Thursday, 03 September 2015 08:52

Craft breweries connect beer with art (and music) on their product label

Written by  Joe Boomgaard
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For many consumers, their connection to a particular craft beer starts not with the liquid itself, but with the artwork on the can or bottle as it sits on the store shelf.

As a first impression, the label serves an important function: It helps draw people to the product and gets them to pick it up and consider buying it. The label art and descriptions work as the first line of communication about the beer from the brewery.

That’s an interaction the local craft brewers take very seriously as it could help ensure the success or failure of their product.

“If it’s going on a shelf somewhere, if someone has never tried or seen Short’s before in their life, they should know right away what it’s about — that’s how we approach it,” said Jesse Den Herder, the art director at Bellaire-based Short’s Brewing Co. “We can’t design a label with someone who knows us in mind. It’s all about that first experience with the brand and the packaging is on the forefront of that branding experience.”

For its labels Short’s styling focuses on gritty and raw artwork often featuring one of the microbrewery’s employees, as is the case with Hopstache and Space Rock, which both include the likeness of founder Joe Short.

The company stayed in the family, so to speak, in working frequently with Charlevoix-based artist Tanya Whitley, the aunt of one of the brewers. A school bus driver by day, Whitley has created the label artwork for about 150 different beers in the Short’s portfolio, Den Herder said.

“Our core as a company is that we’re making new beers constantly so that keeps us on the edge of being creative,” he said.

When Short’s launched its new brand lineup of Starcut Ciders, it provided the company with an opportunity to branch out from its typical artistic direction. Starcut managed to land renowned skateboard graphic artist Don Pendleton to design its labels and packaging. Pendleton’s portfolio includes numerous skateboard graphics as well as work for Mountain Dew, Oakley, DC Shoes and Burton Snowboards.

“With Don’s background in skateboarding, (some buyers) don’t care what the product is, they’ll want it because it’s him,” Den Herder said. “Cider is a gateway drug to craft beer, so we wanted to inject a bit of culture and design into that.”

Pendleton also won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package for his work on Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt album.

Coincidently, a recording package served as brewer Nathan Hukill’s first exposure to Keith Neltner, who came up with the brand illustrations for Chelsea-based Bitter Old Fecker Rustic Ales LLC.

Hukill tailored the concept for his brewery to the artwork Neltner did for Hank Williams III and other musicians, never thinking he’d actually be able to connect with the artist, let alone get him to do branding for his small startup company.

“I had it in my mind early on that these beers would be a manifestation of Keith’s work,” Hukill said.

After Hukill “mustered the courage” to track down Neltner, the two started working together to develop the look and imagery for Bitter Old Fecker, which is named after Hukill’s mother’s family.

The concept hinged around Neltner’s illustrations of various badass farm animal characters based on the farm of Hukill’s grandfather, Cecil Fecker. Their first collaboration created Strutter, which depicts and tells the story of a nasty rooster for which the brewery’s imperial IPA was named.

“The response to Keith’s work on the labels has been outstanding,” Hukill said “As a brewer I get to talk about art and not just beer and that’s a great experience for me. I get to share in the experience of someone’s art with the people who are interested in the product.”

At Hukill’s insistence, Strutter needed to prominently feature Neltner’s three-color illustration on the label.

“The interesting thing is that Strutter was the first beer and the first developed storyline and then we had to figure out how we do three more of these in the same spirit — the way it’s written, the storyline and the bottlecaps,” Neltner said. “It’s supposed to make you laugh.”

That element of humor is also prominent on many beer labels from Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids. The brewery is no stranger to “tongue-in-cheek puns,” said Kate Avery, the company’s director of sales and marketing. After all, “we do have a beer called Big Red Coq,” she said.

Often times the brewers sit down with the marketing team and test the product to see if the experience sparks an idea in coming up with a name and branding for it, Avery said.

“The biggest thing with the creativity for a small brewery like us is we’re small, agile and do a 20-barrel batch here and there,” she said. “We want to put it in a can to take with you on your adventures.”

When the French and Belgian-inspired brewery isn’t naming its products after traditional references or puns, it too turns to musical allusions for inspiration.

That was the case with Brewery Vivant’s Wizard Burial Ground, a 10.4-percent ABV quadruple ale that was aged in bourbon barrels for six or seven months. The brewers were big fans of jam band Umphrey’s McGee, which has a song by the same name.

Brewery Vivant worked with local creative firm Full Circle Marketing & Design to finalize the trippy art concept for the label.

“It looks awesome and the graphics really sum up that beer,” Avery said. “Enveloped in the beer and the label is a story we’re able to tell. And also the image — it’s iconic.” n


The list of microbreweries in West Michigan continues to grow as at least three new operations have opened in recent weeks. They include Trail Point Brewing at 6035 Lake Michigan Dr. in Allendale, Grand Armory Brewing at 17 South Second St. in Grand Haven, and Barn Brewers Brewery at 114 North Main St. in Lawton. Additionally, Grand Rapids-based Arktos Meadery celebrated the grand opening of its tasting room at 1251 Century Ave. SW. The company is located in Suite 200.

Brewery Vivant is bringing back its Wood-Aged Beer Festival for the fifth year on Sept. 19, but the planners have added a twist. The WABF will now feature two tasting sessions from 1-4 p.m. and from 5-8 p.m. so that more people can sample the more than 20 rare beers from the French and Belgian inspired brewery. Tickets cost $35 and include 10 tokens and a collector’s tasting glass.

Bell’s Brewery Inc. turns 30 this year. To celebrate, the company is throwing a huge Funvitational beer festival on Sept. 12. While the event is sold out, don’t fret: Bell’s also plans to release a special 30th Anniversary Ale, an 11 percent ABV imperial stout that will be available in bottles (six packs) and on tap this month. Additionally, with an expanded kitchen and dining space, the Eccentric Cafè in Kalamazoo now offers full table service, as well as a completely revamped menu. And, as if that wasn’t enough from Bell’s, the brewery has now started offering its flagship Two Hearted Ale in 12-packs of 12-ounce cans, a format it debuted with Oberon earlier this year.

Just two months after it opened, Grand Rapids-based Long Road Distillers already announced plans to grow. The company at 537 Leonard St. NW received city approvals to double its production space, expand its kitchen to offer a larger menu and add a rooftop deck over the adjacent building. Adding the production space will help Long Road ramp up its output as it begins distributing its craft spirits in the next couple of months.

The owners of Cellar Brewing in Sparta, a microbrewery, distillery and small winery, want to move the business from the edge of town to 133 East Division St. in the heart of the village’s downtown. With the new location, Cellar plans to offer a full kitchen with a menu based on “Irish and American comfort food,” said owner Chuck Brown.

— Compiled by Revue from local reports. Have beer or booze news? Let us know at

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