What is in a name?

In this week’s Beer with Strangers podcast, Doug Griffith of Xtreme Brewing in Laurel and I discussed the recurring news story that craft beer is running out of names. Among the concerns is that it makes it harder for new brewers to break in and it prevents smaller brewers from having big breakout beers. Craft beers allegedly have kooky names because they are the product of one brewery making many, many beers.
It makes sense, at some level, to have weird names for beers. Brewers like to be distinctive, to set themselves apart. And people who like craft beer get a kick out of kooky names.  Raging Bitch made national news when there was a fight over whether it was an obscene name. Beyond that, as shelves get more crowded with bottles and cans, and as breweries continue to try and push the envelope with tastes and flavors, brewers want a name that is as distinctive as their beers. Plus, in absence of any other knowledge or review, lots of beer drinkers simply judge the beer book by its bottle cover.

But it’s important to see that this is a fad, especially now that it clearly is an unsustainable one.

The old production model was to make a lot of one beer and have that be the name: Anheuser-Busch made Budweiser, for example. If they instead had been cultivating a market where they made beers that were all things to all people, this naming issue would have cropped up 200 years ago.
Before that, when beers were named at all, they were named after the tavern. Doug was talking about his visit to Salzburg where the beers were named light and dark. The brewery probably only had been in operation for 400 years or so.

While it certainly is fun, naming beers only really matters a little bit. Boston Lager and 60 Minute IPA are uninteresting, obvious names for beer but they’ve done OK. Similarly, whatever the name of that Pale Ale Sierra Nevada makes found a niche and exploited it.

The notion of breweries suing one another over naming rights is silly. I get that mercy is a big part of the brewery business and that brand recognition is important to the marketing folks. But what if you just make a beer that’s undeniable?
As I’ve said elsewhere, the brewpub trend, in which brewers make beer that is sold only in their own places, is exciting and one worth supporting. At Triumph brewery in Princeton, which uses this model, the beers had names like “IPA” and “Brown Ale.”

The solution Doug and I discussed was something of a middle ground between the extremes.Why not simply put someone’s name before the beer? “Dale’s Pale Ale” is a fantastic, if not particularly creative, one. When Brewer’s Are got sued over their Ozzy beer, they named it after one of the bartenders. It is still a solid beer and remains absolutely popular. It’s undeniably good.

Even at Xtreme Brewing, guys slap their names in front of the beer titles. The object isn’t to be confusing, it’s to be both clear and distinct.

It’s probably time to admit that the naming fad is donning its leather jacket and water skis and get out ahead of the embarrassing part of the problem.
Name the beer after someone who loves it, or someone who hates it (“Al’s s Least Favorite Stout” for example), so rather than worrying about trademarking issues, brewers can focus on the beer.

About Tony Russo

Tony Russo has worked as a print and digital journalist for the better part of the 21st century, writing for and editing regional weeklies, dailies and destination websites. Tony has been producing news, leisure and entertainment podcasts since. 2007. In addition he has written two books on beer for the History Press. Eastern Shore Beer was published in 2014 and Delaware Beer in 2016. He lives in Delmar, Md. with his wife Kelly and the only of his four daughters who hasn't moved out. Together they keep their dog and cat comfortable.

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