The Hardest Part of Making a Beer Might Be Naming It

August 13, 2018

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe, August 13, 2018

Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto, Canada and Illuminated Brew Works in Chicago both used lyrics from the 1980s pop song “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” to name their white stouts. Great Lakes named its brew Caught in the Rain and Illuminated named its version If You’re Not into Yoga. While the lyrical similarity was a mere coincidence, it demonstrates how increasingly difficult it is for breweries to come up with unique beer names.

When co-founders Nico Freccia and Shaun O’Sullivan first started brewing and naming beers at 21st Amendment Brewery 18-years-ago, most had very bland names—typically, it involved the brewey’s name followed by the beer style, such as “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.” The duo decided to break away from that formula and create memorable names like Brew Free! Or Die, and Hell or High Watermelon. “We think that this strategy has been very successful for us in standing out on the shelves,” Freccia says. But creativity isn't all that goes into a successful beer name, they also check with the U.S. Patent and Trade Office to make sure the name is unique. “We are very careful to vet beer names before we decide to use one,” he says.

As more and more breweries enter the market, the race to find and claim names becomes increasingly competitive. There are more than 6,000 breweries in the United States, and many of them produce fresh beers every week. “It can be very difficult to come up with names that haven’t already been taken by other breweries,” says Jason Oliver, production brewmaster at Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland, Virginia.

What’s in a Name?

In a crowded market, it’s important for a beer have a clever name, so customers notice it when they’re cruising a crowded beer cooler or scrolling through a tap list. This was recently hammered home when Jerry Gnagy, owner and brewer at Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville, Kentucky, visited a bar in Chicago and saw his IPA, Citra Ass Down, on tap. “When you’re away from your home state, all you are is a name on a chalkboard,” he says. “People try your beer for its name.”

Brewers find inspiration for beer names in a number of places—popular song lyrics, puns, turn of a phrase, movie titles and even photos on Twitter. At Against the Grain, if a good pun or turn of a phrase comes up in casual conversation, it gets written on a whiteboard. “About 80 percent of the time we have a name that needs a beer rather than the other way around,” Gnagy says.

Devils Backbone’s  Skull Crushing Ape, a Weizenbock style beer, was inspired by a conversation between Oliver and a coworker about the skull crushing apes in  Michael Crichton’s book Congo. During the discussion, Oliver realized skull crushing ape would be a great beer name so he started thinking about what type of beer it would be. “It would have to be strong, black like a gorilla, gorillas like bananas, so a weiss beer, yeah, a strong black wheat ale,” Oliver says.

At Great Lakes Brewery, beer naming is a collaborative process. “It takes a lot of time, thought and liquid to get inspired,” says Troy Burtch, Great Lakes’ marketing and communications manager. Once when the team was trying to name an IPA, Burtch was scrolling through Twitter and saw a photo of someone drinking a Great Lakes beer at a bar and behind him was an upright coat rank with lots of arms. Someone had put a sign on the coat rack that said, “drunk octopus.” Burtch immediately thought, “That’s it, Octopus Wants to Fight IPA.”

Protecting Your Name

So you’ve come up with your perfect beer name and then comes the moment most brewers dread: Discovering that someone already is using it. This problem can usually be solved with a quick phone call to the other brewery rather than getting lawyers involved or sending a cease and desist letter. But sometimes the latter does happen.

Lonerider Brewing Co., in Raleigh, North Carolina, has experienced both of these scenarios. Peacemaker Brewing Co., in Canandaigua, New York, reached out to Lonerider's founder and CEO Sumit Vohra, because Lonerider owns the trademark for a beer named Peacemaker Beer. Vohre offered to sign a co-existence letter so both breweries could use the name and Peacemaker agreed to include the following statement on it’s website, “Peacemaker Brewing Company is not the producer of Peacemaker Beer by Lone Rider and is not associated with Lone Rider Brewing Company.”

Sometimes, the negotiations aren’t as civil. Lonerider has received two cease and desist letters. When it released its 2011 holiday ale Belle Starr, a Belgian-style Dubbel named for a Wild West outlaw, it received one from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan and another from Starr Hill Brewery in Crozet, Virginia. All of Lonerider’s beers are name for outlaws—the brewery’s tagline is “Ales for Outlaws”—but Bell’s and Starr Hill cited potential consumer confusion as the reason Lonerider should stop calling its beer Belle Starr. Lonerider renamed it The Beer With No Name and has releases it under that name ever since. “I changed the name out of frustration, but it has seemed to make the beer more popular,” Vohra admits.

This is why it’s becoming more common for breweries to trademark names. Fifteen to 20 of Great Lakes’ beer names are trademarked and a more are in trademarking process, Burtch says. Against the Grain has trademarked Citra Ass Down and, according to Gnagy, “If you don’t defend your trademark, it doesn’t exist.”

Main photo by Stephanie Byce, Good Beer Hunting

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