Beer Brands and Sales: What’s In a Name, Anyway?

hello-my name is

“What’s in a name?” Juliet famously asked Romeo … “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Maybe that which we drink a beer by any other name would taste just as good? Well, let’s not get our Bud Light and Pliny crisscrossed.

But the naming of a beer did recently strike me as an odd phenomenon. In this age of tight shelf space and cunning consumers, what’s in a name? How might the name of a beer influence our interest?

What piqued my interest was a recent interview with Dave Engbers, a co-founder of Founders Brewing Company. While discussing IPAs and the evolution of American taste for that style, Engbers dropped this interesting piece of marketing history about Centennial IPA, Founders’ India pale ale that has been around since 2000 and named after the hop used in its brewing process:

“That was maybe one of our original pitfalls in our marketing. We didn’t realize how important branding was,” Engbers noted. “It’s called Centennial IPA because we use centennial hops. Not very creative, but it gets the job done.”

So I wonder: What’s in a name when it comes to beer sales?

While Centennial IPA wasn’t a hit initially – thanks to the name or not – it eventually caught on as tastes changed. But you know what? There’s a new king in town at Founders: “All Day IPA” is now their top-selling brand after being on the market for three months.

There’s certainly more interest in IPAs these days compared to2000, as it’s the fastest growing beer for on-premise sales at restaurants and bars. But I also wonder if using a catchy name like “All Day IPA” doesn’t hurt, either. After all, using the right name can be a powerful tool:

Actually, what is in a name means a lot to a product. Sometimes it is the catchy name that gets the attention of the consumer. It may be because it stimulated an impulse or simply caught their eye.

Another consideration is that the name is easy to remember and share with others, so word of mouth (still the most popular form of recommendation for products) becomes even easier or the name becomes so familiar that consumers jump on the popularity bandwagon. As in, “I’ve heard of that somewhere, so it must be good…I should buy it.”

Luckily for Founders, their new beer also coincides with the influx of “India Session Ales” that are gaining traction in the U.S.

While Founders has had success with their new beer, I wanted to look at other craft brewers to see if names mattered at all to their top-selling brands.

Here’s a chart of 20 of the best-selling craft breweries (as defined by the Brewers Association) with their top-selling beer and its style. I sourced all this information through various Google searches:

Beer Company

Beer Name

Beer Style

Abita Brewing Abita Amber Amber
Alaskan Brewing Alaskan Amber Amber
Bell’s Brewery Oberon Wheat
Boston Beer Company Boston Lager “Vienna” lager
Boulevard Brewing Unfiltered Wheat Wheat
Brooklyn Brewery Brooklyn Lager “Vienna” lager
Craft Brew Alliance/Red Hook Long Hammer IPA
Deschutes Brewery Mirror Pond/Black Butte Pale ale/Porter
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery 60 Minute IPA
Great Lakes Brewing Dortmunder Gold “Dortmunder” lager
Harpoon Brewery Harpoon IPA IPA
Lagunitas Brewing Lagunitas IPA IPA
Long Trail Brewing Long Trail Ale German altbier
Magic Hat Brewing #9 Fruit/Pale ale
Matt Brewing Company/Saranac Saranac Pale Ale Pale ale
New Belgium Brewing Fat Tire Amber
Shipyard Brewing Export Ale Golden/Blond
Sierra Nevada Brewing Pale Ale Pale ale
Spoetzl Brewery Shiner Bock Bock
Stone Brewing Company Stone IPA IPA

Not many surprises, right? It’s kind of a boring list of names, most of which are simply the beer’s style or the brewery name and style. Lame.

Here’s the obvious, underlying fact of that chart: the best-selling brands also tend to be the original, flagship beers of a brewery. Stone’s Arrogant Bastard may catch your eye, but it’s Plain Jane “Stone IPA” that rules the roost.

That which we drink a beer by any other name would taste just as good?
That which we drink a beer by any other name would taste just as good?

All this makes the case of Founders even more interesting. It’s hard for a new brand to blow people away – let alone in three months – but All Day IPA did it. Is it lightening in a bottle? Considering the chart above, an easy-to-understand name like “Centennial IPA” and it’s track record of being around for more than a decade would lead you to believe it could and should be the top seller.

Jeff Alworth offered a similar take in 2011. He examined top-selling craft beer brands to find Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo was selling really well, but it stood out because it was the newest beer among long-standing best sellers. In his observations, there was an eight-year difference between when Torpedo debuted (2009) and the next newest beer, Sam Adams Light (2001). Sierra Nevada’s “Pale Ale” was and is still on top, boring name or not.

To me, this reiterates an obvious factor that it’s difficult for new beer brands to perform exceedingly well out of the gate. Competing against staples that have been around forever – even within a brewery’s own lineup – makes it hard for new brands to not necessarily succeed, but thrive at unprecedented levels.

However, All Day IPA has three things going for it (aside from taste):

  1. It’s an IPA in a time when IPA is very popular.
  2. It bills itself as a “session beer” at a time when session beers are growing in popularity.
  3. It’s got a catchy name.

Excluding taste, is this the Holy Trinity of beer marketing? I only ask because of how quickly “All Day IPA” has shot to the top of Founders’ charts.

What do you think? What’s in a (beer) name?

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


14 thoughts on “Beer Brands and Sales: What’s In a Name, Anyway?

  1. I think the most important part of a name is a style. Sure, folks who are new to craft beer will have their eye caught by Arrogant Bastard. While those of us who have been in to craft long enough to read this blog already know Arrogant bastard well and know 60 minute and likely know what we want to buy before we go to the store. So a name like Three Floyds Rabbid Rabbit vs Three Floyds Saison may not make a huge difference on us.

    Or I’m just the wrong target

    1. I think what you point out is important, especially as “All Day” strikes a balance between simplicity and catchiness.

      In the end, it’s the average drinker that needs to be addressed more than beer lovers like us.

  2. I’m a weird beer geek. I don’t look at beer advocate or rate beer. I have no idea what are considered the top beers unless I read about it out on a blog or see someone drinking it on youtube. Because I don’t go out looking for beer xyz, the name and logo of a beer definitely works on me.It doesn’t mean Ill buy it, but I’ll probably glance at it and spin the bottle around to read what kind of beer is inside. Most of the time when I’m shopping, if it’s not the logo and name that gets me, it’s just seeing a beer from a trusted source that gets me. “Oh, Sierra Nevada. I’ve always liked them in the past. Let me try this one”.

    1. Does the style in a name, like Stone IPA vs 60 minute, have any pull on you?

      1. Let’s say I had never heard of either of the beers you listed. If I went into a store looking for an IPA the fact that Stone has IPA in the name and 60 Minute doesn’t might make Stone jump out at me first.

    2. Cool, that’s what I was thinking.

  3. Good points. I feel that names can also set up expectations – whether for good or for bad. I had a beer with ‘pine’ in the name that had absolutely no evergreen. Or, occasionally I expect a beer to be stronger than it is because of a snarky name with a word like Devil or something.

    1. With a name like Jack Pine American Pale Ale, I would definitely think the same thing!

      Great minds, and all that…

      Sometimes being clever when it comes to a product doesn’t work, especially when dealing with educated customers.

      1. …too smart for our own good, or something 🙂

  4. Sorry I didn’t chime in early – I was on location researching catchy beer names in Austin (and associating the names with the various qualities of the beers – science – you understand).

    I’ll admit to occasionally being attracted to a new name – not necessarily a catch one – but that’s almost always because I’m on the lookout for new and hopefully interesting craft beers. Marketing for marketing’s sake doesn’t work on most of us who “know better.” After all, we’re keen to the malevolent intentions and antics of Big Beer’s numerous, often sneaky attempts to trick far less educated beer consumers.

    That said, I do have a beer name to thank for helping fuel my craft beer obsession many tears ago: Arrogant Bastard. When I walked into the bar and saw that tap handle I didn’t even know who Stone Brewing was. I immediately started cross-examining the bartender (who, it turned out, knew even less). The rest is my personal craft beer history.

    In the end though, I genuinely feel that a beer’s name nay initially attract a handful of curious new brew seekers but it won’t sell the beer on it’s own – I doubt it’s really much of a factor. It’s all about the beer itself, boring, snappy, offensive, or outrageous name be damned.


    1. Perhaps it could be fair to say that initial interaction is what’s most necessary? It may not continually sell beer, but can it make that first sale that may lead to another?

      This sounds like more “research” is necessary…

  5. I’d also caution against names that seem fun at the time, but are ridiculous for the long haul. When I was in San Diego, the hotel had a beer called Belching Beaver Belching Saison. I ordered it once to try it. “I’ll have the saison.” I refused to say Belching Beaver.

    1. That’s a good point. The name may be purposefully funny (to someone) but is it worth it to create a super-odd name at the risk of seeming silly? I commend you on your restraint.

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