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What’s In a Name? Understanding Craft Breweries and Their Beers

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For those who appreciate craft beers, life has never been so good. The world of American artisanal brews is one of astonishing variety. The vat of adjectives needed for even the most basic characterizations brims: nutty, hoppy, fruity, spicy, earthy, floral, balanced, sour, chocolate, bready, caramel, and malty. Never mind exploring other dimensions of color, bitterness, or ABV (alcohol by volume). But you can do all that here, courtesy of the Brewers Association.

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Animation by Beerlabelsinmotion.com
Even more plentiful and diverse are the names of the craft breweries—2,768 of them(!) in 2013—and the monikers of their many, many individual beers.I got to thinking about all this when I read an amusing essay recently in theWSJ by Geoff Dyer, a British writer now living in L.A. After rhapsodizing about the contents of American craft beers, Dyer went on to examine the bottles themselves:

We are living through a golden age of beer-bottle and label design.  . . .  In such a richly diverse field it’s risky to generalize, but craft breweries seem to understand that it’s not a bad idea to impart a suggestion of Grateful Dead-era psychedelia to their labels. Or, at the very least, a nod to the aesthetics of marijuana cultivation.

Dyer then deconstructed the label on a bottle of Blue House Citra Pale ale (left) from El Segundo Brewing Company, located in Los Angeles County. Noting that “the label is impossible to decode,” Dyer continued:

It’s blue, featuring, in the midst of a hoppy wreath, some kind of clapboard house drawn in a style that is both cartoony and ominously expressionist. Over this, in rather creepy green letters, is stamped CITRA. I guess in El Segundo it’s so infernally hot that it’s smart to have colors that evoke three words: Numb With Cold.

I laughed to myself when I read that—and then smiled again the next morning when I opened my laptop and saw the latest brew-related post by The Atlantic’s resident beer maven, Jim Fallows, accompanied as it was by this lush photo of the craft beers he carted home from a recent reporting trip to Mississippi.

This photo intrigued me. Reason #1: Jim used up part of the precious weight allowance in his small plane to fly these brews and their brethren back to DC for consumption. (I know:  “Judge not, lest ye . . . “) Reason #2 (and the one that really struck me): Look at the names of those breweries and brews, and look at the labels. You should actually read Jim’s accompanying text to get a clearer sense of it all, but here’s a handy table in the meantime, listing the names of those breweries and the individual beers (left to right in the photo):
The piece by Fallows—and the photo of his latest stash—along with Dyer’s funny parsing of the El Segundo label reminded me of an academic study I came across last fall entitled “Microbreweries as Tools of Local Identity.” This persuasive analysis by Joseph F. Reese and Steven M. Schnell appeared in a 2003 issue of the Journal of Cultural Geography. Their insight: There’s a lot more going on with the making and marketing of craft beers in America than just an effort to produce and sell a better beer.

Reese and Schnell see the multiplication of microbreweries and brewpubs as a response to a disillusionment, within at least some segments of the general public, with “the homogenous sea of WalMarts and McDonalds that have rendered one American town virtually indistinguishable from another.” In making and buying craft beers, brewers and customers don’t merely want better beer than the bland lagers produced by Budweiser, MillerCoors, and other mega-breweries, they’re also expressing a desire for a sense of place and of connection with a locale. Microbreweries, the authors argue, foster “attachment and devotion to the proudly, idiosyncratically local.”

How do brewers accomplish this? In part, “through targeted marketing strategies that emphasize local identity and distinctiveness.” The names of craft beers and the images on the labels “tend to reflect the places where they are brewed.” We’ll look at specific themes and images below, but here, Reese and Schnell identify some very general patterns.

Tellingly, even in the most urban settings, modern city images are rarely emphasized. And modern lifestyles are almost always slighted in favor of historical, or at least blue-collar lifeways such as blacksmiths, or miners, or steamboat captains. Nowhere did we find a Stockbroker Stout or Systems Analyst Pilsner or C.P.A. I.P.A. Instead, Mine Shaft Stout (from Only the Best Brewing Company in Divide, Colorado) [now defunct] and Lumberjack Amber Ale (from Lighthouse Brewing Company in Manistee, Michigan) are much more typical. People who work with their hands, whose very livelihood is entwined with the geography of where they live, are those used to represent the “true” place.

. . .

There is also no shortage of nostalgic images of yesteryear: trains, for example, or horses and buggies or steamships. Again, these are rarely modern in nature. There is no Amtrak Ale or I-35 Dopplebock,** [see update at bottom] but rather steam trains, the Old Post Road, and the Pony Express. . . . Such images are clearly meant to contrast with the mass production of the million-plus barrel brewers like Anheuser-Busch. . . . All of these nostalgic images serve as windows on the type of community and the type of society that is widely perceived to have vanished in our modern, harried existence.

The names for craft breweries and for their beers, as well as the labels they design, have a wide array of typical inspirations that Reese and Schnell identify, most of them evocative of something distinctive about the locale. (There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, as I’ll note again below.) Here are some of the specific themes and tropes that crop up regularly, along with just a few examples of each, some from Reese and Schnell, some from me. (The links attached to the names of individual beers take you to images of the beer label.) These categories are not mutually exclusive, and there’s a fair amount of overlap. You no doubt can think of many more categories and examples, and I hope you’ll share them in the comments section.

Nature: Images of nature (“animals, landforms, mountains, valleys, or rivers”) are common on labels for craft beers. They are predominant from the Rockies to the West Coast, with images evoking unspoiled landscapes and wilderness splendor.

Buildings or other human structures:  In the East, outdoor images on labels are far more likely than in the West to feature rustic human structures such as farmhouses, covered bridges, wagons, oak barrels, etc.

  • Saison Gee, a farmhouse-style ale (Old Hickory Brewery, Hickory, NC) Old water mill.
  • Mayflower Golden Ale (Mayflower Brewing Company, Plymouth, MA) Old barn.
  • Lost Nation Rustic Ale (Lost Nation Brewing, Morrisville, VT) Old barn.
  • Southampton Imperial Porter (Southampton Publick House, Southampton, NY). All of this brewery’s beers feature a sketch of the old publick house itself, now a restaurant/bar/brewery.
  • Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale (Smuttynose Brewing Co., Portsmouth, NH). Label features a cottage on the Isles of Shoals, off the coast from Portsmouth.

Rural and agricultural images:

  • Lilja’s Heifer Weizen (Sand Creek Brewing Company, Black River Falls, WI – “Brewed behind the Cheddar Curtain”) Image is of cows.
  • Local Fields Essence (Hangar 24 Brewery, Redlands, CA), a double IPA brewed with locally grown oranges and grapefruits. See at right: image is of citrus and orange groves.
  • Summer Basil Farmhouse Ale (Fullsteam Brewing Company, Durham, NC), a sweet potato beer. Image is an engraving of a basil leaf.

References to outdoor sports or other physical activities that are popular in a particular locale:

Local problems with nature or climate:

  • Stormchaser IPA (Free State Beer, Lawrence, KS) In “tornado alley.”
  • Avalanche Ale (Breckenridge Brewery, Denver, CO) Avalanches are such a constant threat in the Breckenridge area, home to many ski slopes, that the Ski Patrol there has to engage in regular avalanche control.

Other local idiosyncrasies:

  • Slow Elk Oatmeal Stout (Big Sky Brewing Co., Missoula, Montana) So named “because in Montana, cows are often referred to as ‘Slow Elk,’ both because they often share the same pastures and because every year some myopic hunter shoots a cow during elk season.”
  • Huckle Weizen (Yellowstone Valley Brewing Company, Billings, MT) Made with huckleberries, which can be found in Montana, where it is one of thelocals’ favorite foods.

Local characters or legends:

  • Brinkley’s Maibock(Free State Beer, Lawrence, KS). Reese and Schnell write that this beer “plays on the traditional association of goats with the bock style of beer. Dr. John Brinkley was known in the 1920s as the ‘goat gland doctor,’ who tried to cure fertility [sic] by surgically implanting goat glands in the affected individuals.” [That might ‘cure’ fertility, too, so maybe my “sic” is inappropriate.]

Historical images or figures to be proud of:

  • Samuel  Adams  (Boston Beer Company). No further explanation needed.

Local people, things, or events that don’t necessarily evoke ‘pride’ but are special or unique to the area: 

  • Elliot Ness, a Vienna-style lager (Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, OH). This nugget comes from an appealing new book by Anna Blessing, Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland: “After Elliot Ness put Al Capone in jail in Chicago, he went to Cleveland and ran the police and fire departments. Ness used to frequent the original bar where the Great Lakes [brewery] bar is now, and Pat [co-owner of the brewery] attributes the few bullet holes they’ve found to his one-time presence there.”
  • DC Brau The Corruption Pale Ale (DC Brau Brewing Company, Washington, DC). “The Corruption” is printed across a stylized silhouette of the U.S. Capitol’s dome. The brewer claims the name refers to the infamous “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824, but I’m guessing that’s to avoid offending the thousands of potential consumers currently employed by the U.S. Congress.
  • Burning River Pale Ale (Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, OH): This is “an insider’s joke on one of the city’s more appalling episodes,” when in 1969 the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire.
  • Phoenix Rising (Free State Brewing Co., Lawrence, KS): — a beer the brewerycreated in August, 2013, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1863 raid on the town by William Clark Quantrill, an infamous, bloodthirsty Confederate guerrilla leader who sacked and destroyed the town of Lawrence.
  • Polygamy Porter (Wasatch Beer Pub, Park City, Utah), a name “that has raised eyebrows and earned the brewery some national press.” But if there’s a powerful part of the local identity like this, why not play on it? That’s clearly the attitude of Wasatch Beers founder, Greg Schirf, who clearly understands the role that humor can play in marketing, as demonstrated both by the slogan for this beer—”Why Have Just One!”—and by this commercial:

Some people may argue that Reese and Schnell are being too deterministic—that, as cultural geographers, they are overly eager to find craft breweries making “an overt statement of pride in the distinctiveness of place, an expression of neolocalism.” Obviously, we can agree that not all of them are doing that. And, for the record, Reese and Schnell don’t claim they are. We all know there are plenty of trippy names for breweries and beers that have nothing to do with “place”—and no shortage of labels with psychedelic or demonic motifs. For examples, think of these brewing companies and their labels for their various beers: Magic Hat (South Burlington, VT), Flying Dog (Frederick, MD), and Three Floyds (Munster, IN).

Still, Reese and Schnell make a very compelling case that microbreweries represent “a desire on the part of an increasing number of Americans, brewers and consumers alike, to reconnect with the cities or the towns in which they live, to resurrect a feeling of community tied to a specific landscape.” It may well be a “geographic manifestation of anti-globalization sentiment.” If so, I say bravo.


**UPDATE: An old friend, now living in Georgia, writes to tell me about SweetWater Brewing Company in Atlanta, which makes, among other brews, a 420 Extra Pale Ale. It’s a clever double-entendre. I-420 is a never-completed interstate highwayin Georgia; “420” is a code-term for the consumption of marijuana.

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This piece originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com


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What’s Going on in Beer World?

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What’s going on in Beer World? Beer lovers of America might be forgiven if their grasp of the current brew-scape feels iffy. Alice herself would be at home in this Wonderland. It’s a world in which up is down, little is big, and there’s no Blue Moon on the horizon.

It’s a world in which old standbys are faltering (case sales of Miller High Life were down almost 10 percent in 2013 from the prior year). Mexican labels are dominant (Corona, Modelo, and Dos Equis, account for three of the top four imported beers). And a craft-beer company founded only 20 years ago is coming on strong (“Bartender, pour me a Lagunitas”).

The March 2014 issue of Beverage Industry offers us a through-the-looking-glass portrait of Beer World in the United States today. The magazine unleashed its writers on data gathered by Information Resources Inc. (IRI) of Chicago from supermarkets, drug stores, mass merchandisers, gas and convenience stores, military commissaries, and select club and dollar retail chains for the 52 weeks ending December 29, 2014. I made graphs and charts from their tabular data.

Before we delve into the particulars, let’s remember the big picture: over the past twenty years, per-capita consumption of beer in the U.S. has been declining. Derek Thompson wrote about that here last August, citing this report. But twenty years is a long lens. Let’s take a look at the state of Beer World in the last year.

Domestic Beer

If you were to hazard a guess as to which domestic beers are the top sellers by volume, you’d probably manage to guess at least half of the top ten. These are the familiar, less-expensive brands, regular as well as light, that you see everywhere—Budweiser, Coors, Miller, etc. The table below tells the story about the top ten domestic beers in 2013.

 

This pie chart makes it easier to visualize the relative size of these various domestic brews, as measured by annual case sales. Bud Light accounts for nearly as much market share as all the other non-top-10 domestic beers combined. Lumped together, the beers ranked six through 10 also account for a smaller market share than Bud Light.

Stephanie Cernivec’s report in Beverage Industry reveals a far more interesting picture emerging when we look at what kind of year each of these top 10 domestic beers had in 2013. The following chart shows the percent change in case sales that each of the top ten brands experienced from 2012 to 2013.

Michelob Ultra Light was the big winner among the top ten, with its case sales rising 6.5 percent. But seven of the top ten domestic beers suffered sales declines for the year. In the case of  Natural Light and Miller High Life, the declines were steep—7.5 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively.

Imported Beer

While the domestic-beer category is hurting, the imported-beer category is thriving, according to Jennifer Haderspeck’s report in Beverage Industry. Imported beers grew in volume by 4.5 percent in 2013. The following table contains the particulars on the top ten imported beers:

 

The pie chart to the left shows each of the top ten imports’ relative share of this market segment, a category in which much of the growth is being propelled by Mexican beers. The Mexican brews grew in 2013 twice as fast as total imports (11.1 percent vs 5.3 percent). By comparison, Canadian imports as a group were down 6.5 percent last year, and European imports declined 2.1 percent. Experts attribute growth in the Mexican-beer segment to the growing Hispanic population in the United States, and aggressive marketing by these brands (think of the “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials from Dos Equis, or the “Find Your Beach” campaign by Corona). The relative fortunes experienced in 2013 by the top ten imports are evident here:

Craft Beer

Although craft beers are popular, and this segment of the market is the one in which the most exciting things are happening, craft beers generally remain way behind the main domestic brews and imports in both case sales and revenue. Part of the explanation for this has to do with distribution. Reporting for Beverage Industry, Jessica Jacobsen cited one industry expert who noted that while craft beers have good distribution in grocery stores and liquor stores, they’re less available in convenience stores and gas stations, which lack the space to accommodate a large variety. But that’s changing as distribution through those latter outlets grows. And, overall, the growth rates for craft beers is much greater than for major domestics or imports. In a future post, I’ll have more to say about the craft-brew industry. For now, here’s the basic rundown on the top 10 brands in the craft-beer segment:

 

 

 

This pie chart offers a better visualization of the relative share held by each of the top ten craft beers. And the bar graph below shows how each brand fared over 2013. Can you say “Lagunitas”?

 

What about Blue Moon? Whether or not you consider the MillerCoors brand a craft beer (other producers in that segment certainly don’t), you may wonder why it doesn’t show up on any list. If so, your curiosity may stem from a map that was ubiquitous on the Web back in October. The map came from Blowfish (the makers of “the hangover cure”), which conducted a survey of 5,000 drinking-age adults around the United States. The map purported to show each state’s top beer choice and also made the claim that Blue Moon is America’s favorite beer, with Sam Adams coming in second.

Writing at the time about this map and its claims, The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann offered his opinion about Blue Moon (“that bland excuse for a Belgian white ale brewed by MillerCoors”), and questioned the validity of the claims (“Something about these results smells a bit off.”). On the basis of all the data examined above, I’d say there’s plenty of reason to share Weissmann’s skepticism.

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This piece originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com


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More Screwed-up Government

Take a look at the figures below, which shows (left pyramid) the categories that federal agricultural subsidies fall into, compared to
(right pyramid) federal recommendations for how often we should eat those types of food.

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As Gwen Sharp notes at Sociological Images:

Just to clarify, the 73.8% figure for meat and dairy on the left doesn’t
refer just to direct subsidies; it also includes subsidies for crops
that are grown primarily to feed livestock. The “grains” category
(13.23%) refers to grains grown for human consumption. If you included
all grains in one category it would be much larger, but somewhat
misleading in that the vast majority of grains grown in the U.S. aren’t
intended for people to eat.

Without subsidized grain, keeping livestock in confined feeding
facilities to fatten them up would be much more expensive, if not
entirely cost-prohibitive. Thus, farm subsidies are an essential
component of U.S. agribusiness.

The U.S. government does not look out for the interests and welfare of citizens.  It looks out for the interests and welfare of powerful, organized interests.