A Microbrew By Any Other Name...

As patriotic, beer-loving Americans, we hope you're celebrating American Craft Beer Week (May 17-23) by visiting your local brewpub or imbibing in that special bottle of microbrew from the comfort of your front porch.
In observance of the week, we'll delve into the art and science of beer naming and labeling, bringing you the inside story on your favorite southeast Michigan beverages. From Dragonmead's Sin Eater, to Motor City's 90W-40, to Jolly Pumpkin's Bam Biere, we'll take a peek at how various makes and models of beer forge their distinct identities.

Urban influence

The label on Motor City Brewing Work's Summer Beer, bursting with bold colors, seems incongruous with other more industrial-looking Motor City labels. But Dan Scarsella, the director of operations who designed the label, says it symbolizes inner-city Detroit like all the Motor City labels. "It's about summer in the big city with big trees screaming with cicadas," says Scarsella. "You know, those big fields where there is trash all over, but the trash could be flowers."

At Motor City, and other microbreweries around town, labeling is often a collaboration of the people who work at the brewery. "It's all grass roots, because we can't afford to feed ourselves, let alone an artist."

It helps that Scarsella has a dose of creativity, and president John Linardos is an artist who inks and paints industrial settings around the city - like the infamous water tower on the Amber Wheat label. The Nut Brown Ale label uses an image of rusty wrenches that Linardos found. Honey Porter was created from pictures of the iconic Michigan Central train station. Playing off the old Stroh's label, Motown Bohemian Lager is reminiscent of the ball park, using a historic font from the old teams, notes Scarsella. 

Most of the names are simply the beer style, with a few exceptions. Ghettoblaster, one of the brewery's flagship beers, holds authority as the only Motor City beer with a big name artist, Glenn Barr, behind it. This notoriously tasty ale has a groovy label with a jet-propelled jam box. The brewery has released a series of compilation CDs by the same name.

Two of the brewery's more hoppy beers, 90W-40 and 120W-60, play off the SAE standards for engine oil. The 90W-40 pale ale is boiled for 90 minutes, creating a 40 IBU beverage (International Bittering Units determine how bitter a beer will be). Beyond the playfulness of the numbers, these labels also use the well-known gear from the Motor City logo.

Un poco espanol

When Ron Jeffries was launching Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales of Dexter, he didn't know many artists. But he admired the work of Adam Forman, who worked at a tattoo studio around the corner from Grizzly Peak in Ann Arbor, where Jeffries was brewing.

"I approached him, and told him that we needed labels for beer," says Jeffries. "He was excited about it." Forman had a brief stint as a food illustrator with Zingerman's, so beer labeling was a natural progression.

According to Jeffries, the partnership is nearly seamless. "His artwork is phenomenal. It's almost a shame to give up some of the detail when we shrink it down." In fact, what were once oval labels have become rectangular to preserve the shading, nuances and detailed edges that Jeffries couldn't bear to chop out. And Forman loves how Jeffries' words and his art, hand-painted, drawn or digitally illustrated, complement each other.

"Mostly the ideas start with Ron as he gets inspired to make a beer and has a rough idea of where he wants the labeling to go," says Forman. "But I take it from there, and sometimes produce work that is very different than he expected. Our work has become less dictated as time has gone on." 

The creative process of brewing rolls naturally into naming for Jeffries, who studied literature in college. "When I come up with a new beer, I come up with a new name." His fondness for Spanish tags isn't restrained. Fuego del Otono, Luciernaga, and Calabaza Blanca reveal Jeffries' affection for the Romance language.

Jeffries says that he stays away from names that are juvenile, goofy or crude in labeling his beer. "Our beer is rustic and rough-hewn, so we try to be a little more serious about it," says Jeffries. "You don't need seventh-grade humor to sell beer."

"I like thinking of beer names and making connections." Luciernaga, "The Firefly," was originally brewed as a wedding beer for a friend. It's a blend of a Belgian-style pale ale and a Saison – and it's oak aged. "It's a true wedding beer because we put two styles together," says Jeffries. "We liked it so much, we keep brewing it every year."

Jeffries says that he and his wife had always joked about naming a beer after their dog Bam because "he's a funny little dog who always tries to get out." One day, he escaped and got hit by a car. "He survived, and after that, we knew we had to name a beer after him," says Jeffries. "He's a tenacious little guy, a survivor, so that's where the name Bam Biere comes from."

Medieval kitsch

Final Absolution, Dragonslayer Altbier, Sin Eater, and Breath of the Dragon Bitter evoke sinister images. Dragonmead Microbrewery co-owner and label designer Bill Wrobel seems to like it that way.

According to Wrobel, many Belgian beers have religious connotations, and those brewed in Belgian style at Dragonmead in Warren are no exception – but some have mighty foreboding titles.

Sin Eater, for example, refers to the unfortunate fellow, in an ancient English and Scottish ritual, who was called on after someone died to symbolically assume the deceased person's sins by eating bread and drinking ale over the corpse. The sin eater was an outcast who took care of dark business to assure others rested in peace. "Sin Eater is a really, really dark Belgian-style Trippel," says Wrobel, making the connection.

But for every doom-filled title, there's a funny or reverent one. Under the Kilt Wee Heavy is a Scotch-style ale, memorable among customers, notes Wrobel. Erik the Red is named after a Dragonmead brewer, Erik Harms. And Reverend Fred's Oatmeal Stout is named after Harm's father, a Lutheran minister, who sometimes helps with the brewing. Nagelweiss is Dragonmead's delicious German wheat beer, named after Dragonmead brewer Rob Nagel. 

After a beer is named, the art follows, Wrobel says, but it always goes inside Dragonmead's signature medieval-shaped shield. "We wanted a distinctive label, so when people look at it they know it’s a Dragonmead beer, even if they’re not sure what kind of beer."

Dragonmead's philosophy is to use ingredients from the country that originated each style of beer. Contriving names that evoke the images and language of a certain region or country often follows.

Baltic Porter comes from recipes typical of Poland's Baltic Sea region. "We named it Full Fathom, because it's very robust and very full flavored." The art is a view of the Baltic Sea from a periscope. The background of the Russian Imperial Stout label is the red Soviet Union flag, complete with yellow hammer and sickle; part of the typeface uses Cyrillic lettering.

Whether it be the use of Cyrillic lettering, Spanish phrasing or fabulous artwork, brewers consider everything from surroundings to semantics in creating the labels of our beloved local beers. Remember, it's American Craft Beer Week, folks, so fulfill your beer-drinking duty, appreciating both the ingenuity of the beer – and its name and label to boot.

Melinda Clynes likes beer. A lot. She's also a Metro-Detroit-based freelancer and a regular contributor to Metromode and Model D. Her previous article was She's Michigan's New Beer Meister.

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All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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Dragonmead - Warren

A frosty cool one

Motor City Brewing Works' "Ghettoblaster"

Jolly Pumpkin at Western Market - Ferndale

Motor City Brewing Works - Detroit

Final Absolution by Dragonmead - Warren