A Beer by Any Other Name
Just Wouldn’t Be as Cool
By Clark Miller | June 23, 2018
At least half the fun of making craft beers must be in dreaming up quirky names for the finished product. (And maybe, half the necessity, too; as more and more craft beers come on the market each year, finding a moniker that isn’t already taken is getting increasingly impossible. Likewise, lawsuits about naming rights abound.) Fact is, craft beers with cool names are in. There’s Polygamy Porter in (where else?) Salt Lake City; Citra Ass Down in Lexington, Kentucky; and Naked Pig, which helps hard-eating Alabamians flush down their pork dinners.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, northern Michigan brewmasters work hard to develop eye-catching names and labels — unique enough to befit their ever-growing lists of one-of-a-kind beers, attract new drinkers, and avoid lawsuits with other brewers around the nation. It’s a task easier said than done. By his own count, John Niedermaier of Brewery Terra Firm, located just south of Traverse City, has created some 1,000 different beers over his 22-year career. On its website, Bellaire-based Short’s Brewing Company lists 393 creations past and present — everything from the contradictorily-named Imperial Abnormal Genius to a dark American sour ale with the (somehow menacing) name of Fload.
Some names, it seems, are a direct descent of its style or flavor — Niedermaier’s Ancho Chili Dutch Double Chocolate Porter is a case in point. But others, like his Sun Cup Lemon Wheat, say, suggest a little something more: maybe a moment in the time of its making, a brew crew’s inside joke, or simply an inside track to a brewer’s mind. In the case of the Sun Cup, Niedermaier’s inspiration is a novelty any winter-bound northerner would embrace: “[It] refers to an anomaly in snow, especially in polar regions — a sun cup in snow eventually turns into an underground river.” Here, Northern Express reveals the stories and thinking behind the names of some local beers we love.
Beer names can tell you something about the brewery.
For example, Petoskey Brewing shows its attitude with Horny Monk and Smokin' Betty Stout.
Sticking with its proletarian vibe and party line, “Pour to the People,” the comrades at Workshop Brewing in Traverse City offer Cold Chisel, Ten-Pound Sledge, Monkey Wrench, and Pry Bar.
Just down the street from Workshop, North Peak Brewing boasts Less Than Supper Stout (“brewed with a buffet of malts”) and their Shirley’s Irish Stout, a St. Patrick’s Day favorite, is named after Mike Shirley, a much-beloved member of the local chapter of an Irish(ish) charity, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Stormcloud Brewing head brewer and co-owner Brian Confer, says his creation, Rainmaker, is the only beer he’s named after weather. Simple enough.
Whiled Away IPA, he says, goes back to his first days of home brewing. “There was a recipe called Wild One.’ It’s an homage to those early efforts. Another of his brews — Another Day, Another Apocalypse — he says is “kind of fitting for the times.”
The name ICStr8ThruU IPA (sound it out!), gently pokes fun at the latest trend of making IPAs murky. “We make it crystal clear,” Confer says.
If the name and label are true to their word, Weizen Shine, a German-style hefeweizen beer created by Deven Larrance at Monkey Fist Brewing, is good enough to get drinkers out of bed in the morning.
Then there’s GW’s Little White Lie, which connects (maybe a little obliquely) to our cherry orchards. The title refers to the apocryphal tale that as a boy, George Washington received a hatchet for his birthday, then proceeded to scar (or in some versions, even chop down) one of his father’s cherry trees. Admitting to his crime, young and painfully earnest George allegedly said, “I cannot tell a lie … I cut it with my hatchet.” True or not, the label shows the grown George, hatchet in hand, honest as the day is long — and with a cherry next to him that’s as big as a cantaloupe.
By his own admission, Lake Ann Brewing owner and brewmaster Matt Therrien is quite the storyteller. He told us that his Jungle Fungus Session IPA grew out of a childhood experience.” A neighbor used to push-mow his lawn with bare feet. He paid me a quarter for every pint of acorns I picked up underneath his oak tree because the acorns hurt his feet. My mom told me he didn't like wearing shoes because he had jungle fungus.”
Auggie's Garden Glo, meanwhile, refers to Matt’s dad’s favorite dive bar on the east side of Flint.
“Whether it was stopping to meet Uncle Dave for a cold PBR, dropping off John Drinkwine on a rainy day, or just stopping in to see if Gypsy Jack was sitting naked at a barstool,” Therrien said, “there was always time for a cold one at Auggie’s.”
At Short’s Brewing, Space Rock, a name out of nowhere, is described mysteriously as an “American pale ale hopped with some tasty little nuggets of alien technology.” The label created by artist Tanya Whitley, brings us back home with some self-deprecatory humor. A shoeless North woodsman — complete with plaid shirt and stocking hat — sits astride a snowmobile as it hurtles through the galaxy.
Another of Whitley’s designs, this one for Cat’s Pajamas, shows a pajama-wearing, entirely self-satisfied, potbelly cat slouching in an overstuffed chair. The name alone tells you nothing. In this case, it’s the artwork that tells the backstory. Because the beer’s flavor comes from blood orange and guava, the cat’s easy chair is covered with a guava print material, and the wallpaper in the background sports a pattern of hops and blood oranges. Makes sense, right?
No matter. There’s a mission to the madness, said Short’s Marketing and Branding Manager Adam Foster: "Unique names tend to stick right at the front of your memory and have remarkable staying power,” he says. “[They] help people recall the memorable experiences that happen around the periphery of the actual beer consumption. But mostly, it’s just for fun!"
Some titles go way back. At Hop Lot Brewing Company in Suttons Bay, the beer name I Hate White Rabbits comes from English folklore. Saying it three times is supposed to bring you luck, says Hop Lot owner and brewer Steve Lutke. Somehow the meaning changed a bit over the years. “Here in the North, say it, and it’s supposed to help get the smoke to go away from your eyes,” he says, “and we have a lot of campfires at Hop Lot.”
Born Secret, which is described as a Hop Bomb on the company website, got its name from two sources: “I made it, then left for Hawaii. No one knew I made it. So I say it was born in absolute secrecy,” Lutke says. “Also at the time, North Korea was testing a bomb, and it had the highest level of secrecy.”
He says Uncle Green Guy comes from an entirely new source: his nephews and nieces. “They’d started discovering the Incredible Hulk while I was visiting them. So we were playing, and I was scaring them. So they started calling me Uncle Green Guy.”
In terms of imaginative names (all with good backstories and memorable artwork), Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City ranks high. The employees, who do most of the naming, seem especially fond of themes related to movies, economic downturns, aliens, and the difficulties of starting a brewery. In other words, they have fun with this.
Spinal Tapper, a double India pale ale, alludes to a hip 1984 mockumentary that follows a fictional British heavy metal band on tour in the U.S. The label is edgy, macabre even (and hard to forget). It shows two pileated woodpeckers tapping on a spine.
The artwork for CEO Stout, on the other hand, takes a non-too-subtle political stand. It features a shady-looking boss with a toxic brew in his hand. There’s a backstory here.
“Back when we opened, the economy was tanking,” said Right Brain owner Russell Springsteen. “It’s a jab at CEOs who were taking their golden parachutes and taking our money with them.”
Dead Kettle, an India pale ale, also comes from the early days of Right Brain, but it alludes to equipment failures that were common then. The label, designed by local artist Andy Tyra, merges a skeletal head with a copper kettle. It seems a way for Springsteen and his crew to poke fun at themselves.
“It was one of our first beers,” he says. “We’d installed a kettle, and the big burner just went out. We kept trying to relight it. Somehow it kind of worked out.”
Luminous Lemon Ale got its name, Springsteen explains, “Because it’s so light, it’s luminous.” From that nearly weightless description, Tyra created a lemon-shaped space ship hovering over clueless campers and other-worldly creatures, one of whom is taking a refreshing dip in a northern Michigan lake. (The original name was going to be Lemon Ale Stand, but that was already trademarked. It’s interesting to speculate how that name would have turned out in Tyra’s creative hands.)
Like many smaller Up North breweries, Tunnel Vision, located at Pond Hill Farm, doesn’t create lots of labels. Tunnel Vision sells only at Pond Hill Farm, the site of the brewery. That’s a shame, because it comes up with good names —ones that might compete well in distribution.
Consider Sid Vicious, Beerbahganoush and the imposing Beer Laimbeer, a “big and hoppy” pale ale that honors one of brewmaster Jon Gaudreau’s early sports heroes, former Detroit Pistons bad-boy center Bill Laimbeer. (From time to time, Laimbeer’s parents, who live nearby, visit the brewery.)
The label for Master Beet Pale Ale — named after the handwork of harvesting beets — might be shy on artistic sophistication, but how often do you see a guy in a saddle, flying through the sky with a clump of beet greens forming a contrail behind?
Artwork for Wee Heavy Sweater Puppies, on the other hand, looks like the upbeat and mildly flirtatious cover for a 1960s ski magazine. Although an edgy double-entendre seems to be lurking there somewhere, the Urban Dictionary swears the slang meaning of “puppy” is “A very attractive girl who attracts guys by whining.” (We have to wonder how that works.)
It all seems well within established limits, though. Gaudreau knows approval by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission isn’t a sure thing.
“That’s especially true if it has anything to do with children, flags, guns or the military,” he says.