What's In a Name: Pitfalls and Opportunities in Beer Naming

"What's in a name?," Shakespeare asked.  "That which we call a rose - By any other name would smell as sweet."  Good point, Will.  But that's a pretty narrow view of the effect and import of names, and lately beer has been struggling with multiple identity crises.  

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet: but what happens when people start referring to a dead rat as a "rose rat"?  Or when strawberries become "rose berries" because they share a common color, resulting in the death of a number of people with strawberry allergies?

Names matter.  And in many ways, when it comes to beer, we suck at it.  The issue of sexism in beer names has been well documented, and that's not what I'm talking about.  I'm talking about how marketing has resulted in an odd winnowing of the names we use to describe beer, and how that's hurting craft beer in ways that buyers and brewers alike should be concerned about.

Beer naming allows consumers (us) to get a preview of what's in the bottle, can, or keg.  It increases the utility of our selection process and makes it more likely that we get what we're looking for.  But more and more we're seeing names that are potentially working against us and making it harder to predict what's in the glass, and it's baffling to me that brewers don't see the downside of that.  

Once upon a time, I lived in Texas and worked as a waiter.  One of my first shifts educated me on a genuinely odd and unproductive reality of many Texans: all soda was referred to as "Coke."  

"What can I get you, sir?"

"I'd love a Coke, thanks!"

I bring him a Coke.

"I wanted a Sprite."

"But you ordered a Coke..."

"Right - but a Sprite."

Without a bit more care in how we name these things - and we consumers have a part to play and a share of the blame - we're at risk of shooting ourselves in the palate and, as a kicker, constricting the beer world in which we claim to value diversity above most other things.  

A World of IPE

I'm talking about India Pale EVERYTHING.  

It's an easy and obvious target, but good Lord, it HAS to be said: is there anything that brewers won't call an "IPA" these days?  The multitude of color variations is one thing (apparently IPA now comes in White, Red, Brown, Black and even Blue - true story), and while I agree there is potentially a difference between some of these and other base styles, the distinction isn't all that apparent when you get down to the actual beers.  Any number of Brown/Black IPAs are really just American Brown Ales or Porters or Stouts.  Those names already existed, and they already included the potential for significant hop character.  Why not use them?  "Josh, this way consumers KNOW they're going to get PRONOUNCED hops!"  Do they, though?  My last three in the Brown/Black IPA (or Cascadian Dark if you roll that way) category were pretty conventional/limited in their hopping, and in fact came in dragging in terms of bittering/hop flavor compared to many current examples of other already-there styles (fittingly enough, Rogue's Shakespeare Stout is rocking about 70 IBUs and a healthy dose of flavor hops - is it a stout or a Black IPA?).  I was judging a Best of Show panel for a homebrew competition about six months ago and the BOS winner was a "Red IPA" that was far less hop-driven than many of the American Amber ales in competition.  

Then there's the Farmhouse IPAs.  The Belgian IPAs.  Rye IPAs.  New England IPAs.  Fruit, Spice, Herb IPAs. Coffee IPAs.  SESSION IPAs, for crying out loud.  IPLs.  I could go on, possibly forever.  

Brewers, not everything with hop flavor needs to be an IPA.  And by tagging EVERY hop-flavor-having beer you make with that name, you're diluting the utility of it.  I know it's a useful marketing tool that feels good, but it's bad for you in the long run, like heroin, or Sons of Anarchy after season two.

A Fine Pilsner Beer

And what the hell is happening with Pilsners?  They don't get quite as much attention, but have you noticed what's developing here?  It would seem that "Pilsner" is being used to describe basically anything that's pale in color and uses a lager yeast.  And it isn't like we don't have a good historical basis for knowing what to expect out of a Pils.

I could rip on a certain macro lager that claims to be a "Fine Pilsner Beer," but I won't - for one thing, I kind of like it as a neutral option when I'm in macro-land and the closest thing to craft is Shock Top.  But for another thing, there's far less risk of a Danny Thomas-style spit take with that.  Maybe just a shrug that it doesn't seem to be as roundly malty as a classic Czech Pils or as flinty and spare as a classic German Pils.  

No, I'm talking about Pilsners (seriously - Pilsners) that are 8% ABV.  Or barrel-aged (no kidding).  Or dry hopped (which I can get behind, but is still a little surprising).  Or black - seriously, a Black Pilsner (which was also heavily hopped, btw); what, was "Black IPL" just a bridge too far for you?

Much as most hoppy beers are now just called some-kind-of-IPA, it seems that an increasing number of lagers are just called "Pilsners," regardless of whether the name actually applies.

And don't even get me started on...

'Tis the Saison

Yeah, one of the buzziest terms now is "farmhouse" or "Saison."  Cloudy, wheaty, spicy, hoppy, all or none of the above?  SAISON!  FARMHOUSE!  RUSTIC!  I can almost understand this one, since Saisons were originally very much a local-driven beer, made with whatever was on hand, and so there was a lot of variation.  But this isn't that - this is just laziness.  It's an appeal to an image, not a reflection of brewing history.

Spicing a Saison was actually not all that common.  Farmhouse beers weren't simply rustic, they were usually wild-fermented.  And they sure as hell weren't sold as being "smooth" as a Saison from a particular wildly popular brewery is.

No, this seems much more like Golden Age thinking and nostalgia run amok, picturing the quaint brewers of rural France and Belgium - not an homage to the authentic seasonal styles of Northern Europe.

And then we have...

Sour is Sweet

Some recent writing on Sour beers has suggested that calling beers "Sours" is applying too-generic a moniker to a very diverse set of beers.  I see their point (it's in many ways the point I'm making here - too-broad a name reduces utility), but this is one area where I ultimately disagree with it.

Justin Grant, writing in the Tampa Bay Times, notes: "'Sour' is about as meaningful as 'dark.' Both terms are woefully lacking in information, and they unfairly lump dissimilar beers together, simply because they share a single, arbitrary attribute."

I think that's significantly overstating the case.  Sour isn't an "arbitrary attribute" - it's a defining feature that provides a substantial indicator of what's in the bottle. The examples of how different and diverse Sours can be are accurate, but ignore the fact that if you had to describe Berliner Weisse, Lambic, and Flanders Red the first word nearly anyone would use is "sour" or "acidic." 

Moreover if you picked up beers that aren't called Sours and tasted acid, you'd probably be very surprised, right?  And maybe a little concerned/pissed?

"Dark" as a descriptor has almost no utility. "Sour" by comparison does add utility in that it identifies a defining (and often divisive in terms of the drinkers' impressions) attribute.

Nor is "sour" in any way necessarily pejorative as some have claimed.  Sour Cream.  Sour Candy.  Sweet and Sour Chicken.  We make use of the term all over the place, because acid is one of those things that makes us sit up and take notice - potentially as a sign of contamination or spoilage.  If it's going to be there, you should probably let people know it's there on purpose.

Let's Leave My Anus Out of This

Some (including some of you) have accused me of being a bit too anally retentive when I suggest that we should be conscious of and actively use the beer-nomenclature history and tools with which we are already endowed.  To that, I say, let's leave my ass-tightness out of this.  It's not about me being a stickler - it's about how branding and naming impact craft beer as a segment.

When making ordering decisions, individuals rely on the names of the products on offer to guide their choice.  They use them to increase the probability that what they order will make them happy.  When we over-use (and even mis-use) category or style names, we undermine consumers' ability to get what they want, and as that probability function starts to yield fewer happy customers, we start to lose them.  That's bad for beer.

It's also bad because it makes it harder for bar owners and managers to put a diverse selection of taps on.  First, you're making it harder for them to know what they're getting (much like you're making it harder on consumers).  "But the reps know what the beers are and can help them!"  Yeah - sure.  We'll deal with that one another day.  Second, though, by encouraging consumers to too-broadly categorize beers you're creating "demand" for only a few things (IPAs, Saisons, Pilsners, for example) which can result in tap lists that are overcommitted to just a few flavor profiles.  Yes, there's great variety within them since EVERYTHING is getting over-grouped into these macro-categories, but now we're relying on the bar to know the differences within the macro-category to effectively put on a variety of beers, and that's an iffy proposition.

Finally, it's bad because it makes craft beer look like what it's trying to replace.  When consumers see this macro-grouping going on, and see tap lists at "craft" beer bars that are 80% IPAs, they start to think we're just like THEM (the macro breweries).  "Macro" becomes "pale lager," while "Craft" becomes "IPA."  That's not a fair assessment on either side, but I've literally heard this very statement out of the mouth of a number of friends, relatives, and neighbors.  And we're feeding it, to our own detriment.  A tap list of nearly-all IPAs isn't all that different from a tap list of all-macro-lagers.  It just makes us seem uncreative, and as though we've become what we despised - boring and repetitive.

So let's make an effort to call beers what they are.  Why throw away the diversity and variety that fueled the rise of craft beer in the first place?  When you get a brown Pilsner, or a not-at-all-bitter IPA, or a smooth "farmhouse" beer, let the brewery know that they're misrepresenting their beers.  This is a tide that can be turned, but won't unless we reward a brewery for calling an American Amber an American Amber and not a Red IPA.  

And lest anyone accuse me of hypocrisy (how does "Beer Simple" oppose general names for beer?), I'd simply note that a synonym of "simple" is "obvious" or "clear."  Overgeneralization is the enemy of clarity.  

Keep it Simple.

JJW