My mother (who is the single greatest host in the history of humanity) always makes sure her house is stocked with the proper foodstuffs to meet the dietary restrictions of any incoming guests. Cognizant of my strictly Beeratarian diet, she often asks me what to buy so that her fridge is full of the proper bottles to sustain me over a long weekend.
While she encourages my hobbies, she is not a craft beer person. I’m pretty sure her favorite beer is Woodbridge Chardonnay.
Our latest beer-buying phone call went like this (read my mom’s lines with a northern British accent):
Mom: “OK, I’m at the beer store.”
Mom: “What do you want? They have so many.”
Oliver: “Something new. What looks good?”
Mom: “Hmmm, here’s one with a Union Jack. Eye, pea, aye. Want that one?”
Oliver: “Is it Yards? That one is good, but I’ve had it.”
Mom: “Yea! Yards! OK. How about…Raging Bitch? ::laughs:: Belgian?”
Oliver: “Yep, Flying Dog, that’s good, but I’ve had it. What else?”
Mom: “Hmmm…Pearl…Pearl Necklace? Oh my. ::laughs:: Oysters? Ew.”
Oliver: ::laughs:: “Yep, had that one too.”
Mom: “You’ve had all of them. OK, what about this one. Arrogant Bastard?”
She turns to apologize to someone in the store, which I hear through the phone, slightly muffled: “Oh no, sorry. I’m telling my son about the different beers.”
Mom: “It says oak. Oaked. Is that good?”
Oliver: “Yea, that means they age it in wood.”
Mom: “Wood? Like from trees? Ugh. So you want that one? The Arrogant Bastards? Not the Raging Bitches or the Pearl Necklaces?”
Oliver: “Yea, the Arrogant Bastard, thanks!”
Mom: “Fits you well.”
That my mom was basically NSFW and a verbal menace to nearby children while listing off beer names made me wonder how and why we name beers the way we do.
Some names are clearly the result of marketing so ham-fisted that it would be illegal in a Kosher butcher (I’m looking at you, Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita). Others are clever plays on larger themes that span an entire brewery’s line-up, like the Flying Dog brews (posthumously approved by Hunter S. Thompson): In-Heat, Doggie Style, and Horn-Dog.
Some (a lot) are deliciously bad puns using the word “hop”, others a brewery specific piece of history. Some are overstated to the point of punching you in the face with descriptors, others barely catching a wandering drunken eye with their simplicity. Many don’t have anything to do with beer at all. Most don’t reflect the quality of the beer trapped behind a thin layer of glass and even thinner piece of paper.
So, beyond introducing taster to tastee and putting on display style and flavor, what purpose does a name serve? Is it just a way for a brewery to identify themselves as a company? To pop, with alarm and surprise, into the eyes of a potential drinker like a mean-drunk jack-in-the-box who really enjoys scaring people because he got beat up a lot as a kid?
Or is it something more? Is it a cultural IV tapped into the vein of society, pumping in charm and whimsy and wit where such things have clearly become deficient? Are breweries, with nothing but an enthusiastic marketing team and a label printer, reviving the drollery of Shakespeare and Donne that used to roll so delightfully from ours tongues?
Recent legal spats over logos and branding suggest, at least to me, that there is some serious pride attached to a brewery’s image; some deep, emotional connection of man to beer that is woven into artistic and omnastic design. I think it sinks deeper into craft beer culture than a widget into a can of Boddingtons. Without a name, the beer has no identity. Without an identity, the beer has no soul.
If you woke up tomorrow, head brewmaster of a national craft beer company, what would you name your beer? Would it be something eye-ball-burning or embarrassing to say out loud, or would it be something simple and timeless, like an homage to the Olympian gods? Would you aim to entertain, or offend, or extoll?
Because really, what’s in a name? That which we call a beer by any other name would taste as great.