When naming beers becomes a craft

When naming beers becomes a craft People enjoy knowing why a beer is named the way it is, and names with a reasonable explanation are easy to understand.

American craft beer names vary wildly, from the straightforward to the outlandish, and naming a new beer requires months, if not years, of brainstorming, creativity and due diligence.

With more than 9,000 breweries in the US, thinking up engaging and original beer names can be challenging. Obvious parameters are off limits, such as names with racial, sexist or misogynist overtones, or those appealing to children. But much like the creativity brewers apply to their brewing process, anything else goes!

With so many different labels to choose from, creating a brand that stands out from the crowd is increasingly important. Robby Willey, Co-Founder of Virginia Beer Co. in Williamsburg (Virginia), explains how.

“Creating a new brand is a long process and requires comparisons with current core brands, mocking up how the name will look on cans and even seeking distributor feedback.  Our latest addition, Gorgeous IPA, has had months, if not years of scrutiny and is so named because it lends itself to numerous slogans:   Gorgeous Citra IPA – ‘You are What You Drink’ and ‘Hello Gorgeous’,” he explains.

People enjoy knowing why a beer is named the way it is, and names with a reasonable explanation are easy to understand. “For our smaller batch releases in the taproom, it’s kind of a free for all!” Willey says.

“We have a shared running list to which we all have access and can suggest names. Our rule-of-thumb is that most names should be easy to pronounce and look aesthetically pleasing on can or tap handle,” he adds.

There are certain strategies brewers can utilise to name a beer such as:

  • Descriptive words (903 Brewers: white chocolate, raspberry, truffle, cheesecake, slushy, etc.)
  • Experiential words (Athletic Brewing Co: Run Wild IPA)
  • Word play (Destihl Brewery: Counter Clockweisse Berliner weisse)
  • Topical phrases (Heretic Brewing Co.: Make American Juicy Again IPA)
  • Alliteration (Paradox Pilsner)
  • Arbitrary words (Urban Artifact: Spyglass fruit beer)
  • Made-up words (Reuben’s Brews: Hazealicious IPA)
  • Music-related (Heavy Riff Brewing Co.: Bohemian rhaspberry sour)
  • Classical literature (Virginia Beer Co: I Pray You Remember the Porter! Imperial Porter)
  • Straightforward (Upslope Brewing Co.: Craft Lager).

Pushing the envelop

Some American craft brewers like to adopt the same creative, envelope-pushing criteria to their beer names as they do when developing the beer itself.  Even the most obscure beer names have found their way into the national psyche. For example:

Cigar City Brewing Co:  J’ai Alai IPA (pronounced hi-a-lie’) is named after a fast and furious game native to the Basque region of Spain and Latin American countries, with which the brewery has links. But it is difficult to say and difficult to spell. Such factors have not prevented it from becoming a much-loved classic around the world.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co: Narwhal Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stout is named after a mysterious creature from the depths of the Arctic Ocean.

Alesmith Brewing Co: .394 San Diego Pale Ale pays tribute to baseball legend Tony Gwynn’s city that he loved and his career-high batting average.

Other breweries employ a theme that runs throughout their name choice, such as DC Brau from Washington, DC, who harnesses political connotations to name their beers such as Joint Resolution IPA and In Session IPA.

Comic take

Beer names for Ska Brewing Co, in Durango (Colorado) are tied to the recurring themes that correlate with their overall brand: ska, punk, music, comic books.

David Thibodeau, President and co-founder of Ska, explains: “We wrote comic book years ago to tell the highly fictionalised back story of our brewery. Many of our beer names are characters in the comics that, to this day, are still frequently used in our marketing.”

Examples are ‘Buster’ (nut brown ale), ‘Rudie’ Session IPA and ‘Pinstripe’ Red Ale.

Ska’s Modus Hoperandi IPA is not only a clever pun but also a nod to the method of operation by the villains in Ska’s comic book. Ten Pin Porter is named after the epic battle between good and evil in Ska’s comic and takes place at the Ten Pin Bowling Alley.

Thibodeau adds: “A good pun can be strong and memorable, for example, Checkered Future IPA ties in with the black and white checkers that are a big part of our branding and associated with 2-tone Ska music.”

No regrets

Both Willey and Thibodeau freely admit naming a beer, then years later regretting it.

Willey says the name Wrenish Rye (named after a historic building at his alma mater in Williamsburg, Virginia), a dry-hopped amber ale, was too nuanced and hard to pronounce if unfamiliar with the building or the building’s namesake, Sir Christopher Wren.

However, not all beer names need to be bold to be beautiful. The beer that pioneered the American craft beer movement around the world with its aromatic and full-flavoured Cascade hop character is none other than the simply named Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Back in the early 1980s beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale were sought after for their ground-breaking innovation, assertive hop flavour and consistently excellent quality. 

Today, the world-class quality, complexity and creativity of American craft beers produced by small and independent breweries, regularly win top honours at prestigious international beer competitions judged by panels of experts.

What’s more, American craft brewers have the added benefit of close proximity to the freshest examples of highly sought-after hop varieties. (www.brewersassociation.org)