Information Overload

Unfiltered by | Dec 2013 | Issue #83

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

It’s all a ridiculous act of futility, it really is. In a sea of bright packaging colors and an onslaught of beer-pun names, information overload is upon consumers. We’ve hit a point of critical mass in terms of our ability to recall beer names. I’ve covered craft beer for nearly 15 years, and once was familiar with the vast majority of brewery names and even individual beer brands that I found in bars and stores.

About five years ago, this stopped being the case, when the number of beers started to increase. Since then, the number of breweries operating in this country has nearly doubled, making any attempt to keep up a hopeless endeavor.

This is the final installment in an unplanned three-part series on the utility and future of beer styles. In the first column, I wrote that beer styles appear unlikely to survive an age with tens of thousands of brewers playing with the widest possible palette of ingredients. In last month’s article, I made the case for simplifying beer names—a reversion to basic styles such as Amber and Pale Ale—as a means for avoiding trademark disputes and for increasing consumer understanding of the beers they’re ordering. In this issue, I lament the growing ridiculousness of many beer names.

Try this test: Go to your local liquor store and peer into the cold box, or go to a multi-tap bar and look at the list of 60 or 100 beers. After spending a half-hour staring at six-packs or reading the menu, go home. In a couple of days, I’d be surprised if the experience was anything but a blur. As a consumer, I’m more likely to remember your brewery name than the wacky beer name that you spent weeks brainstorming.

Scouring local and foreign bottle selections in a famed Paris beer shop, the starkness of differences between how Americans and non-Americans name beers could not be clearer. With classic British, Belgian and German brands employing only a simple style name, and French brewers often using only the brewer name and a brief description of the beer, American brewers live up to their home country’s reputation for gluttony and self-indulgence. Calling beers simply by individual names, such as Apollo or Lil’ B, provides consumers with absolutely no idea of what they are getting. For breweries that eschew brewing beer to style or beer-style categories altogether, great uncertainty lurks in the purchase of a draft or bottle. With some pints costing near 10 bucks in many markets, this incertitude leads to consumers getting easily burned. This situation will only get worse as the number of individual brand SKUs increases for each brewery. It was one thing to remember a brewery’s individual products back when there were only 500 crafts in the country, many of which produced only a small number of brands. In today’s beer world, it’s next to impossible.

Breweries have an incentive to provide context and clarity to consumers, even if their beers stretch traditional style categories. I am more comfortable with a beer labeled as a “sort of Pale Ale” than I am with a beer simply labeled with an obscure name that gives no clues as to its flavor or character. The Arrogant Bastard Ale era is over. It’s time for craft brewers to think long term and adopt a more serious approach to naming their beers before we spiral down the same hole as the music industry, which requires aspiring musicians to create some spectacularly ridiculous names to avoid trademark problems. Here’s to hoping that we can avoid becoming a clownish caricature of an industry, and help consumers in the process.