Get Back in the Box: Craft Beer's Confusion Obsession

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've had a brewer or beer geek explain to me how a beer "doesn't really fit in a style" and that I shouldn't try to "label" it as something.  They're not bound by history or convention.  The beer they're drinking is revolutionary, and unique, and "outside the box."  And have you seen the label and packaging?  It was created by a local artist that gets inspiration from looking at photos of antique clocks and antique burlesque while listening to a soundtrack of Gregorian chants before painting in neon Sharpie and sheep's blood.

I say this with full awareness of how it's going to sound to some brewers and beer people: GET BACK IN THE BOX.

I'm Confused

I buy beer frequently.  I buy it in bars, breweries, and tap rooms.  I buy it at the store and the distributor.  And I willingly and full-throatedly admit that I'm confused.

I shouldn't be confused.  I'm a Grand Freaking Master beer judge and Certified Cicerone.  I've spent a decade around some of the most preposterous, pretentious, and promiscuous beers and breweries in the world.  I'm not lacking for context or vocabulary or background information.

But when I read a beer description that says something is "an imperial dry-hopped Munich Helles," I don't know what the hell to make of it.  That's not a thing.  It's like calling something a "no-wheeled self-heating super-compact car."  That's not a car.  It's an oven.

And that's assuming I have a description to go off of in the first place.  It gets worse when I'm just walking around the beer shop.


I literally just got home from buying beer for the beer judge training class that I teach once in a while, and each week I'm in need of three good examples of certain beer styles so that the class can taste a healthy range of beer types and styles before they sit for the Beer Judge Certification Program judging exam.  Every Monday, for eight weeks, I stroll into my local Wegmans with an example or two of each style in mind, head for the beer section, and pick from what is usually a solid selection.

The challenge comes when the specific label I'm looking for isn't on the shelves that day.  

If I know what brewery I'm looking for, I can find it easily.  They're grouped geographically, for the most part, and the brewery name is usually pretty obvious.  But try finding a specific type of beer by just scanning the shelves - it's becoming quite the challenge.

There's minimal readable writing on the packaging, and with the eye-popping artistic expressions on display it's almost impossible to interpret the message and locate a beer by style.  No one should have to risk neural overload and an epileptic seizure just to find the words "Schwarzbier" or "black lager."  Don't get me wrong - the visuals are impressive, but they're a riot of artistic styles, languages, symbols, and fonts.

I'm just looking at a wall of beeroglyphics, and there's nary a beer Rosetta stone in sight.

When Words Fail

And then there's the words themselves, when you can pick them out from the gonzo art show that you've been thrust into.  

Between the ever-more-esoteric beer names, the convoluted label descriptions (when present) about what's in the can/bottle, and what seems to be a willful resistance to put your beer "in the box" by putting a simple style descriptor on it, even the words themselves might not be all that useful.

The terminology ranges from the woefully broad ("hoppy") to the painfully esoteric ("partigyle") to the logically absurd ("white Stout").

And you also have to wrestle with breweries' notion that identifying something with a beer style (whose name, history, and implications might actually tell you a lot about what you're buying) seems pedestrian and "unoriginal" (ironically, craft beer's original sin...).

At a certain point you're waiting to find out that the breweries were just gaslighting you.  

Unique Isn't Always Useful

Look, I get it: you're in a competitive marketplace.  There are only so many beer names out there.  You want to go along with beer geeks that cherish a non-conformist view of their beer.

But you're probably also losing customers.  

1. Some of them aren't going to have any idea what the hell you're selling.  If they're looking for something specific, they may or may not get the inside-baseball hop pun in your name that is supposed to cue them in that you're selling an IPA ("Lupulin-side the Actors Studio, anyone?").  You know what they recognize?  "Lagunitas IPA."

2. Confusion leads to reversion.  If a customer is scanning the shelves and can't tell what your beer is because it's described as a "modernist take on a classic Scandinavian Steinbier with Trappist influences and post-colonial American dry hops," then your prospective customer is probably going to say "screw it" and pick up a case of Bell's Brown Ale.  Know why?  He/she knows what that is.

3. Confusion (maybe) leads to revulsion.  Selling someone something that they might not understand might lead to a life-changing experience for them.  Or it might just lead them to realize that they thought they were getting one thing and you've actually (and accidentally) sold them the wrong thing, however they define it.  

Unique isn't always good. But you know what's always good?  Good.

I hate to say it, but these days (and if you're a regular reader, you've read my thoughts on this before) I'm much more impressed by solid brewing practice and clean, clear flavor profiles than I am the next "cool" beer.  

Please Help

If you're a brewer: dial it back.  Give us a clue what's in there.  If it's good, we'll order another one, I promise.  And seriously, don't be unwilling to brew a beer in a conventional/historical style because you're worried that we won't buy it - there's a big crowd of people who love a Maibock.  Brew one, call it that, and see what happens.

If you're a beer drinker: disconnect.  Let's address this from the demand side.  Show that you're unwilling to spend ten minutes in internet research to make a simple beer choice.  Vote with your wallet, and maybe we'll convince breweries that clarity is worth something.

And for those who are going to say, "what's the point of pointing this out?," let me just say that sometimes the absurd needs to be labeled as such before anything can change.  A problem is only a problem once we decide it's something we'd like to fix.  So maybe I am just muttering into the void here, but maybe not.  I'll take the risk. What else was I doing this morning?

Keep it simple.


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