You raised the funds and you rented a space for your brewery. Then, you sourced your equipment, acquired the proper licenses, and completed the build-out. After that, you bought your ingredients, you schlepped heavy sacks of grain to the mash tun, you toiled in the too-hot brew room and, finally, after months (possibly years) of labor, you poured your brewery’s first beer. Now comes the hard part—what to name the beer.
Fear not, naming a beer is actually quite easy when you realize most labels fall into one of 11 main categories; it’s just a matter of choosing a category, weighing the pros and cons, and narrowing it down from there.
1: Generic Names
“Cease and desist” letters are flooding brewery mailboxes these days so it’s probably wise to keep your beer names generic, non-copyrightable. Even if the name isn’t exactly like another’s but is similar you’re still going to have lawyers clawing at your door (see: Renegade Brewing Company’s Ryeteous and Sixpoint Brewery’s Righteous). If you brew a beer called 59 Minute IPA, for example, expect a call from Sam Calagione’s people in the morning. On the flip side, while giving your beer a nonspecific appellation might save you a lawsuit, it won’t do much for market exposure; search “India Pale Ale” on BeerAdvocate.com and just look at the thousands of hits that pop up. It’s a trade-off: risk possible litigation or get lost in the crowd.
2: Dog Names
Brewers love dogs. Seriously, look at their propensity for slapping canine labels on their product and you’d think there’s nothing else on their mind. There are even a ton of brewers that take the concept bigger by naming the whole darn brewery after their furry friends e.g. Flying Dog Brewery, BrewDog, Black Dog Brewery, Sea Dog Brewing Co., Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales (okay, that last one’s technically a fish—technically a town in Maine, really—but it’s still got “dog” in it). Even if the word “dog” doesn’t appear on the label there’s a pretty good chance there’s still a Canis lupus familiaris-inspired story behind it. You won’t be starting any new trends with a dog-named beer but dogs are man’s best friend and it’s smart to associate your product with something that people already like.
3: Local Landmark or Figure Names
Local drinkers will instantly recognize a beer if it takes its name after a famous regional structure, landmass, person, or event and, moreover, they’ll appreciate the beer all the more because it’s a nod to their community. However, don’t expect anybody from outside the community to understand the allusion—it might be a source of confusion for outsiders. Still, Samuel Adams is a person best known on the east coast, the Sierra Nevada mountains are situated firmly on the west coast, and the breweries most closely associated with those two things serve their products in bars from sea to shining sea and nobody’s gotten up in arms about it. Ergo, a beer sporting a locally-famous name isn’t necessarily relegated to its hometown; it can be distributed beyond city limits. You might still run into trouble, though, if you title your beer after an exceptionally specific local reference. For example, it might not be worth it for a Denver brewery to name a beer “Cash Register Building Bock” or “Dancing Aliens Dortmunder” as they’ll be constantly explaining the meaning to out-of-state (or even out-of-town) drinkers. Then again, learning the history behind the label might engage customers all the more; everybody loves a good story.
4: National Stereotype Names
There are many beer brewing countries and each has an imitable style. This means anybody can brew, say, a Scotch ale without actually producing said beer in Scotland. If the brewer is not from Scotland (or hasn’t even visited the U.K.) then it’s possible Sean Connery and Groundskeeper Willie comprises the extent of his/her Caledonian knowledge. Therefore, due to unfamiliarity with the style’s birthplace, we get beers based on popular stereotypes like Kilt Lifter from Pike Brewing Company, Bagpipe Ale from Cosmic Ales, and Loch Ness from Blue Heron BrewPub. You can’t fault brewers for pigeonholing, though. Most people aren’t interested in cultural studies, they just want a beer. Don’t waste energy delving into the finer points of Highlands history (“Sir Archibald Douglas’ Gruit Ale,” for example, would be a reference way over most Americans’ heads), just plug in a word that’ll spark something decidedly Scottish in drinkers’ minds and you’re good to go.
5: Fancy Names
Even the most rustic craft beer is a level or two up on the luxury scale from the big, domestic breweries. However, even within the microcosm of craft beer, there is a hierarchy. IPAs, stouts, and Pilsners are great but, in terms of extravagance, they can’t touch lambics, quadrupels, or bière de gardes; those types of beer carry with them a little more panache and, when you have a high-class beer, you can’t hang on it a pedestrian designation such as “Frank’s Beer.” No, when the beer’s fancy, it’s deserving of a fancy name—something that sounds like an upscale French hotel or a foreign film. Rugbrød from The Bruery, Pere Jacques from Goose Island Beer Co., or any beer with an accent mark exemplifies this category.
6: Borderline Inappropriate Names
With the exception of the previous category, most craft brewers don’t take their names seriously and, sometimes, the tags they come up with include PG-13 words, sexual innuendo, and other risqué language. The salaciousness of these beers might offend puritans but, then, the same people who take issue with naughty words are usually stone-cold sober people who think you’re going straight to Hell for being involved in the alcohol industry. I wouldn’t put too much credence in such fuddy-duddy rabble-rousers; they’re hardly your target audience. With a beer called Arrogant Bastard, do you really think Stone Brewing Co. cares what thin-skinned people think of them? Heck no! Have some fun and let a little of your immature side shine through when branding your brews.
–Stranger Pale Ale from Left Hand Brewing Co. (Unconfirmed: I heard this beer was so named because, colloquially-speaking, using one’s left hand in a—ahem—“solitary romantic gesture” is a technique known as “The Stranger”)
7: Pop Culture Reference Names
With Brewery Ommegang capitalizing on Game of Thrones and with Marble Brewing getting in on the Breaking Bad fad, there’s no better time to hop aboard the pop culture beer train. Consider this: a person who’s never heard of Stone (hard to imagine but it’s possible) but is a big fan of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia walks down the beer aisle at the local liquor store and espies a bottle of Dayman Coffee IPA. This person may not know of Stone and they may not even like IPAs or coffee but, if they geek-out on Sunny, you can bet they’ll purchase that beer if only for the reference and to relive the plot of “The Nightman Cometh.” If you want to reach a broader audience, entice customers by pairing your beer with a popular form of entertainment because, in the end, the fans won’t care how it tastes—they’re looking for something that reminds them of their pop culture passion (of course, it’s a big plus if it tastes great, too).
8: Punny Names
You’re quite the wordsmith; you love to tell people the name of your beer and then exuberantly shout “get it?” You’ll twist a definition here, use a homophone there and, before long, you’ve turned beer geeks into puzzle-solvers. I can’t say everybody appreciates a good pun but those who do will get a kick out of your tap list.
–Card Your Mom Saison from CAUTION: Brewing Company (it has cardamom in it)
9: Inside Reference Names
Your aunt Mildred passed away and bequeathed you her favorite car. To honor her, you’ve named your latest batch “Auntie M’s Buick.” It’s a touching way to memorialize your dearly departed relative but be prepared to explain and re-explain the name each time a new person tries your beer. It’s not uncommon to name a beer after something that’s only relevant to but a few folks at the brewery. It instills a personal attachment which, in turn, fosters pride in the product; it’s hard not to want to promote your brew when it’s named after a childhood friend or your dad’s favorite saying. The goal, then, is to get the customers who are out of the loop to realize the significance because, once they realize how important the name is to you, they’ll feel a sense of attachment, too, and want to give the beer a shot.
–Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout from Odell Brewing Co. (named for the farmer who feeds his cows with Odell’s spent grains)
–Riiiiiiight? Vienna Rye from Brewery Rickoli (catchphrase often heard amongst the Rickoli staff)
–Fat Tire Amber Ale from New Belgium Brewing (named for a bike trip New Belgium’s co-founder took in Europe which, in turn, inspired him to start his own brewery)
10: Ingredient Names
If you’re really drawing a blank, just think back on brew day, try to remember what went into the kettle, and brand the beer after that. Of course, in the American craft beer industry, we’re all hop addicts so we see a lot of labels like Hoptimum from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., HopDevil from Victory Brewing Company, and Hopslam from Bell’s Brewery. Sometimes, though, we see breweries get a little more specific and name the beer after a variety of hop (e.g. Sorachi Ace from Brooklyn Brewery), after one of beer’s lesser exalted ingredients (e.g. Full Malted Jacket from Beachwood Brewing and Judas Yeast from Against the Grain Brewery), or after a non-traditional ingredient (e.g. Chicory Stout from Dogfish Head).
11: Series Names
You’ve already stressed yourself thinking of one name, why repeat the process? Create a series. Keep the original name but tweak it ever-so-slightly each time you add to said series and differentiate it from the pack. You’ll end up with a bunch of beers with somewhat similar labels which will have the effect of boosting your brewery’s market presence; it may be easy to ignore one Boulevard Brewing Co. Smokestack beer but, if you got Double-Wide IPA, Long Strange Tripel, and Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale all lined up in a row, they’ll be hard to miss. Plus, you’ll make mad cash off of OCD customers who’re compelled to drink the whole series lest they suffer that terrible feeling of incompleteness.
Have you noticed any trends in beer names that I missed? Mention them in the comments section.