Beer Speak

When I speak to people about the kind of drinks they like to enjoy, there is a growing number that have learned enough to navigate a beer list or an array of pump clips and get to the beer they want. At a pub, they look at me, ask “Which beer do I want?”, and that exhausts our discussion of the topic of beer. Later, I might ask what they thought of the beer, and they’ll stop in surprise, having not thought a second about it. “Oh, yeah, it’s great.”

It is my strong belief that people inside the craft beer bubble vastly overestimate the public’s knowledge and interest level. The word “session” is a great example. In the UK its often used as a term to indicate a low-ABV beer. If we rewind the tape to that moment in the pub when I’m standing with a friend in front of the beer list, it’s often the case that they will see an unfamiliar word and idly ask what it means. When I launch into the explanation, I get maybe halfway through a sentence before I’ve lost them.

As a rule of thumb, I’d guess people understand maybe a half-dozen beer terms, and all incompletely. Lager is shorthand for “regular beer.” It applies to domestic, green-bottle European, and Mexican beer. If someone orders a doppelbock and later learns it’s a lager, they will probably be confused. It’s nothing like Budweiser!

They know IPAs will have a particular flavour profile and have learned whether they like “hazy” or “west coast” for ordering purposes. Its why consumers are untroubled by word-salad IPAs that drive beer nerds crazy (black India pale ale, India pale lager, cold IPA, etc.). They won’t in most cases know the flavours they like come from hops, or if they do, they won’t know whether they come from kettle additions or dry-hopping—and they won’t care, no matter how fascinating you find biotransformation. They absolutely won’t know what DDH means.

If IPA isn’t their favourite style, they’ll know the word for the beers that are. That might be a style (porter, pilsner), but it might also be a beer (Blue Moon, Guinness). Most people clue in to the salience of ABV pretty quickly. And people probably know which beers/styles they should avoid.

I get why they don’t know; craft beer is insanely complex. Because breweries make every style on the planet, looking at a taplist is a bit like scrutinising a foreign language. There’s a Saison, a Vienna lager, a Helles, a Baltic porter, an ESB, something called a DDH DIPA, and a wine-barrel-aged “mixed-ferm” wild ale. Really, mixed-ferm? Few beer geeks really understand that garble, I would guess.

The one thing I would say, as an emissary from real beerlandia, is that if you do choose to put “session” on your label, just know that the customer will not understand that term in the way you do. The vast majority of regular beer drinkers just want a tasty pint and the shortest conceptual route it takes to get there.

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