reading them before putting them into their trolley."
What's written about the beer on the label can be important, but standards do vary. Entrants in the Sainsbury's competition ranged from those with comprehensive grading systems for key taste and aroma characteristics to ones that
revealed absolutely nothing.
Howard Winn, Sainsbury's product quality manager, says: "There are still too many labels that just say made from water, hops, malted barley and yeast. Well, tell us something we didn't know."
Winn's sentiment is echoed by Payne. "I hate reading labels that just say made with the finest hops or malt," he says, "because they're so generic and could apply to almost any beer you could name."
As well as an extensive descriptive tasting note, Hall & Woodhouse's back labels include grades from one to five for bitter, sweet, hoppy, malty and fruity flavour notes.
The next generation
Labels' effectiveness are constantly being reviewed and the next generation will have a clearer split between the tasting stuff and all the legally-required detail, plus aspects such as responsible drinking messages and allergy information.
Although the grades will continue to provide an easy visual cue for shoppers, Payne says it's important to expand on them with a more detailed description.
"They should be written in real English and use words that really say something about what it's going to taste like. For Tanglefoot we use the phrase 'melon and pear' which is quite specific and couldn't
apply to many other beers."
Some brewers use independent sources for tasting notes - Batemans uses beer writer Roger Protz for example - but most stick to their own versions of what their beer tastes like.
"We do it together with the brewer," says Payne. "It really has to start with the brewer because they're the expert tasters and we turn it into the sort of language that's going to mean something to the consumer, because you don't want to put them off with a lot of technical words.
"Biscuity and yeasty might mean something to a real ale fan, but they're not going to be meaningful to a lager drinker who's looking to experiment."
Steve Reynolds, marketing director of Newark-based Springhead Brewery,
suggests that retailers could play a bigger part in communicating information to consumers, partly because they can do so from a more independent standpoint.
He explains: "The problem with something like giving grades for different flavours is that it still depends on individual brewers' interpretations of their own beer. If someone centrally was tasting everything and saying this is a two or a five or a seven it would have more merit.
"It's something retailers could do more effectively, pretty much as they have done with wine in the past. Or they could have feature shelves of light, dark, strong or weak beers rather than an impenetrable array of labels and brown bottles."
Springhead is revamping its label for bottled ale brand Roaring Meg to include a series of did-you-knows about information such as calorific content and the use of natural ingredients.
"You can't see what's inside most of the bottles on the shelf, but as an industry we make the consumer work hard for the information," says Reynolds.
"Cask ale can be a bit clubby and there's danger that bottled ale is falling into the same trap."
Brewers take note
Tasting notes that hit the
"Spicy, aromatic, zesty."
Bitter & Twisted, Harviestoun
"A rich and robust stout with deep coffee flavours. The addition of black treacle gives an intensive depth, full of liquorice character."
Treacle Stout, Ossett Brewery
"A floral, peaty aroma, full malt body, a spicy herbal flavour and a dry wine-like finish."
Fraoch, Heather Ale
... and some that may be trying too hard
"An inimitable flavour straight from the heart of darkness."
Best Extra Stout, Coopers
"Conceited, lurking, tormenting, under the cursed shadows and flow. Creaking, twisting, haunting, wherever it may go."
Rip Tide Stout, Brew Dog
"Cap'n Grumpy determined to sample the wares of the local hostelry.
The landlord took great exception to this and ejected him,
but not before Cap'n Grumpy had wrestled the secret
recipe of the inn's
ale from the nether garments of the buxom landlady."
Cap'n Grumpy's Best, Wissey Valley Brewery