Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” The people, places and things in our lives all have names, but how and why those names are chosen is constantly evolving. For instance, you won’t find any ‘stewardesses’ on any flights to Bombay (now Mumbai), sports stadiums are now named after insurance conglomerates, and no one has a friend with a little baby named ‘Larry.’
This phenomenon can also be found in the beer we drink. Not that long ago, when you stared into the cooler, all you saw were bottles labeled with the surname of some European immigrant. But names like Pabst, Budweiser, Schlitz and Heineken are no longer what catch our eye. How can those stodgy old monikers compete when Beard of Zeus, Backwoods Bastard, or Jaw Jacker can be found just a few feet away?
The naming of craft beer has taken on a life of its own. For some brewers, it’s a creative and playful endeavor, but for others, there’s too much at stake to simply treat it like a game. But in both cases, “what’s in a name,” continues to evolve.
For Trevor Doublestein, Owner and Cellarman at Our Brewing Company in Holland, the naming of his beer is about creating an experience for the customer, while also indulging his own personal sense of humor and interests. His most popular beer, an IPA he calls Careless Whisper, is named after the 1984 “Wham!” hit song.
“At the festivals people will hear that name and say, ‘I’ve got to have that,’ and a lot of times they won’t even know what it is,” he says. Doublestein explains that the mystery and intrigue of the name has then translated directly into popularity. “Some people will come up and just do the saxophone solo and then we know what they want.”
Our Brewing Company opened in 2012 and currently does not distribute. Its small size allows Doublestein, who does almost all of the naming personally, to pick names without much fear of negative repercussions. Consequently, he doesn’t think twice about finding inspiration in odd places, such as He-Man and the Masters of The Universe.
Doublestein says that giving out names like Beastman Brown and Eternia Pale Ale in some way creates a kinship between him and his customers. “[The customers] get into the vibe of the place — they feel welcome. They say, ‘Hey, this guy who makes this stuff likes the same things that I do, let’s go to his place and hang out.'”
That care-free and fun attitude towards naming is not only a feature of his small business; he also considers it a benefit. “That’s why we do this ‘small-on-purpose-thing,’ because we like to have some freedom here.” But he knows that with success, comes increased responsibility. “In the future, if we’re thinking about canning, it’s going to be a different story.”
Someone who is well-versed in that ‘different story’ is Fred Bueltmann, Vice President of Brand and Lifestyle at New Holland Brewing. He knows that when he and his team are conceiving their beer names, it’s not just about being nostalgic or clever, but about building a comprehensive brand.
“The larger you are, the larger your batches are, the larger your print runs are, the more invested you are in that name. So you really want to make sure you have something that feels like it’s coming from your voice,” he says.
For Bueltmann, part of finding that voice is digging deep and conceiving names that have, at times, intricate and fascinating backstories. “From a brand point of view, I think it always has more structure and feels better when there’s something behind it.”
Customers may not know it, but popular New Holland brews such as Monkey King and Cabin Fever both have their own unique stories that Bueltmann says, “helps tie things together.” One has a rather famous literary connection to Holland, while the other relates to a story about the trials the New Holland founders had early in their brewing career.
Those names and those stories are all intertwined to create one larger branded experience, and each new name that follows is a new opportunity to strengthen the customer’s brand loyalty. It’s a process that Bueltmann knows takes time and requires both persistence and patience.
“You’re planting a seed, not a tree, so typically, if the beer grows up and people love it and the name makes sense and it fits, then the love for the name grows as the love for the beer grows.”
As more new Michigan breweries are born, more of those seeds will continue to be planted. And as each new seed takes hold, the process of picking names for our beers will continue to evolve. Doublestein believes that it’s the general creative mindset of the people who enjoy brewing that first inspired the beer-naming phenomenon. “I’d say that the people who do brew are more on that creative wavelength,” he says.
Michigan has no shortage of incredibly creative brewing enthusiasts, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what might be the next step of the beer name evolution. Perhaps old German names will start making a comeback. And who knows? Maybe people will start naming their boys Larry again, too.