Monday, 12 October 2009

Undescriptive beer names

Once upon a time (so I am told), beer names were simple. You had a local brewery which made two or three kinds of beer. They would have dull, descriptive names like Bloggs' XX and Bloggs' Bitter. You might also have another local brewery which made the same beers, Ocklethorpe's Mild and Ocklethorpe's Bitter. You might have occasion to go to another town and drink Foxton's Mild or Foxton's Bitter there.

As you had so little choice, you drank them all and learned that XX meant the same as Mild and that Bloggs' Bitter was better than Ocklethorpe's Bitter, but Ocklethorpe's Mild was nicer than Blogg's XX. You had to learn a few basic terms like Mild, Bitter and Stout, but after that it was easy to know what you were looking at.

How different things are today. Plenty of people have complained about the predeliction of small breweries to give their beers lewd seaside-postcard type names, often with an embarrassingly vulgar pump clip. But that's not what I'm complaining about here.

One of the things that annoy me is that so many small breweries insist on giving their beers undescriptive names. When I say undescriptive names, I don't mean to insist that every brewery should have a line up of Brewery X's Mild, Bitter, Porter and Stout. I mean they shouldn't choose names that have no relevance to the beer whatsoever.

It doesn't have to be called Dark Mild or Best Bitter. Some sort of bloody clue is all I ask for. If I go to a pub or a festival, and I see a beer called Beyond the Pale or Golden Sunrise, I can assume it's going to be pale. If it's called Station Porter, Gail Porter or The Water In Majorca Don't Taste Like Porter Orter, I know, once I've finished cringing, that it's porter. Beers called Black Cat, Dark Side, Dark Island and Dark Matter are also fairly unambiguous.

But what am I to make when I approach the bar and I see beers named:

Little Weed
Wayland Smithy

... to name just a few out of hundreds or thousands?

This is not so much of a problem at beer festivals, because there is always a programme with further information on the beer, which is just as well, because all you get on the cask is a piece of paper baldly stating the brewery, the name of the beer and its alcohol content.

It's also fine if the pump clip elaborates on what the beer actually is (although you have to get atypically slow service to actually have a chance to read them all).

But some don't even do that!


  1. I agree. I own The Brew Company in Sheffield. All my pump clips have 3 descriptive words for appearance, flavour and aroma. So Abyss Best Bitter which is 4.2% & drark brown red says 'Dark, Malty, Spicy. Slaker Pale Ale says 'Pale, Crisp, Fruity. St Petrus Stout says 'Black, Roasted, Smooth. etc.etc. Names to reflect the beer are difficult to think up as most have been done already. But if you have what style of beer it is on the pump clip, i.e. IPA, Pale Ale, Stout, Porter etc, and a small three word description, the drinker can choose with confidence.

  2. Well, if they actually bothered with telling you a bit more about the beer on the labels, like ingredients, etc, then I could make a compromise with the fancy names. But sometimes you've have to do with "Ingredients: Water, malt, hops".

    Oh! And I think you will love the names of these three Spanish beers I've just reviewed.

  3. Longshot, Barm, but have you considered asking the barperson?

    I quite like being surprised by the style -- making an assumption about what a beer will be and then finding I'm way off the mark. But then I'm an obsessive ticker who'll rarely drink the same beer twice when in the UK.

    On occasions when I do care what the style is, when I'm after something in particular, I ask.

  4. A lot of multi-beer pubs now assign a number to each beer on their blackboards, ranging, for example, from 1 for the palest to 5 for the darkest. Simplistic, maybe, but at least you're not taken completely by surprise when ordering a beer whose name gives no indication of the style.

  5. I actually had to ask the barperson tonight. Oakham Inferno was on, which has no information whatsoever on the pump clip, and if I had to guess from the name, I'd think it was a chilli beer.

    As it happens, it was a very nice pint if you like those very citrussy, occasionally reminiscent of washing-up liquid, beers that Oakham make.

    I would have passed it by entirely if it had been up against stiffer competition.

    I think bar staff's time could be better spent pulling pints or engaging in actual banter with customers, rather than repeatedly describing the tastes of different beers, information which could be much more efficiently disseminated by putting it on the bloody pump clip in the first place.

  6. Curiously, the Blogg family were brewers in North London in the 19th century - no ideas what their beers were called, though ...