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What’s in a name?

Just a day after I discussed a bottle of Cascazilla giving me the closest thing to a religious experience I can have, I see an article from Alan pop up in my reader: New Orleans Lager & Ale Brewing Company is being sued by the creators of Godzilla over their “Mechahopzilla” beer.

My opinions on copyright, pop culture references and creativity are multifaceted, probably contradictory and entirely irrelevant to beer. Alan ends his post by saying that he doesn’t think it matters all that much:

Beer words are wonderful. They are ancient and monosyllabic. Guttural and descriptive. But for the most part they are irrelevant, aren’t they. A beer by any other name is just as sweet. No?

I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. Of course, I don’t think a beer’s name should matter: it’s all about what’s inside the glass and I am, after all, far too smart to have advertising work on me.

Which is, of course, how you know they’ve got me.

I’ve been thinking more and more about how the non-beer aspects of a beer determine my perceptions of it. It’s why I enjoyed the blind tasting at Risk night so much: it was all about the beer and not styles or breweries or preconceptions. It boiled the experience down to a note passed in middle school: Do you like me circle one Y/N.

That’s hardly ever how you experience a beer, though. It’s not consumed in a vacuum. As an example, let’s talk about The IPA.

“The IPA.” Simple. Declarative. You know what this beer is from its name. That will give you a different first impression than if we had named it, for instance, The gentle touch of a summer breeze wafting through the lilies. That was never in contention, and if you want a good beer name maybe don’t ask me at 5:25 am (which is my dark secret: I’m drinking espresso right now and not beer), but hopefully you get the idea.

Here’s the story of The IPA’s naming, by the way: it’s the only beer of ours I’ve named. Frank and Rutherford B. Haze came out of a shared discussion and the rest were someone, usually Rudy, saying “How about ___ for the name?” The IPA was the product of the early Jam series, where Rudy would try a few things in each iteration until Jam #3, after which he more or less knew what he wanted.

So we had an IPA, and it needed a name. We tossed out a few ideas, but none really seemed to take hold. Our email conversations ebbed and flowed. It very nearly was named Emanon (reverse the letters), until enthusiasm for that name petered out.

Here’s the thing: we sold our IPA for a week without a name. I would list our beers at Bidwell like this: “We have Frank, our pale ale; The Whale, our brown ale; De Maas, a Belgian amber; and the IPA,” and hope nobody noticed the conspicuous lack of a name. After a week I said “Why don’t we just call it The IPA?” and the IPA became The IPA.

How does that story make you feel about the beer? About us? Because your opinion of both just changed. For most or all of you there’s probably been enough input for both where it didn’t have much of an effect, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Everything from the time and place you first hear about a beer, never mind taste it, and who you’re with and whether or not you like them and what your mood is and what song is playing in the background goes in the Permanent Record of your mind (although the impermanence of memory is very interesting but also above my pay grade), where every tiny little detail is aggregated and sorted and bumps your perception of the beer up or down slightly whether or not you want it to or not.

We are all slaves to our brains.

The name of a beer absolutely influences your decision of whether or not to buy it. I first had Raison D’Etre because it was a pun. People tried The Soft Bulletin because it was a Flaming Lips reference. We weren’t going after that lucrative “Flaming Lips fan” market, but it still happened. It would not have sold drastically differently with another name, but it would have been different. (Or maybe it would be drastic; I try not to think too deeply about this sort of thing or else Bill Hicks will tell me to kill myself)

Mechahopzilla’s probable name change will have more of an effect on the success of the beer than we as beer lovers would like. We’re purists, after all, in it solely for the love of the beer and either willfully ignoring or disingenuously exploiting the fact that that’s every bit as much a marketing line as being triple hopped and cold filtered.

Alan (with whom I feel I’m arguing when I didn’t set out to) also says this about names: “…is there anything intrinsically related between any particular beer and any particular word? I think not.” I agree with that: Mechahopzilla or The IPA or any other beer name is not linked to the beer itself at a deep platonic level, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. If names were meaningless we’d all be ordering a filet of Patagonian toothfish instead of Chilean sea bass.

As consumers we are constantly being marketed to, and as businesses we are constantly marketing. Just because we don’t realize it doesn’t make it not so. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a beer to suggest names for so it doesn’t get sold as Community Beer Works New Beer A.

One comment on “What’s in a name?

  1. Nitch on

    Here in France beer goes like this: NAME OF BREWERY
    Followed by: COLOR OF BEER
    Beer styles have yet to catch on even. But it would be equally depressing if all beers were “brewery name” and “what is it”. No class.

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