Nostalgia and creativity add personality to craft beer
Beer labels tell you a lot about what’s inside the can or bottle you’re about to open—flavor, style, alcohol by volume, as well as where and by whom it was made.
They can also reveal the brewers’ favorite TV show or movie, or pay homage to a pioneering nun or local orchestra leader.
While it can be fun to marvel at the intricate or absurdly colorful labels that have become synonymous with craft beer, many beer-drinkers might sip on by and miss out on a whole other side of their favorite beverage.
How does a beer get an identity?
The process varies from place to place, though it generally involves drinking, according to several local brewers.
“It’s a lot of fighting and laughing, usually over beer at some point,” says McFleshman’s Brewing Company general manager Stephanie Harvey about naming their brews. “It’s hard especially when it’s one of your beers that you really think is going to take off… you have to care a lot more about what its name is.”
The Hildy, for example, is a pilsner that pays tribute to Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German nun who lived to age 81, an impressive feat for the era. According to Harvey, she was one of the first people to write scientifically about hops and the plant’s preservation qualities, which is rumored to have contributed to her unusually long lifespan.
“People who know about beer will see that label and be like ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool: Hildegard,’” she says.
Some homages are more local, such as Sütterbräu, a hefeweizen named after Kevin F.E. Sütterlin, the music director for the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra. Harvey says members of the orchestra tend to stop by McFleshman’s to sample beer after practices, and it is often served at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center when the orchestra is playing.
Because of his German background, Sütterlin was initially reluctant about an American brewery producing a quality German-style beer.
“But he loves it,” Harvey says. “We got the thumbs up from a real German guy on that.”
Fifth Ward Brewing Company co-founder Ian Wenger says some of their names are more descriptors, matter-of-factly informing consumers what they’re about to taste.
Other times, research about the beer’s flavors and ingredients sends Wenger down an hours-long Wikipedia rabbit hole.
There are also times when names are chosen simply for the entertainment of those brewing them.
“They do all have little stories or inside jokes behind them,” Wenger says. “The Cherry Nice is a ‘Borat’ reference because that’s dumb and we think it’s funny.”
Along that trend is also their collection of brews referencing “That ‘70s Show,” including Hot Donna, Forman’s Basement and Vista Cruiser.
“Pop culture references are fun for us,” he says.
Lion’s Tail Brewing Company has a similar process. They often use straightforward names that let you know exactly what a particular beer is.
Their Key Lime Gose is a Gose with key lime. The Caramelized Pineapple Hard Seltzer is a seltzer flavored with pineapple and caramelized palm sugar.
“Sometimes you just keep it simple,” sales manager Eric Henzel says.
Other times, however, they don’t—as evidenced by names like Uecker On the Radio and Royale with Bees, dubbed such because of a “Pulp Fiction” reference that owner Alex Wenzel says they just “thought was kind of funny.”
The local community is also key in several of the most popular brews at Lion’s Tail. Foundry Light was created to honor manhole covers made by metalworkers at Neenah Foundry. Number 90 Red is a Vienna lager made through a partnership with Pierce Manufacturing because “Number 90 Red” is the signature color of the company’s fire trucks.
“We’ll kind of throw our own little favorite things in beer names or we’ll come up with something that fits the style or the flavors that are used in it,” Henzel says.
Although the naming process is part of the fun, according to Henzel, it can sometimes be frustrating as well.
“You’ll get to the point where you have to reach out to the designer to have the label named and three, four, five of us are sitting around like, ‘What the hell are we going to name this beer?’”
When it comes to design, processes vary as well. Lion’s Tail uses a freelance designer.
At Fifth Ward, Wegner taught himself Adobe Illustrator and handles the designs in-house. He says he especially enjoys finding ways to hide Easter eggs for customers to stumble upon.
McFleshman’s collaborates with local artists, including Harvey herself.
“That’s kind of our MO here at McFleshman’s,” she says. “We consider ourselves like a public house, like the pub on the corner. So most everything we do is as local as possible.”
One unusual thing about their labels is that while they include the basics about the beers, they also have information about the artists.
“They don’t always get a shoutout on the can, but our artists have been really happy with that,” Harvey adds.
Branding has been just as much of a focus for Lion’s Tail as the specific design.
“We just want to make sure that our brand stands out on the shelf,” Henzel says. “You’re in a grocery store, liquor store with hundreds of other brands, and how do you stand out? That’s the main thing when we’re making a label: How do you stand out and how do you keep your brand?”
What’s next for local breweries?
Events. After COVID-19 shut down more than a year’s worth of beer fests and concerts, local taprooms are preparing for new things.
Fifth Ward partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to brew a special beer for its 150th-anniversary celebration in September. It also continues to host live music in its taproom and participated in Brews on the Bay in Menominee Park.
Lion’s Tail recently held its 6th annual Oktoberfest celebration and is working on opening a second location in Wauwatosa, which would include a new brewery and taproom.
McFleshman’s will host its Lager Fest on Oct. 9. The all-outside event will feature music, a live firkin tapping and beer from several local breweries, as well as “a lot of weird stuff happening,” Harvey says.
All are continuously pumping out new beer—complete with eye-catching names and labels.