A beverage bottle without a label – inconceivable

Precisely when paper labels first adorned and identified bottles of beer is not known with any exactitude, but it was presumptively during the 18th century. From 1800 onwards, the first beer bottles made of stoneware appear, bearing burnt-in designations of origin. The first glass bottles with embossed lettering came onto the market some decades later. The very first registered paper label for wine dates back to 1822. But over 6,000 years ago, the Sumerians were already designating the contents of wine vessels, by providing the containers with cylinder seals. The Ancient Greeks and later the Romans hung small tags on their amphorae.

As from 1870/80, breweries used glued-on paper labels for the beers they were exporting. “Labels”, to quote a dictionary from 1858, “are for merchants and traders a piece of paper or parchment which is affixed to an object to remind people when necessary of its price or its quality.” This corresponds to the word’s etymology: Old French label, lambel “ribbon, fringe worn on clothes” (13c., Modern French lambeau “strip, rag, shred, tatter”).

Towards the end of the 19th century, labelling gradually to be automated. At the Imperial Patent Office in Germany, a bottle labelling device was patented in 1895, enabling individual labels to be grasped more easily. In the same year, a patent involving a predecessor of the subsequent plate machine was applied for by a Scotsman, and in 1897 a “Label Attaching Machine” was granted a patent in the USA.

150 million labels a day

Nowadays, billions of labels serve to identify beverages of all kinds. A mass product indeed, but nonetheless one that is designed with absolutely meticulous care, frequently on the basis of intensive market research results and the latest studies in sales psychology. Töpfer Kulmbach, one of the world’s leading label producers, manufactures around 35 billion labels a year with its 420 employees at the facility in Kulmbach creating more than 250 million square metres of printed goods. Up to 150 million labels leave the plant every day. The firm uses the very latest technology, not least five offset printing presses, each with up to seven colours, and three state-of-the-art gravure presses capable of printing up to ten colours. Together with flexographic printing for stretch-sensitive materials at an affiliate facility in Stralsund, the three major printing processes are thus available for use.

An exciting moment with the proofs

When it comes to creating new labels, the printers work hand in hand with the clients’ design people. An in-house lithography department is primarily tasked with verifying the technical feasibility of the designs. After all, each country has its own regulations as to what has to be shown on the label in what size, starting with the EAN Code and a list of contents all the way through to the deposit symbol. Labels, you see, are not simply advertising vehicles, they are also important carriers of information.

Personalisation and printable electronics

Personalised and individualised products, of course, as pioneered by Coca-Cola on a grand scale with its “Share a Coke” campaign, is trending strongly at the moment. For promotions, Töpfer is quite prepared to print 30 million labels with 30 million consecutive prize codes – using professionally fast inkjet printing. Printable electronics are another topical option. Labels can be printed with LEDs, for instance, fed by an external battery that enables them to start flashing on the shelf: buy me! RFID – transponder technology identification using electromagnetic waves – is an electronic variant that by reason of its cost structure has till now been viable only for high-priced spirits or expensive wines, not for mass-produced goods like beer. In the case of beer, by contrast, particularly in South America, we’re currently seeing an increased demand for tamper-evident sealing, featuring cold-glue labels over the closure.

The paper label has a future

“Our strengths lie in paper and film/foil”, emphasises Rainer Töpfer. “The paper label definitely has a future: it’s soluble, it’s eco-friendly, it can be handled at high speeds, it looks good, and it’s not going to disappear from the market. It remains the brand’s ambassador, and from the supermarket shelf catches the consumer’s eye. If a beer bottle doesn’t have a label, no one’s going to buy it.”