Who are the Michigan artists behind your favorite beer labels?

·5 min read
Tanya Whitley has a collection of six-pack boxes she has created labels and artwork for.
Tanya Whitley has a collection of six-pack boxes she has created labels and artwork for.

It's easy to distinguish art when you see it. It could be an ornate piece of pottery or a painting on the wall, but what if it's a physical object you can both hold and taste?

Despite the ongoing pandemic, the Brewers Association says there was an 8 percent growth in beer production nationwide in 2021. The same story of growth rings true in Michigan as it is constantly expanding its craft beer scene. Northern Michigan alone has seen an increase over the last decade, welcoming in Beards Brewery, Petoskey Brewery, Biers Inwood Brewery, Stiggs Brewery and many more.

The beer and friendly company may be great but have you ever stopped to wonder what — besides the ingredients — goes into perfecting that cold brew needed on a hot summer day?

"You of course have to have a name first. I always want to create something that goes with the name. I always try and create something too that has a visual narrative," said Beards Brewery's graphic designer and artist in residence Steve Bartel.

The Petoskey-based brewery is currently going through a rebrand of all of its cans and Bartel has been busy at work. He started with Beards Brewery five years ago and loves the creative freedom they still give him even with direction from the owners.

A finished beer label for Beards Brewery's Hop Up North IPA as created by Steve Bartel.
A finished beer label for Beards Brewery's Hop Up North IPA as created by Steve Bartel.

"They gave me what they had and anything else that came after that kind of had to fit in the family. They're open to change though and now it's opening up a bit more to where I have a little more creative freedom," he said.

Read More: Artist Profile: Steven Bartel

For instance, Bartel is currently working on a label for one of the brewery's beers called Tree Blood. It's a stout brewed with maple sap that gives it a sweet and roasted flavor with a hint of maple.

"So I ask myself, is there anything I can highlight in the art? It's nice to fold things in like that and include elements that may be included in the beer into the label. Again, always trying to create a visual narrative for people as they drink one of our brews," he said.

The beginning sketches for a Beards Brewery beer rebrand done by Steve Bartel.
The beginning sketches for a Beards Brewery beer rebrand done by Steve Bartel.

Other labels across the state, including Founders All Day IPA and Backwoods Bastard and a majority of the Short's Brewing Company's beer labels, are all created by local artist Tanya Whitely.

She credits her nephew with introduction to Short's and created her first label for the brewery shortly after he was hired about a decade ago.

"I had done work for Founders and my nephew gave the brewery my contact info and, before you knew it, I was creating their labels," she said.

In the earlier days of working for Short's, Whitley would submit sketches, get feedback and make adjustments here and there. Little by little she started developing a style and relationship with the brewery and has since gone on to create a majority of the company's beer labels.

Tanya Whitley has a collection of bottles she has created labels for which includes beers and ciders from Short's Brewing Company, Founders Brewing Company and Woodchuck Cider.
Tanya Whitley has a collection of bottles she has created labels for which includes beers and ciders from Short's Brewing Company, Founders Brewing Company and Woodchuck Cider.

She said "usually they have a pretty good idea of what they want. They used to have an art director who would send me references but lately they've just told me an idea of what they want and I just come up with what they think they want based on that. Then we tweak it a bit. Sometimes there's some back and forth but they always give me the name and what's in the beer. It's always all over the map though in terms of what they want. They're always brewing up new and amazing things over there."

Read More: Artist Profile: Tanya Whitley

Whitley almost specifically does just the brewery's beer labels. Short's Brewing Company has many arms, with its line of seltzers, cider (under the name Starcut Cider) and its line of cannabis edibles. However, she has still done over 100 labels in total for Short's alone.

"They come to me when they want hand drawn stuff for their beer labels but Short's is really just fun. They're fun people to work with and are creative always with something new to work on. I'm always looking forward to the next," she said.

A view of 21 different cans designed for Upper Hand Brewing by Bells Brewery senior graphic designer Alex Smith.
A view of 21 different cans designed for Upper Hand Brewing by Bells Brewery senior graphic designer Alex Smith.

A bit of a different case is the Upper Peninsula's Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba. The brewery was founded in 2014 by Larry Bell of Bell's Brewery. The idea was to have the best beer they could, in the "best place on Earth," brewed by hikers, campers, bikers and outdoor-loving Yoopers.

"I'll get a brief which will include the history or theme of what we are trying to achieve," said Bell's Brewery senior graphic designer Alex Smith.

"We are always attaching our art to life in the Upper Peninsula, which could be anything from experiences at deer camp and hanging out around a bonfire, hiking, skiing and everything Yoopers experience and the lifestyle and culture up there," he said.

Smith added that his goal with the cans is to include all of these elements but to also create consistency and recognizability with variety. Basically, he (and the overall Upper Hand branding) wants to stay consistent and recognizable on a shelf but give each label its own design and flair.

"There is such a variety of life in the Upper Peninsula and they all enjoy different things and activities but there is a real spirit that connects everything and everyone," he said.

Smith also enjoys putting little Easter eggs in his labels for fans to search for and enjoy while sipping their favorite brew. A recent example is they brewery's Trek Light beer. Smith added different elements of the Upper Peninsula with images of hikers, someone around a campfire but also a topography map in the background.

A view of Alex Smith's design for Upper Hand Brewery's Trek Light brew. This specific design features little Easter eggs hidden in it, including the different coordinates that, when looked up, point to a brewery employee's favorite spot in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
A view of Alex Smith's design for Upper Hand Brewery's Trek Light brew. This specific design features little Easter eggs hidden in it, including the different coordinates that, when looked up, point to a brewery employee's favorite spot in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"There are extra coordinates in the label and, if you look them up, they point to important places for our team here," said Upper Hand Brewery director Sam Reese.

"It could be an impactful place for them like a special camping site or a spot on a trip they went on," he said.

Artists come in many shapes and forms and many of your favorite beers may only have grabbed your attention by the artwork printed on the label. So, next time you're enjoying a cold brew, take a minute to enjoy not only its taste but also the artwork that accompanies it.

Contact reporter Sean Miller at smiller@petoskeynews.com. Follow him on Twitter, @seanmillerpnr, and Instagram, @sean_everest.

This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: The Michigan artists behind your favorite beer labels