Beer professionals spend a lot of time describing beer to customers. It’s not always easy. Employing a diverse beer vocabulary, without resorting to descriptors that have become tired or meaningless through overuse, can make or break a sale.
SevenFifty Daily asked six beer professionals to tell us about the descriptors they avoid and suggest words that better facilitate customer conversations. Each of them emphasizes that the most important way to minimize misunderstandings is to be as specific as possible with beer language.
Whether you’re a bartender, bottle shop retailer, bar manager, beer educator, or brewery sales rep, finding specific words to communicate each beer’s traits is paramount to growing sales and improving your guests’ experiences. When clear language wins out, both seller and the guest are more likely to walk away happy.
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Jo Doyle, Cicerone, education and engagement curator, White Labs Kitchen & Tap, Asheville, North Carolina
Hops are a primary ingredient in beer, but for Jo Doyle the term hoppy doesn’t reveal much at all about a beer. “I understand why people want to use that word,” she says, “but it’s like saying wine is grapey. The word hoppy is so broad and not very descriptive.” Instead, Doyle tries to paint a clearer picture of the flavors and aromas the hops impart. If someone says a beer is hoppy, she’ll ask, “Is it citrusy, piney, floral, fruity, or woody? If it’s fruity, is it peach or melon or grapefruit or pineapple? Is it bitter or does it have a punch of aroma or flavor?” Doyle also cautions against naming fruit flavors that may not be familiar to customers, especially exotic ones like passion fruit and lychee, unless the particular fruit is part of the brew recipe.
Kraig Torres, founder and chief hophead, Hop City Craft Beer & Wine, Atlanta
Many of Kraig Torres’s guests are new to the world of craft beer. He notes that light is one of their favorite vague descriptors when they visit his shop. But when he pushes customers to explain what they mean by the word, especially in relation to craft beer, they’re often at a loss. “Unfortunately,” he says, “one of the macrobrands co-opted that word decades ago, and now it’s forever linked to low-calorie [beer], although that’s rarely what a guest at a craft bar really means when ordering a light beer.” Torres wants a moratorium on the word, especially from beer purveyors, and says, “I would instead opt for words like pale for color, low-cal for waist watchers, and session for the all-day, all-night crowd. I love specificity … especially in my beer.”
Erin Colligan, Cicerone, district manager, Austin Eastciders, Austin, Texas
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the equally confusing color descriptor dark. “Dark,” Erin Colligan says, “is a misnomer, as people associate dark color with high ABV and high calories.” A dark beer, though, doesn’t always equal high gravity or high caloric content. Colligan uses the famous example of Guinness Stout, which, though black in color, is low in both ABV and calories, especially for the style. She also mentions black lagers and Schwarzbiers. “These styles are brewed with chocolate malt that gives them a brown or black hue,” she says, “but they drink easily and are usually around 5% ABV.” Informing customers that dark beers, while often rich in texture, aren’t necessarily rich in alcohol, expands both their palates and their beverage options.
Brian Cendrowski, Cicerone, cofounder and head brewer, Fireforge Crafted Beer, Greenville, South Carolina
Brian Cendrowski takes issue with the use of the word crushable, saying, “When someone describes a beer as crushable, does that mean you can drink a lot of it, quickly, for an extended period of time?” As a brewer, he wants craft beer to be savored, not chugged. He hears crushable used to refer “to lighter beers such as pilsners, lagers, pale ales, and IPAs, which are often enjoyed in warm weather, outdoors, at sporting events, or after exercising.” Instead of crushable, Cendrowski suggests explaining that a beer has a lower ABV, a balanced flavor that won’t wreck the palate, and is refreshing.
Tara Nurin, Cicerone Certified Beer Server, freelance journalist, SevenFifty Daily and Forbes beer/spirits contributor, Camden, New Jersey
“Much like the word hoppy, the term sour is way too vague and broad to say much about a beer,” says Tara Nurin. “By definition, it tells us there’s a high level of acid in the liquid, and that it was likely either kettle-soured or fermented with some combination of Brettanomyces yeast and Lactobacillus or Pediococcus bacteria. But how does it taste? That’s what your average drinker wants to know.” She adds that Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines don’t differentiate sour and tart flavors and that even leading brewers of sours don’t agree on nomenclature.
For beer consumers, she suggests offering rough approximations. “Goses and Berliner Weisses are usually [light-colored], bright, and mildly citrusy—what I somewhat haphazardly call tart. Lambics tend toward sweet or dry vinegar, with the BJCP allowing for Flanders Reds to taste ‘wine-like.’ Brett typically imparts funky barnyard notes, which might be the number one place to start enlightening consumers, considering most new drinkers mistakenly associate it with sour flavors.”
Lou McKercher, Cicerone, general manager, Oskar Blues Brewery/Pearl Street Taproom, Boulder, Colorado
Lou McKercher agrees with Nurin that funky and sour are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. After looking up funky in a couple of dictionaries, he opines that “unpleasant or musty odor” isn’t a great way to describe a beer. “Funky has a whole host of negative connotations—plus, people don’t know what it means in regards to beer,” he says. “It’s not a sizzle term to use with guests.” He also often hears barnyard used to describe beers that have been fermented with certain yeasts or bacteria. He notes that that word can be off-putting as well. McKercher trains his staff not to use generic terms but to develop specific flavor and aroma profiles during their tastings of what’s on tap. He also teaches them to ask specific questions that skirt funky, such as, “Do you want nuances of hay or leather? Are you looking for an overripe tropical fruit aroma?”
Additional overused beer descriptors that popped up in these conversations included yeasty, dank, malty, and quaffable. In other words, our beer vocabulary needs creative overhauling. Think about that the next time someone asks you to describe a beer.
Anne Fitten Glenn is a writer, reporter, and communications consultant based in Asheville, North Carolina. She has authored two books: Western North Carolina Beer: A Mountain Brew History and Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing. Glenn has been writing about business, food, and beverages for more than two decades. Follow her on social media at @brewgasm.