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Naming Brewhaha

Posted by: Ilan Beesen on June 13, 2011

There are two poles on the imbibing spectrum, the “Beer is Beer Drinker” and the “Beer Nerd.” For the majority of us who fall somewhere between these polar opposites, beer selections are made for a variety of reasons. Nostalgia may come into play – perhaps it’s what Grandpa always ordered. Convenience or distribution surely plays a part: Why go across town for a particular six-pack when they carry another brand at the store across the street? Cultural identification might make the decision for you; consider the differences in taste that likely exist between Nascar fans and Indie rock concertgoers. Then there’s price – if you skew towards the “beer is beer” mentality, then we’re talking about a commodity and more bang for your buck is likely your m.o. Finally, taste preference must play a major role for all but those who are squarely in the “Beer is Beer” corner.

Fine. But what about the names, do they play a part in the selection process? The behemoths of brewing are household names: Heineken, Corona, and, of course, Budweiser, to name a few (find them on the Interbrand Best Global Brands 2010). Aside from the suggestion of royalty and decadence in Corona name, which means “crown” in Spanish, the others are merely indicators of origin. A family name in the case of Heineken and the Czech town of Budweis in, you guessed it, the case of Budweiser. Given the massive distribution and popularity of these beers, it’s difficult to see the name in isolation from the other brand elements and most importantly, its heritage.

If we slide towards the “Beer Nerd” end of the spectrum, a world of craft beer is revealed that includes products as varied and nuanced as the products of any industry. According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewery is defined as a brewery that produces less than 6 million US beer barrels/year, and there are a lot of them. Based on a count in 2010, there are approximately 1,750 in operation, and many of them produce multiple beer types using multiple product names. A trip to the grocery store for a six-pack could cause a terrible case of indecision for the best of us due to this proliferation of small beer brands. With such a vast variety of brew types and an open mind, how do we choose? The usual modes of selection fail us in this new, modern world of beer. Grandpa never faced an array like this.

Enter naming. The first thing you’ll notice about craft beers is their propensity for strange and interesting names that often have a tenuous connection to suds. A casual survey of the Beeradvocate™ top beers list will reveal a wide range of names. The Russian River Brewing Company makes a seemingly abstract reference to both Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder of ancient Rome. Then there’s the playfully descriptive Heady Topper (promising plenty of head, sorry) and Hoppy Birthday (a shameless incorporation of "Hops"). There’s the wonderfully suggestive Ivan the Terrible and Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stouts. The Supplication American wild ale may provide the blessing you need to make it back from The Abyss, the 11 percent ABV imperial stout from the Deschutes Brewery’s. Just make sure you steer clear of the Mother of All Storms English barley wine unless the forecast is calling for Chocolate Rain.

While the craft nature of these breweries will prevent their wonderfully esoteric beers from gaining wide global distribution, breweries still must compete for our attention in the local grocery store. If the inner Beer Nerd is calling and you’re unfamiliar with the selection, your choice of Double Sunshine IPA over Bell’s Two Hearted Ale may come down to choice of words. But if all the naming is making it even harder for you to choose your next brew, maybe it’s time for a Reality Czeck…of the Czech Pilsner variety, that is. 

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