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6 expert tips for reading a beer label

Jack’s Abby’s German-inspired House Lager features a shield along with checks of the Bavarian flag.

A colleague (OK, he’s my boss) recently suggested a column idea, and I swear I’m not following through with it as some sort of loyalty play.

The colleague (let’s call him “Matt”) is a craft beer fan and regular beer shopper, and he lamented that it’s getting harder to know what you’re buying when faced with shelves full of dozens of brands and styles.

Matt has a point. With the consumer in mind, I surveyed several local experts for tips on how to select the perfect craft beer.

Look for these key bits of information.

Not everything on a beer label is useful (we’ll get to that in a second), but some things are, including the name of the brewery, style, and ABV (alcohol by volume).


“The biggest thing for me is: who made it?” says Sam Hendler, cofounder of Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers. “I buy beer based first on the breweries that I love and respect.”

Night Shift cofounder Rob Burns also suggests looking for the brewery name first, and then identifying the style. Personally, I’ve got a list of breweries I always trust (which includes Allagash, Notch, Mystic, Sierra Nevada) as well as preferences for styles like hazy IPAs, German lagers, and Belgian tripels.

Take cues from the art and design.

Believe it or not, many brewers are trying to tell you something with their whimsical labels.

“We add elements that bring the taste profile to light in a real direct sense like pictures of fruit. or more abstract like fluffy clouds to invoke the mouthfeel of the beer,” says Burns.

On cans of Jack’s Abby’s German-inspired House Lager, a shield is the centerpiece, while the label also features checks of the Bavarian flag.

“Breweries have just moments to capture our attention,” says Kay Young, owner of Braintree’s Craft Beer Cellar. “If customers need to search long and hard for that information, they will move right onto the next. It’s actually a lot like social media posts; we have a short attention span, and no one really wants to click ‘see more’ on a status.”


Always seek out this one thing.

Every expert I talked to mentioned packaging dates as the most critical piece of information on any can or bottle. “Packaged on” dates are better, but “best by” dates are also useful.

“It’s just like you’d check your milk at the grocery store,” says Young. “Will you die if you drink ‘expired’ beer? Absolutely not, it just won’t taste as the brewer intended it to.”

Don’t sweat the esoteric beer stats.

Brewers can get super in the weeds about their products. Sometimes, they forget that not everyone else is like that.

“I think the super geeky beer stats aren’t necessary,” says Burns. “Few people really know what they mean and doesn’t really enhance my enjoyment of the beer to know things like it’s starting gravity or finishing plato.”

Something you won’t see: detailed nutritional info.

Beer is good for you! OK so that’s not exactly true. Alcohol is almost always not, and most beer is highly caloric. But there are good things in beer: iron, calcium, and two different kinds of electrolytes (potassium and sodium). Bill Shufelt, who recently founded Athletic Brewing, makers of nonalcoholic craft beer, initially included this information on his labels until regulators stepped in.


“I think they view listing beer elements, minerals, and nutrients as a claim of health, which is not allowed on malt beverages,” says Shufelt. “So beer companies can only list the basics — calories, carbs, and fat on the cans, which we do. But we would like to list more.”

Have fun with it.

Maybe the best advice from an expert came from Young, who encourages customers to be themselves.

“Remember, there is no shame in your game if you pick a beer based purely on the label,” she says.

Gary Dzen can be reached at gary.dzen@globe.com.