Lost in translation

Paul Crowther asks why craft breweries and drinkers are speaking different languages


When you get right down to it, all beer styles are essentially shorthand. In terms of knowing exactly what’s in your glass, it would be much more informative for me to say “I’m serving you a medium strength beer made with mostly pale and a small bit of crystal malt, moderately hopped and light bodied”. That’s a bit of a mouthful though, so it’s much easier just to call your beer a pale ale. In theory, brewers and customers are speaking the same language, so that shared understanding of style should be enough to keep everyone on the same page.

It’s also no accident that older beer styles are usually just adjectives. Beer styles can describe bitterness levels such as bitter and mild; they could be colours like brown, pale or amber; or they might indicate strength like wee heavy, stout and dubbel (double). These adjective-based styles communicate the defining characteristic without the customer even having any prior beer knowledge. Customers could just go into a bar and ask for a ‘bitter’ beer, or a ‘mild’ beer and know what they were getting. And so brewers and drinkers lived happily ever after.

Except they didn’t.  

Especially within the craft beer world today, there is a special language that we use amongst ourselves that a lot of customers just don’t speak; the intuitive relationship between style and drinker has been eroded. So what happened? Modern styles don’t seek to communicate a flavour, colour or strength in simple language to customers, or have at least become so abstracted from their original meaning that they are no longer useful descriptors.

For example, India Pale Ale is an inherently confusing name. You know it’s a pale ale, but the average person, coming to it cold, would assume it’s a style that originates from India, rather than a hop-forward evolution of the British pale ale. The confusion spreads as styles evolve: with India pale lagers and India export stouts, ‘India’ has simply become shorthand for assertive hop character. Imperial stout is similarly unintuitive: Is it obvious to someone new to craft beer that imperial stout means a strong stout? Absolutely not. Rather than these styles allowing us to avoid having to give a long explanation of the beer’s profile, they now require one.

Another issue is that, in an effort to stand out from the crowd, breweries have invented new sub-styles. At best, a lot of these new styles are poorly defined – at worst, they’re just marketing-led terms for styles that already exist. Russian Stout, Imperial Stout, Export Stout, Russian Imperial Stout, Imperial Porter: They’re all the same thing. The IPA camp is even more cluttered, leaving even relatively seasoned drinkers unsure whether there’s some unique element to each pseudo style. 

The converse is true of some sub-styles where it becomes appropriate to delineate, but where breweries don’t do so consistently. West coast and New England IPAs (NEIPAs) for example have actual substantive differences: west coast being a light bodied, high bitterness pale traditionally with pine and floral flavours, while NEIPAs are a hazy, full bodied, low bitterness pale with citrus fruit flavours. However, many breweries just call their IPAs an ‘IPA’; indeed, such is the dominance of the east coast style that many consumers – particularly those relatively new to craft – are horrified when their ‘IPA’ has any substantial bitterness.

The fact that consumers are coming up with their own simple descriptors suggests we've failed somewhere

This, I’ve observed, has led to a situation where customers often speak a different language to the brewers. Sure, some customers will come into my shop and ask for a NEIPA, but far more now ask for a ‘fruity IPA’. In this sense, we have gone full circle, back to the traditional descriptive names invented by customers, entirely separate from the language and style definitions of brewers.

You may say at this point that more complex naming conventions are required now because of how complex and diverse styles have become. We need to communicate more than whether a beer is a certain colour, or bitterness, because drinkers are interested in other characteristics such as clarity, acidity and mouthfeel. New brewing techniques, new hop and malt varieties and yeast strains mean we need styles that encompass more than one key fact.

There is some merit to this argument. However, if these new style names have been invented and popularised as a way of delivering more information to drinkers, the very fact that consumers are coming up with their own simple descriptors at the bar or bottleshop suggests we’ve failed somewhere.

Progress is being made on some fronts though. Alcoholic strength is featured prominently on some designs, often alongside the more cryptic descriptors such as ‘imperial’, ‘import’, ‘session’ and ‘table’. Properly descriptive tasting notes are becoming more common for those prepared to pick up and a read a bottle or can. Even vegan-friendly and gluten-free beers are becoming more willing to shout their credentials. Then there are nascent efforts to standardise important descriptors, such as the Beer Care Instructions, a design-led project by Drygate creative director and Master Cicerone Rob MacKay.

Marketing is clearly of paramount importance in the brand-saturated world of craft beer, and anything that can help a beer stand out on the shelf, or clinch that often intuitive decision to buy one brew over another, is vital to a brewery’s success. Not even the traditional brands are immune to this pressure, as we saw with Fullers’ recent rebrand of its iconic London Pride, which saw it relabelled from a best bitter to an amber ale. But as an industry, we need to reconcile the desire to tantalise established buyers with the need to attract new ones; given that craft beer represents less than 5% of beer sold in the UK, this latter group represents our best bet for growth, and we need to start speaking their language.

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