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The Intoxicating Appeal of a Beautiful Beer Brand

My relationship with beer – a strong, enduring one – began in high school while sneaking cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon out of my dad’s stash in the basement. Yes, my dad drank PBR, before it was cool and because it was cheap.

I really like beer, but by no means am I a beer connoisseur. Be it a stout, IPA, lager, pilsner, or porter, my reaction is almost always the same: “Umm, that’s good.”

After moving to Traverse City I think my beer palette has improved, and I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the diverse craft beer options offered up by the many local producers. Many of Michigan’s best breweries will be showcasing their beers at the upcoming Microbrew & Music Festival being held in downtown Traverse City on February 13.

As much as I like beer, Heather loves design. And she’s a beer fan, too. She’s a graphic designer by trade (quite talented in my humble opinion), and is the creative director for our brand design agency. She is inspired by beautiful design everywhere and across many disciplines, including fashion, photography, furniture, architecture, landscape and, yes, beer.

Beer packaging design, that is.

So we decided to combine two of our favorite pastimes and take a look at some intoxicating designs being brewed up by a few of our favorite local beer producers. We touched base with the folks at North Peak Brewing Company, Short’s Brewing Company, and Right Brain Brewery to get their take on the importance of a well-designed brand. With so much craftsmanship going into their beer, it’s no surprise that these breweries take an artisan’s approach to their brands as well. After all, beer tastes better in a beautiful bottle or can.

The Microbrew Boom

There was a time not too long ago that simply being a craft brewer was enough to stand out. Many bars and restaurants would feature one microbrew among a forest of Budweiser, Miller and Coors tap handles. Hell, Guiness (because it was dark) and Stella Artois (because you couldn’t pronounce it) used to seem exoctic.

Things have changed. Craft beer on tap is table stakes for bars and restaurants these days. Mass produced brands are like dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period – still plodding along but with big problems on the horizon.

The number of breweries in Michigan has surged in recent years, more than doubling since 2010 to more than 200 in operation, with more on the way. According to Traverse City Tourism, the Traverse City area is home to 17 microbreweries, brewpubs and craft beer taprooms.

Beer is big business here. And as the number of producers grows, the competition between them grows more fierce. Just last week, Short’s announced plans to distribute outside of Michigan for the first time. According to an announcement by Short’s: “With the Michigan craft beer scene thriving and shelf space getting tighter, Short’s decided to implement a plan that would allow for sustained growth amidst the increasingly crowded market.”

Speaking of shelf space, have you looked at the beer cooler at your local grocery store lately? Odds are that it’s a big patchwork of craft beer brands and a bit overwhelming to the senses. In such a cluttered space, how does a brand stand out?

Catching the eye of a consumer and forming early bonds of product loyalty begin with great design. Product packaging communicates more than fluid ounces and ingredients – it demonstrates what a brand stands for and its unique story. And effective design can mean the difference between a hurried consumer picking up that six-pack or passing it over for another brand.

North Peak Brewing Company

Lifeandwhim-North-Peak1North Peak is a frequent lunch and dinner stop for Heather and I. The brewpub is located in downtown Traverse City in a historical building that used to house the Big Daylight Candy Factory. The food is great and so is the beer. Siren, an Amber Ale, is one of my favorites, as is Diabolical, an IPA.

We like North Peak’s brand as much as its beer. It’s like a breath of fresh air, clean and pure with a touch of whimsy. It’s simple, but by no means simplistic.

We make our living designing, and know how difficult it is to develop a simple, sophisticated and meaningful brand identity – think Apple or Herman Miller. North Peak has a consistent, cohesive style, using the same label artwork backdrop, but developing unique names, color schemes and icons rooted in Northern Michigan folklore, such as a flying squirrel (Majestic wheat ale) and dog man (Vicious wheat IPA), for each new beer. It also uses the same “stubby” bottle for all of its beers. It’s the only brewery in Michigan to exclusively use this bottle style.

North Peak describes its design style as “retro, outdoorsy, clean and fun.” According to Megan Glunz, Community Relations Director for North Peak, the brewery’s brand did not evolve by accident, but rather resulted from “an intentional, conscious decision.”

“We have always wanted a very strong visual product and cohesive branding. We also want to be easily recognizable, which is why we completed our design by using the stubby bottles. Store shelves are full of tons of intricate and lovely art. In all the chaos we think simplicity stands out.”


Just as a tremendous amount of craftsmanship and experimentation goes into the development of every beer that goes to market, there’s a process that goes into developing the design of each new beer brand. “We have a creative team that gets together and works on every beer together,” said Glunz. “Sometimes a beer begins with a style or flavor and we work through the process giving it a name, color, icon and story. Other times we come up with a great character/icon and work towards what beer would work for it. It can be a lengthy process with lots of great ideas being thrown around but always a great time!”

North Peak offers people a peek inside its process on its website, as well as the bottoms of its six-pack carriers, where information about the Northern Michigan folklore associated with each beer can be found. “It’s important to get the whole story of each beer by knowing that the name or the image on the label are just the surface to the story behind our beers.”

Michigan is integral to the North Peak brand, and its design reflects it. “North Peak is a brand that represents Northern Michigan; its nature, its creatures, its people, its way of life,” said Glunz.

“We’ve always wanted our beers to represent the community in a positive way. We believe our branding is a positive representation of Northern Michigan.”


Short’s Brewing Company

Lifeandwhim-beer-Shorts1Short’s is one of Michigan’s most iconic and largest microbreweries. Its brewpub is located in Bellaire and its production facility is in Elk Rapids. This self-described “mom and pop” shop brews up well known brands such Huma Luma Licious and Bellaire Brown, and its distinctive tap handle is easily recognizable in bars and restaurants throughout Michigan. We’re always on the lookout for new, unique and creative releases from Short’s. We just sampled one of Short’s newest offerings, an American sour ale called Peachy Pom Pom, at 7 Monks Taproom in Traverse City on Wednesday night.

Short’s has a killer brand to match its amazing beer portfolio. We love the handcrafted imagery, much of it reflective of Northern Michigan, on its labels. Short’s Art Director Jesse Den Herder explained that they go outside the company for the art, but not outside the Short’s extended family. “One of our brewers has this really talented aunt named Tanya Whitley. Over the years she had done over 80 labels for us. She’s a bus driver by day and this amazing artist on the side. Her range is deep, and her passion is great. Her technique is super raw and beautiful, it’s just her, a piece of paper, pastels and colored pencils.”

On its website Short’s describes some of the most important elements of its company culture: “Creativity is consistently encouraged among the entire staff, with an understanding that all employees have much to contribute to the Short’s Brewing Company ethos.”


Den Herder described the tremendous amount of creativity that goes into each beer Short’s brings to market. “Tony our head brewer is a creative mastermind who has a unique ability to take the essence and character of the beer and build out a concept that encapsulates it in such a unique and memorable way. Pop culture references, inside jokes and nods to our employees are often part of the process. The result is pretty amazing when we have such a deep roster of talent to pull from.”

Creating a design-driven business doesn’t happen by accident. “Short’s has always been committed to creating fearless, creative, and quality beer. And we believe its branding needs to be at the same level of greatness,” said Den Herder.

And a design focused company culture only comes with leadership from the top. “Joe Short is a rare CEO who has such a great creative capacity,” according to Den Herder. “Short’s really cares a lot about design, which is simply an extension of the brewery’s creativity and the heart that is put into its craft. It’s an honor to help communicate this story to people.”

Right Brain Brewery

Lifeandwhim-Right-Brain1Russell Springsteen founded Right Brain Brewery in 2007. Today the brewery is located in a 50-year old warehouse building on the west side of Boardman Lake, which houses Right Brain’s production facility and brewpub. That’s where you can sample the 15-25 Right Brain brews on tap at any given time, such as Willpower Pale Ale or Northern Hawk Owl Amber Ale.

While North Peak distinguishes itself through its clean, simple look, Right Brain pushes the envelope on wild and whimsy with bright colors, hand drawn illustrations and creative concepts cooked up in a collaboration between Right Brain and its designer Andy Tyra.

The result of this collaboration is a really fun, standout, irreverent beer brand which complements equally great beer. That’s a powerful combination according to Assistant Brewer Jeff Houser. “In the brewing business, especially the craft segment, amazing design that extends from your website down to packaging can really help make smaller breweries huge hits,” said Houser.“Of course your beer has to be fantastic too, but when you have both great beer and design you can really build a loyal following quickly. Right Brain has been lucky to have had this success.”


Right Brain taps into the collective creative right brain power of its team to come up with beer names and brand designs. “Sometimes we know we’re going to bring a style of beer to market, and we already have a fun name in mind to go along with it,” said Houser.

“Most of the time though, we brew a new beer, and the process of brewing it, fermenting, conditioning, aging and packaging brings to life the real story and eventual name of the beer.”

“For example with our Dead Kettle IPA, we were having a normal brew day, until our boil kettle stopped working mid-brew. It took a lot of trial and error, cursing and praying to get the kettle back on, and it eventually did. The result was Dead Kettle, one of our favorite IPAs to date. We draw inspiration from all aspects of life, good or bad, when naming our brews. We also let our brew staff just riff on names for a few weeks. We’ve got a hilarious brew crew so we always get a few gems in this process.”

Good design evokes a feeling and provokes a response, which is exactly what Right Brain accomplishes with its quirky style. “At Right Brain, we like our designs to make people stop, take a second look, look deeper, and just smile,” said Houser. “The concept might be very abstract, but we work to make people stop, maybe not understand, but just smile and make a connection. You don’t know why you like it, but for some reason, you just do. That’s the ’Right Brain Smile’ we shoot for. “

Artisans in Beer. Artisans in Design.

We really appreciate the uniqueness of the brands being developed by Michigan’s microbreweries. So much – too much – design today consists of stock images and vector graphics that are licensed and manipulated, resulting in generic brand identities, packaging and collateral. It’s refreshing to see designers pushing the envelope creatively, and businesses that are keeping an open mind and granting their designers creative license. We can’t wait to see some of the interesting and inspiring, weird and wild branding on display at next week’s Microbrew & Music Festival.

Next time you pick up a cold one, savor more than the hoppy flavor and smooth finish. Check out the label, look under the bottle cap and flip over the six-pack carrier and soak in the great design that is being produced alongside the great beer.

What are some other breweries that are crushing brand design? Leave us a comment and let us know!


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