How craft brewers get creative when it comes to naming beer

Seven (or maybe eight) ways to name your craft brew so patrons will remember your brand.
Most brewers will tell you there is no secret formula to making a great beer. It's a creative process that works a little different for every person.

Some brewers stick to the basics, producing quality IPAs, Stouts, Ambers and the like. Others prefer to push the envelope a bit and experiment with blending styles, finding exotic ingredients or turning foods such as donuts and s'mores into beer. The only real rule is create a beer you love and chances are your patrons will love it, too.

The same holds true when it comes to naming the beer.

Simply referring to your creation by its stylistic name is a universally acceptable practice, one that allows potential customers to know what their getting into, even before they sample your wares.

Beers such as Bell's Porter and Arcadia Ale's Nut Brown offer straight-to- the-point label names, with no possibility for consumer confusion.

That being said, many brewers (Bell's and Arcadia included) choose to extend their creative practice beyond the brewing house and into the marketing department.

Southwest Michigan alone is home to beers with names as enigmatic as Doom Slayer, Escaped Goat, and the slightly naughty Love Pump.

In a less inventive world these beers would be known as: Greenbush Brewing's American Brown Ale, Round Barn Brewing's Hefeweizen and The Livery's Russian Imperial Stout.

Instead they represent three of the seven major categories for beer names: "scary/creepy," "play on words", and "adult themes". These three are joined in the lineup by "geographic references," "people," "causes", and "music".

One might also make "inside joke" its own separate category for a beer such as Dark Horse's Smells Like a Safety Meeting that comes with a story appreciated only by those making it. But these represent just a small sample of the names currently given to beers as most are intended to be understood and easily interpreted by the consumer.
A few more names
Bell's Brewing:
Consecrator Dopplebock
The Oracle Double IPA
Latitude 42:
Hippie Speedball
School House Honey Greenbush:
My Hyde
Helmet of Remnar
Street Walking Cheetah
Bad Moon Horizon
Cyril Figgins
Arclight Brewing:
Swayze Crazy
Round Barn:
Oh Rye Goodness
The Livery:
Nigel Tufnel
Final Gravity Brewing:
Ale Mary
Nice to Meade You
One Well Brewing:
Sweet Teets
Boatyard Brewing:
Gingerbread Man Overboard
Tibbs Brewing:
Citra Your Ass
Dark Horse Brewing:
Scotty Karate
Sapient Trip
Hop on a Blond
Big Swinging Richard
Cluster Fuggle
Gonzo's Bigg Dogg Brewing:
Razzamazoo Raspberry Wheat
Remember the Earl ESB

"The name has to do two things, it has to be clever enough for people to at least commit to try it and then you want that name to be able to sync with those people so that they'll share the word," says Brian Steele, co-owner of Boatyard Brewing Company. "If you name a beer with such a long bizarre name that no one can remember it then you're going to kill that second part."

A third part is brand recognition: Not only do you want folks to be attracted to the beer's name, but you also want them to know right away who made it.

For example, Boatyard, except in a few specific instances, which we'll look at in a moment, sticks primarily to nautical themes. Greenbush Brewing in Sawyer has a propensity for single or double word titles that often fall into the "scary/creepy" category. Beers such as Dystopia, Mr. Hyde and Unicorn Killer conjure images of horror films and alternate realities while giving absolutely zero clues as to what styles of beer they represent.

With the exception of the Greenbush portfolio, these beers--Arcadia's Cereal Killer Barleywine and Olde Peninsula's Stout Chocula, for example--generally make their appearances around Halloween and play into the mystery and overall spooky ethos of the late harvest season.

Seasonal and limited release beers are often where brewers will unload their most creative names, since by nature these beers are only around of a short time. If a name falls flat it's not that big of a loss. Conversely, if it has a memorable and unique moniker, demand for the creation will no doubt rise.

Sometimes demand for a beer is targeted at a select audience, such as the soon to be released Mr. Sunday by Paw Paw Brewing Company. Its creators are hoping it will be a hit with Paw Paw residents and Detroit Tiger fans alike. It's being crafted to honor the playing career of one of Paw Paw's most famous residents, former Western Michigan Bronco and Tiger left fielder Charlie Maxwell.

Maxwell gained fame in the late '50s as a power-hitting lefty who in 1956 famously hit home runs in four consecutive at bats against the New York Yankees.

"We've wanted to do this for a while," says Ben Fleckenstein co-owner of Paw Paw Brewing Company. "We met with his family to name a beer after him. His nickname was 'Mr. Sunday,' so we're going to name a beer, a Sunday afternoon session ale after him. His only request was that his grandson be the one to do all the artwork. We've been meeting with his grandson Adam and he's even been helping brainstorm some ingredients we could put in."

Since Maxwell was a grape farmer in Decatur, prior to becoming a pro ball player, Fleckenstein and co-owner Ryan Sylvester are working on a way to include locally produced grapes in the recipe.

Maxwell isn't the only local resident to grace a Paw Paw Brewing label. In fact the company has quite a history of naming brews after local citizens and family members. "Gus Meister Amber is named after Ryan's son Gus," Fleckenstein says.

In the very beginning stages of the business, Fleckenstein and Sylvester were the only two people brewing and bottling the beer, and as Fleckenstein tells it, both of those tasks fell on Sylvester more often than not.

"He'd end up bottling alone and one day he mentioned to my sister that he wished old Gus-meister was there to help him. My sister says 'Perfect! You should name this beer Gus Meister,''' Fleckenstein says.

Soon afterward, Fleckenstein's son James would become the namesake for St. James Ale.

For Paw Paw Brewing, a common practice is naming beers for family members or for friends who have passed on, as in the case of Cafe 237 Coffee Stout named in memory of the late Bill Sutcliff and the coffee shop he owned.

"I think when you have a business that’s so closely attached to the community that those things just happen naturally," Fleckenstein says.

As does creating a beer to honor a fallen hero, especially one the community has come together to rally around. Boatyard Brewing Company's EZ Ale is a summer seasonal release brewed to benefit the Eric Zapata Foundation.

Zapata, a Kalamazoo Public Safety Officer who in 2011 lost his life in the line of duty, is remembered every time this American Wheat Ale is poured and consumed, which is precisely the reason a brewery supports a cause with its beer.

And when it comes to causes, Steele explains, it helps to go an extra step beyond simply naming the beer for a person or organization. In this case a little extra promotion can help raise a great deal of awareness and money.

"I think you can't just make a beer and say its going to be on the market to help this cause," Steele says. "I think you really have to tie some sort of event to it. You do a big beer release, you bring the people in you're trying to help. People can connect to it, they hear the story, and get to talk to the people that run the organizations."

Which is what Boatyard did for the initial EZ Ale release in 2014. The beer was such a hit both with the public and Zapata's former co-workers that Boatyard created an entire EZ series with EZ Amber brewed and served during the autumn months.

"Our EZ beers are going to run from the third week of April to around Thanksgiving," Steele says.

Boatyard also supports Community Homeworks of Kalamazoo, a not-for-profit that provides emergency home repair for families and homeowners in need. The beer, called Gimme Shelter is a bourbon nosed, malt forward offering designed to keep you warm when things get cold.

Though many brewers jump at the chance to support causes they believe in, the majority of beer names, instead of tugging at your heartstrings, hit your funny bone instead.

Brews like Latitude 42's I.P.EH, Tapestry's Kilting Me Softly Scotch Ale, and Round Barn's Grape Expectations employ the time honored linguistic tradition of playing on words. Often involving ingredient themed imagery or regional colloquialisms, these beers are created and named simply to be enjoyed.

"The names, the graphics, and everything that ties into it, is all about just having a good time," Kerry O'Donohue of Saugatuck Brewing Company says.

And he should know. Located less than a mile from Lake Michigan, many of Saugatuck's beer names advocate good times. They often have a geographic theme pertaining to leisure in West Michigan....and some lean towards another time honored tradition, mingling beer culture with adult sensibilities.

A perfect example happens to be one of Saugatuck's longest running beers: Oval Beach Blond. Named in honor of local recreation hot spot Oval Beach, the name is also an homage to a certain, very attractive local resident.

"There is a visitor's guide here--the very first issue came out back in 2003 or 2004--and it had a really nice long distance shot of Oval Beach and this really attractive blond women walking down the beach. She had a straw hat on and a bikini. You could tell she was a stylish, good looking gal. She became the original Oval Beach Blond," O'Donohue says.

Not only does the "Oval Beach Blond" make an appearance in the bottle art, but she also makes an appearance, during regularly scheduled shifts at the tap room. "She's been a bartender of ours for the past several years," O'Donohue says.

A couple decades ago, a scantily clad lady on a beer bottle may have seemed a bit risque, but as the craft beer industry has boomed, so to have brewer's abilities to push the envelope in terms of names.

No area brewer likes to do that more than Mark Rupert of Rupert's Brewhouse, with beer titles such as 2wice Licked Kitty and Match the Drapes Amber giving any Bud Light or Coors commercial a run for its money when it comes to risque.

Though the drinking public is a large diverse population, with many interests and hobbies, one thing (besides great brew) often unites them--music. That's why you'll find a beer named after a song, band, or artist at several of Southwest Michigan's breweries.

Tapistry's Gratzerful Dead, a Polish style slyly named for the legendary jam band, The Livery's barrel-aged Steel Wheels, brewed in honor of the Virginia based string band of the same name, and Bell's All Four Ale, named for the track "All Four" by local favorite's Greensky Bluegrass are just a few of these examples.

But far and away, the most widely used beer branding principle is to honor the land and community that supports you.

That's why you'll see Bell's promoting the Two Hearted River, Tibbs serving up pints of the Lovell Double IPA, and Paw Paw Brewing giving a shout out to its local thoroughfare with Red Arrow Rye.

"We're making a craft beer for our local community, that's why I think it's very natural to promote and encompass the landscape," Fleckenstein says. "We're trying to showcase our region."

Brewers are also trying to showcase their creativity and, of course, promote their wares to an audience that has grown to expect a unique drinking experience. This happens by creating a high-quality product as well as giving it a name that represents the company and the beer in a memorable way.

There's no wrong way to do it, and by all accounts brewers enjoy the naming their creations almost as much as they like crafting and drinking them.

"Naming beers is fun," Steele says. "It's really hard to screw up a name."

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew and spirits writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.

Photos by Susan Andress.
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