Better Names, Please

Last week, Ezra Johnson-Greenough wrote about Portland's newest brewery: Second Profession. I hope it will become another beloved treasure here in Beervana, but man that is a terrible name. It's forgettable. It's boring. It is in no way remotely descriptive, except to the person who chose the name. It will kindle a flicker of emotion in precisely zero people. If Second Profession does become a beloved institution, it will be in spite of the name, not because of it.

Bad names are far, far too common. Weird, off-putting, obscure, or random names seem to be the norm more than the exception. And it seems to be getting worse. I don't remember thinking this was a pervasive problem twenty years ago. A cursory look through some of my older books and ephemera (OBF programs) would seem to confirm it.

As with everything in society, there are fashions in names. In earlier ages, when literacy wasn't guaranteed, company names often referred to simple nouns that had a distinctive logo, things like Black Cat, Crown, or Red Rose. In the 19th century, founders named their brewery after themselves: Miller, Pabst, Weinhard. When new breweries started opening in the 1970s and '80s, they often suggested a place: Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, New Glarus, Brooklyn. This was useful in establishing that sense localness so central to the craft brewing ethos. It was also common to use evocative, nonspecific place names that could be traced back to a brewery, like Boulevard, Long Trail, Shipyard, and Full Sail.

Somewhere about the mid-aughts, though, names started to get abstract. I've never been able to isolate a cause, but it's far too common to be coincidence. Here in Oregon, we had the strange interest in -tion names: Coalition, Migration, Culmination. As in the case of Second Profession, one vein of bad names point back to the founder in an oblique way; consider Plan B in Ontario (amazingly not the only Canadian Plan B) or Last Name. And then there are the just obscure: Counterbalance, Upright (sorry, Alex, you know I think you have one of the best breweries in the country!), or Burial. Whereas 19th century names were concrete to the point of simplicity, many of these names are far too oblique to understand without hearing the backstory.

I get it; names are hard. There are 5,500+ breweries in the US alone. Add to that beer names and you're getting up there. A lot of the good and obvious ones have either been taken or are close enough to trademarked names to get you in trouble. I've spoken with brewers who've said the trademark search is frustrating because it seems like everything they come up with is unavailable. But come on, breweries of America--we can do better.

A brewery name guarantees neither success or failure, but can easily put a heavy thumb on the scale one way or another. And in a world with so many breweries, it becomes even more important because finding something memorable is critical to distinguishing one's brewery. A name gives you a chance to create an emotional bridge to your customers, to communicate something salient about your brewery, to guide branding and design, to stand out in a crowd. Or, if you botch it, to fade into the background and send the inadvertent message of "mediocrity." Again, good breweries can overcome bad names and overbranded breweries can collapse because they didn't care about beer, but a bad name is an unforced error.

For my money, bad brewery names come in one of three flavors:

  • They're uninspired. Far too many brewery names are just meh. When Ten Barrel launched, I remember thinking it must have come from a three-second conversation. "What should we call it?" "Umm, we have a ten-barrel brewery." "Perfect!" Lots of breweries are named after dogs, beavers (weirdly), and creeks. Lots are named after random objects or concepts. They're generic.
  • They're off-putting. This is an intentional decision, and breweries think it communicates roguish insouciance. That's almost always wrong: they communicate a lot, just not what you hoped for. When I asked the Facebook group to offer their suggestions, a bunch fell into this category. Dirty Bucket and Dirty Couch are two that stood out. Rat Hole was a Bend brewery that learned the hard way that wasn't a great name. (More than a few breweries with off-putting names eventually change them.) Believe it or not, there's an Ass Clown Brewing. These are terrible. Just don't.
  • They're vague. The aforementioned "-tion" breweries are a great example. They are abstract nouns that call nothing to mind; they resist memory. They get confused for other vaguely-named breweries. Uninspired names suggest a brewery hasn't thought enough about a name; vague ones are often the product of overthinking.
 Dirty Couch Brewing's slogan could use a rework, too.

Dirty Couch Brewing's slogan could use a rework, too.

So. How do you go about naming a brewery given that names are hard and trademarks diminish choice? 1) Consider surnames. The old ways had some virtue, and naming the brewery after yourself is a time-honored tradition. If your last name is "Miller," find a family name that's less common or modify it in such a way that you have a better claim to the mark--Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, pFriem Family Brewers, or Lawson's Finest Liquids spring to mind. 2) Make up your own word. Here in Oregon, Willamette Brewery got sued by a local winery also called Willamette and invented the name "Oakshire" to take its place. It's a great name because, despite being invented, it's familiar, evocative, and memorable. Hopworks and AleSmith are other examples.  Or dig a little deeper. 3) Local history and place names may be an option. Literary sources are there for the mining. 4) Your mileage may vary, but fanciful names--Pretty Things, Captured By Porches, Crooked Stave--are memorable and easy on the trademark front. And even if you're not the fanciful sort, you have to admit that Captured By Porches, bizarre as it is, beats the hell out of Last Name or Dirty Couch. Now, please go forth and find good names.

The preceding eleven paragraphs were brought to you by the beer drinkers of America.