Art Notes

The Art of the Beer Label: From Terrapin to Athentic, Breweries Embrace Design

Chris Pinkerton designed the label for Love is Love, a specialty beer released in celebration of National Pride Month. Credit: Terrapin Beer Co.

For anyone who has ever stood bewildered in front of a shelf of beer and impulsively reached for the most interesting design, it goes without saying that the label can be just as influential as what’s inside the can. Sharing the common goal of catching eyes, Athens’ oldest brewery, Terrapin Beer Co., and its newest, Athentic Brewing Co., take very different approaches to their artistic strategy. The anthropomorphic terrapins of the former have become woven into the tapestry of local culture, while the rotating styles of the latter offer an introduction to the diverse artists who call Athens home. 

Though terrapin turtles can be spotted truckin’ along in Georgia, Terrapin Beer Co.’s name was more directly influenced by The Grateful Dead’s ninth studio album, Terrapin Station. Released in 1977, the album’s artwork depicts a pair of dancing terrapins with banjo and tambourine in hand. Design team Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley took inspiration from German illustrator Heinrich Kley, whose original turtle images had circulated back into pop culture two decades after his death when legendary artist Wes Wilson, whose poster designs have become synonymous with the psychedelic era, incorporated them into a Fillmore poster design for The Turtles in 1966. Following the release of Terrapin Station, the terrapins entered the visual lexicon of dancing bears, skeletons, steelies and roses that adorn the band’s merchandise and memorabilia.

Terrapin Station inspired Terrapin Beer Co.’s name, as well as many of its beers’ label art.

Carrying a very niche lineage into this century, the brewery’s iconic reptiles are not just an homage. As fate would have it, Terrapin co-founder Brian “Spike” Buckowski recognized the work of Richard Biffle, an artist who has created countless designs for The Grateful Dead, while perusing his artist booth at Bonnaroo. The then-fledgling brewery was on the verge of expanding into bottled beers and approached Biffle about designing its first label. 

Biffle, who kicked off his career selling artwork out of his van while following the Dead around the country, has since gone on to create designs for a handful of notable acts like The Black Crowes, Santana and Gov’t Mule. His fantastical, vibrant illustrations have a rich narrative quality that adds personality and depth. Take the calmly smiling yogi in front of a peanut butter and chocolate yin-yang on Liquid Bliss, the chemist encircled by books and test tubes on Rye Squared, or the chef licking his lips over a tray full of cookies on Wake-n-Bake. 

As Terrapin nears its 20th anniversary, Biffle has remained an integral part of the brewery’s visual culture by designing well over a dozen iconic labels. He’s shared his long trip with Chris Pinkerton, founder of Mackerel Graphics, who has been part of Terrapin’s art team since 2004. 

In addition to The Grateful Dead, Pinkerton has worked on projects for The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. Demonstrated by the Krunkles series, his artwork is immediately recognizable by its mesmerizing mandala approach. This intricate linework is also featured prominently on Love is Love, a hefeweizen made in celebration of National Pride Month that will benefit LGBTQ+ organizations across Terrapin’s distribution footprint.

Between Biffle and Pinkerton, Terrapin’s label artwork and packaging is approached with the idea that each beer deserves its own album cover, so to speak. Retaining the long-term artist team of Biffle and Pinkerton maintains consistency across products while fostering a natural visual evolution over the years.

Newly nestled within the Normaltown neighborhood, Athentic Brewing Company considers celebrating its immediate community to be central to its vision. Commissioning local artists to design the labels for the brewery’s most popular canned beers is one simple way it can elevate the visibility of talented creatives—while also piquing the curiosity of visitors. 

“[The labels] are one of the things about the brewery that I love the most,” says Kimberly Wise, Athentic’s marketing and events coordinator. “Because we try to be authentic to Athens, most of our labels are designed by local artists. Some artists were chosen because of their relationship with the brewery, while other artists were chosen because I just love their art style on Instagram and reached out to them.” 

After reviewing a selection of beers with descriptions, each artist imagines a design that visually resonates with a beer’s personality, flavor profile or anticipated occasion. Artists are compensated for their efforts, and their social media handles are included on the label so people can further explore their bodies of work. Though not all beers are produced with an artist label, Wise creates many labels herself in-house. She also encourages interested artists to reach out to her for future collaborations.

“Overall, we find that the best way of building and supporting a community is by engaging the community,” says Wise. “So we feel pretty confident in our choice of using local artists to design our labels.”

Lexi Brite’s oil painting, “Bubble Guns,” a portrait of a woman with heart-shaped sunglasses shooting rainbow-colored bubbles out of toy guns, was adapted into the label art for the American pale wheat Sunshine. Heidi Hensley, who frequently uses splattered ribbons of primary colors within her paintings of Athens landmarks, carried over her signature style to design the label of the gose Burst of Joy.

Graphic designer Lisa Chalfant’s label design for the Rapid Recovery is dotted with dainty purple kudzu flowers, which were brewed into the blonde ale as a special ingredient. Carrie Hutton, also a graphic designer, drew a submarine bearing the brewery’s catchphrase, “Crafting good times,” for the rice lager Floodgate. 

Escape Button’s candy-colored illustration of a solo pool party by Kim Deakins, co-owner of Pink Goblin Tattoo, conveys the tropical kick of the hazy IPA. Fellow tattoo artist Sara Fogel of Chico Lou’s Fine Tattoos decorated the Irish stout Upright Hermit with a cloaked cat who holds a lantern and staff, a nod to traditional tarot imagery.

“We have some photographers, some fine artists, some graphic designers and some tattoo artists,” says Wise. “We love showcasing all the different types of art. You can’t be for everyone in the community if you limit yourself.”

Despite the pandemic, Athentic successfully opened last summer, and it will celebrate its one-year anniversary this weekend. Featuring plenty of limited-release beers, the three-day event includes music by DJ Osmose on June 25, performances by Jay Memory and The Modern Pin-Ups on June 26, and The Orange Constant on June 27. Visit for details.