Come for the label, stay for the beer
By Craig Manning | Nov. 26, 2022
A Jeep Wagoneer driving down a wooded dirt road with a red canoe strapped to the car top. A mustachioed man in an airborne snowmobile, flying high above the town of Bellaire. An anthropomorphic peanut with its eyes popping out of its head. A bow-tie-wearing man tearing through the night on a bicycle while balancing a pint of beer on his index finger.
If you’re a Michigan craft beer enthusiast, you can probably picture each of these images. The Wagoneer bedecks every bottle and can of Founders Brewing Company’s famed All Day IPA. The mustachioed man on the flying snowmobile is Short’s Brewing Company founder Joe Short, rendered in Grinch-like style on the company’s annual “Hoppy Holidays” variety pack. The anthropomorphic peanut is the centerpiece of a new design for Right Brain Brewery’s Thai Peanut, a brown ale with a pad thai-inspired flavor. And the bicycle-riding, beer-balancing, bow-tie-wearing man is the Midnight Peddler, the mascot of a beer of the same name from Beards Brewery.
All four of these designs epitomize the increasingly creative, artistically vibrant niche of beer label design: colorful, eye-catching, often playful images that are recognizable and easy to spot on the shelf. All four designs say something definitive about the beer, whether by visually encapsulating a core flavor (Thai Peanut) or communicating something more subtle and impressionistic about the ethos of the brew (All Day IPA, a go-to beer for off-the-beaten-path summertime adventures).
Perhaps most importantly? All four designs are the work of northern Michigan-based artists.
Meet the Artists
Tanya Whitley, Jim Young, and Steven Bartel are a trio of local artists who, between them, have cooked up some of the zaniest, most beautiful, most iconic beer branding in Michigan history. Whitley is behind many of the designs for Short’s Brewing Company, though several concepts she crafted years ago for the Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Company are still in use. Jim Young is the new artist for Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery, having taken the reins from another local artist, Andy Tyra, in the past few years. And Bartel is the man behind the visual branding style of Petoskey’s Beards Brewery.
Together, these artists represent three very different but equally striking philosophies of beer art design. Whitley’s works have a classic, almost-painterly beauty to them; Young’s are as explosively colorful and pristinely rendered as a Pixar film; and Bartel’s designs have a rich sense of wonderment to them, not unlike the illustrations from a children’s book.
How does an artist end up working in the world of beer? Not too long ago, the idea would have been largely outlandish. Commercial beer giants—from Anheuser-Busch to Heineken to Molson Coors—have long relied on plain designs that emphasize simple color schemes and recognizable fonts. Think the basic blue-and-white aesthetic of a Bud Light can, or the green bottle/red star iconography of Heineken.
When craft beer arrived, it not only diversified the varieties of beer that were readily available to the consumer, but it also changed the game for the types of artwork that could be tied to those beers. Colorful designs, lush paintings, quirky characters, cartoonish charm. Suddenly, virtually any visual idea was fair game.
It was this rising tide that first brought Whitley into the world of craft beer. After earning a bachelor of fine arts in the 1980s from Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, Whitley relocated to Nashville. There, she found work at a silkscreen printing company while also building up a freelance portfolio that included design work for Vanderbilt University and album art for country and Christian music artists.
But the winds of change ultimately brought Whitley back to northern Michigan, where she raised her two kids and took on a job as a special needs bus driver for the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District. That was 1997, and by then, craft beer was starting to take root in Michigan. Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo had opened in 1985 and was gaining ground, and Founders Brewing Company had officially started making beer in 1997.
As luck would have it, Whitley’s brother-in-law owned the ad agency that Founders had hired to assist with early branding. That brother-in-law had the vision to put a Wagoneer on the All Day IPA label, but he called Whitley to do the actual design. And so, with a kit of colored pencils, Whitley sketched the art that would become one of the most iconic craft beer labels in the U.S.
Whitley ended up doing a few other designs for Founders, including brewery staples like Backwoods Bastard and old fan favorites like Double Trouble and Curmudgeon’s Better Half. When her nephew got hired to work at Short’s in the early 2010s, though, Whitley refocused her beer label design expertise on the northern Michigan brewery. About a decade later, you can see Whitley’s work on a slew of Short’s beers, including Short’s flagships like Bellaire Brown and Space Rock and, more recently, the Pure Michigan series, a collection of seasonal beers whose labels imagine the Michigan mitten in different ways across the four seasons.
Even now, Whitley still gets a kick out of seeing her work in this particular fashion. Sometimes, on a walk through the beer aisle at the grocery store, she’ll spot a beer package she designed and get that same jolt she got the first time she saw All Day IPA on the shelf. “Then I’ll have to buy a six-pack, usually just to give to friends and say, ‘Hey, try this new beer with my art on it.’”
Newer to that particular thrill ride is Jim Young, who, up until a couple years ago, had never even designed a beer label. A pencil-and-paper artist from a young age, Young attended Northern Michigan University to study illustration, picking up a passion for computer-aided graphic design while there. He now puts that mix of skills to work as the marketing director for Right Brain, a job that—among other things—makes him the in-house designer for all of Right Brain’s beer labels.
“These days, there’s so many different ways to tackle [a beer label design],” Young tells Northern Express. “Depending on the nature of the design, I sometimes find it more beneficial to go a text-based route—and therefore, more of a simple, bold graphic approach. With designs like that, I might not even open the sketchbook. One of our newer designs, for an upcoming IPA called Free Play, that was all generated digitally starting from the text and then just building different shapes around that in Adobe Illustrator. But I would say that, more often than not, the design starts in the sketchbook.”
Young has already put his stamp on Right Brain’s distinctive iconography, crafting color-bursting designs for newer beers like the Ring Finger Session IPA and the Social Probation Hazy IPA, both of which have quickly become signatures.
He was also the artist behind a recent branding update that took older Right Brain designs—including for flagship beers like the CEO Stout and the Northern Hawk Owl Amber Ale—and gave them makeovers. The new CEO Stout design, for instance, replaces a male “Mad Scientist” character from the original can with a high-powered female CEO. For those designs, Young says it was important to him that he capture the spirit of the original art while also putting his own spin on it.
“So many people are used to scanning the beer aisle looking for their favorite brand, so I thought that it was important to retain the visual style [of those designs] for that reason,” Young says. “But then also, I am just a huge fan of the previous artist who designed those. His name is Andy Tyra, and he’s still local. I loved his designs and felt like I had some big shoes to fill just to keep up with his level of design.”
Beards Brewery in Petoskey is also in the midst of a label art refresh, with local artist Steve Bartel developing new iterations of many of the brewery’s labels. For a time, Bartel was an in-house artist and creative director for Beards. He now works for the brewery on a contract basis, but he’s still instrumental in the look of the brewery’s beers—a look he says is evolving in 2022.
“When I came to Beards, the style was fairly cartoonish,” Bartel says. He’s talking about the labels for beers like Oh! The Citranity!, Deez Nutz, and Luna, all of which “had a single mascot or character that represented the beer, and then ghost imaging in the background.” Deez Nutz, for instance, is a brown ale that features a rather-caffeinated-looking squirrel gnawing on an acorn, while Luna has a man-in-the-moon design.
Bartel designed his first Beards labels in accordance with that basic house style. But when the time came to dream up the look for a new beer called The Dogman—a scotch ale themed around the eponymous canine terror of Michigan folklore—Bartel felt he’d built up enough trust with the Beards team to push for more artistic freedom. He got that freedom, and he used it to chart a new path forward for the Beards beer aesthetic.
“What I’ve moved on to has a very heavy illustration feel,” Bartel says. “I’m using the space as a whole canvas instead of one character icon. There’s still that character that represents the beer, but he’s really put into an environment. Beards gave me that freedom [with Dogman], and it opened things up for the labels that followed.”
The labels Bartel has done since—and the labels he’s redoing now that Beards is aiming for more consistency across their designs—mostly carry the picture-book illustration feel of the Dogman label. There are minor exceptions: One of Bartel’s favorite designs is Tree Blood, a label for a maple sap stout that features a tree and its roots set in red on a black background, with drops of sap (er…blood?) dripping down from the roots.
For the most part, though, Bartel is making his own house style at Beards. His first revamp of an old design was the aforementioned Midnight Peddler, a beer previously known as Serendipity Porter. The original design featured a similar character in a similar situation—a bicyclist balancing a beer on his fingertip—but with a more cartoonish feel. “My design is just expanding on what they had with the original art, but taking the idea and making it my own, visually,” Bartel says. Redesigns of other Beards flagships, such as Citranity and Deez Nutz, are underway.
Bartel thinks the artistic freedom he’s gotten from the Beards team speaks to why artists are drawn to the craft beer world. “They’re all about craft, which means they’re all about supporting artists,” he says of Beards. “When I started working for them, I asked them a question about a colorway for a project, and they said, ‘Well, that’s up to you. You’re the artist. That’s why we hired you.’ I think the words they used were: ‘We’re not ones to stifle creativity around here.’ And right away, I was like, ‘Oh, you’re people I want to work with.’”