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Your Beermonger: Phrasing!

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Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).

One of my favorite aspects of the “craft beer movement” has always been the “anything goes” attitude that permeates through so much of it. For all of the recipes that hew close to tradition, at the end of the day the cardinal rule of beer amounts to “Is it good? Then shut up and drink it.”

I say that so that you know for certain that I am not coming from the perspective of a purist over the new couple of paragraphs as I explain why breweries should use or not use certain words on their labels, or at least take those words into greater consideration.

While I’m not a purist when it comes to beer, I am a bit of a zealot when it comes to words. Words mean things; they have power, and more than a couple of times this year I’ve seen words alter the expectations and experiences people have had with beers.

The most prominent example of this is likely the “Session IPA” phenomenon. Using those words in tandem raises expectations of IPA drinkers, giving them an excuse not to enjoy them (“It’s not an IPA, it’s only ___ percent ABV, and it’s not that hoppy…”) while also implying somehow that Session Ale is somehow “lesser;” not worthwhile. “Session Pale Ales” or “Hoppy Session Ales” would be more accurate, but slapping “IPA” on a label makes a beer easier to sell — or so they say. Marketing wins again, I guess.

Other times, a beer can completely miss its potential audience because of how it’s presented. Twice this year alone, I’ve tried beers labeled as “Sour” (one with the word in its name) that seemed to “miss” with beer fans for different reasons. In one case, the beer was much more a Wild Ale, with a heavy focus on the funky, fruity Brettanomyces wild yeast characteristics. Labeled a “Wild Ale”, that beer would have not only been sought out by fans of Brett beers, but not made promises to Sour fans that it couldn’t keep.

In the case of the second beer, while it was indeed a Sour Ale, it was one where the acidity was muted for the sake of harmony with other elements of the beer (barrel-aging, specifically). Like it or not, in today’s beer environment the word “Sour” carries expectations of highly tart, acidic beers — and with the word “Sour” in its name, some letdown was inevitable.

Combine a slightly different name with a bit of explanation on the label and in your press materials, and suddenly you have a beer that is interesting not only to Sour Ale fans (who now can be pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed something so subtly sour) but fans of barrel-aged beers in general, who might have found a new interest thanks to the intriguing bit of acidity racing through the beer.

As annoying as it can be to think about, when you name a beer or put a descriptor on its label, you are quite literally “branding” it. It’s one thing to have aspirations of filling a market niche — or, in the most rare cases, creating one — but you cannot turn a beer into something it’s not through mere insistence. Care must be taken to avoid watchwords that create expectations; there are so many beers out there now — there’s no excuse for shooting yourself in the foot by creating opportunities for people to dismiss your product.

If you’re embracing those watchwords? Well, the beer better damn well live up to the expectations of the devotees of that specific style. Remember, words mean things; don’t just throw them out there.

Enough about that, let’s get to the fun stuff:

What I’ve Been Drinking This Week

It’s been a while, but I haven’t been taking time away from trying new things — I’ve just been pressed for time to take notes on them. Here are the impressions I’ve gotten from a couple of recent releases: 

Stone/Beechwood/Heretic Unapologetic IPA: If you’re reading this and you’ve rolled your eyes at the mention of Stone, “collaboration” beers, or IPA, just move along. Still here? Good, because thanks to the use of some relatively unknown hop varieties from the Pacific Northwest, Unapologetic IPA is more than just another 8.8 percent hop bomb; it’s approachable (more than a beer of its strength should be), with an emphasis less on high acids and grapefruit than on fresh floral notes, and an earthy character that thankfully stops short of the suddenly almost-gauche “dank” descriptor. This won’t be around long, so if you find it, try it. You’ll be glad you did.

Three Brothers Pilsnerd: Not only does Pilsnerd have perhaps the coolest label so far in 2014, but it’s also an impressive beer for being the first Lager we’ve seen from the Harrisonburg brewery. Pilsnerd is easy-going (at 4.6 percent) and embraces a more buttery take on Lager that most American craft breweries tend to shy away from. That rich note is balanced by a pleasant but appropriate hop bitterness on the finish. In just about every way, Pilsnerd is unexpected but delightful; a first run of the beer has already sold out with their NoVA distributor, but more should be arriving over the next few weeks, so keep an eye out.

Until next time, everyone!

Nick Anderson maintains a blog at www.beermonger.net, and can be found on Twitter at @The_Beermonger. Sign up for Arrowine’s money saving email offers and free wine and beer tastings at www.arrowine.com/mailing-list-signup.aspx. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Community discussion guidelines: Our sponsored columns are written by members of the local business community. While we encourage a robust and open discussion, we ask that all reviews of the businesses — good or bad — be directed to another venue, like Yelp. The comments section is intended for a conversation about the topic of the article.

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