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A Beer Language Problem…

We have a language problem in the world of beer. I’m not talking about our over-use of four-letter words or an inability to speak after too many pints. Instead, we lack a cohesive and agreed upon central terms for discussing our shared are of passion.

Let’s start with the term whose popularity continues to grow every day, namely craft beer. Brewers, distributors, writers, and industry insiders have been engaged in a long-standing battle over what to call the flavorful, colorful, characterful beers we all enjoy. As with defining pornography, we know it when we see it, or in the case of beer, also taste it. But we still don’t quite know what to call it. Do we define what constitutes a craft beer or just a craft brewer? Can a big brewer (macro? Behemoth? International conglomerate?) make a craft beer? In terms of flavor, is Blue Moon by Coors so different from dozens of other average witbiers made by smaller brewers? Should we instead use the term better beer, and if so, better than what? Anything brewed by the big brewers? Nowadays, even the Boston Beer Company is derided by many beer geeks as being too big, so that hardly seems appropriate.

Having grown up with the term microbrew, many seem loathe to let go of this iconic word and the related imagery of beer made in tiny, handcrafted batches. While many small breweries still operate at least in part by hand, the days of handcrafted beer belong to a different, quickly disappearing era, having been supplanted by much welcomed automation and greater control. And with many once small breweries now producing tens or hundreds of thousands of barrels per year and distributing beer from Denmark to Japan, the micro designation is an anachronism if not a myth.

Beyond these big picture terms, the creativity of brewers also continues to create new issues and areas of confusion. In the last two years, beer geeks and brewers from coast to coast have waged a nerdy battle over what to call dark beers that display strong hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Depending upon which viewpoint you subscribe to, you might tend to call such beers Black IPA, India Black Ale, or Cascadian Dark Ale. With a somewhat murky history, either having first been made by the late Greg Noonan at the Vermont Pub & Brewery or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Britain, there is no agreement over what such beers should be called. It does, however, seem a bit ridiculous to call a dark beer with no connection to the sub-continent an India or pale ale.

Perhaps the most troubling and recent example of our parlance problems comes with the American use of the British-based session beer moniker. As discussed in a recent issue, beer cultures are largely not transferable between countries and that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t expect to find a vibrant Belgian beer culture in Cleveland just as San Diego’s thriving beer scene can’t be recreated in Tokyo. While pursuing the goal of lower alcohol yet flavorful beers is a very worthy goal, trying to cross-apply the session label just doesn’t work in the states.

Even the otherwise appropriately named nano-breweries have come under some scrutiny. Just how small does a brewery have to be to qualify as a nano? I’ve recently started seeing the term pico-brewery pop up, denoting something even smaller than a nano, if that was possible. I’m not sure if this involves beer made by boiling the mash in a microwave but it boggles the mind.

As a beer writer, I’ve been struggling with these language issues for a long time, usually with little to no results to show for it. While we generally agree on what we’re discussing, defining these beer-related concepts remains a difficult task. Maybe you’ll figure out the whole craft beer language debate over your next pint.

Then we can get started on gastropubs.

-Article appeared in Issue 55 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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5 thoughts on “A Beer Language Problem…

  1. Can you elaborate more on the ‘Session’ beer topic? Are you saying a brewery such as Notch should not use the term in their beers? I may be misunderstanding your stance on the language usage.


  2. Perhaps I am taking the easy way out, but I starting to define beers as follows:

    Beers I do drink.
    Beers I don’t drink.

    In the former category are brews by the likes of Wells & Youngs, BrewDog, Anheuser Busch and SABMiller.

    In the latter category are brews by the likes of BrewDog, SABMiller, Anheuser Busch and Wells & Youngs.

  3. I like this topic. However, this is how I read your article (respectfully):

    Goal 1: have a common terminology across different beer cultures (instead of Black IPA, India Black Ale, etc).
    Goal 2: create your own terminology and stop stealing from other beer cultures (“session” belongs to the Brits).

    These seem to conflict, though I may have simply misunderstood you. If I had to pick sides, I would go with the first goal. I can see how that would be useful. If a guy in Denver posts about his plans to open a nano-brewery, a writer in Boston knows the brewer will be using, say, a one barrel system with a specific annual output range. Good communication, good economy of language. Same with your beer example: before reading your article, I didn’t know those three terms referred to the same style. Standardization of terms would allow regular folks to have a better understanding of what they’re drinking.

    On the other hand, if I find out that the “nano-brew” I’m drinking was made by a guy who uses a three barrel system and had a slightly different understanding of that term, am I going to care? And who gets to come up with the terms everyone else has to use? Wouldn’t that tend to inhibit the innovation creativity that, to me, is the soul of the brewing world? One of the best (and, at times, most problematic) things about the English language is the ability to create new words or hijack old ones for new purposes. The brewing world is humming along at a good clip right now. Lots of new things are being created, and so lots of new terms are being created. Some are great fits and they stick. Others get pulled this way or that until they either find a home or get dropped. I’m like that system even if I find the imprecision a little frustrating at times.

    As far as whether MillerCoors, et al., can produce a craft beer: sure, why not? I’m not willing to kick anyone out of the Craft Beer Club because they also mass-produce awful beer. I have never cared for Sam Adams Boston Lager, but I would still consider it “craft beer,” no matter how much of it they sell every year. Maybe, in this case, it comes down to roots: when Boston Beer Co. invented the Boston Lager, they were certainly a craft brewery (or microbrewery, whatever). If it’s the same recipe as it was 20 years ago, shouldn’t it still be craft beer? Or has the definition of craft beer evolved to exclude them? That might be a good discussion for your next session.

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