“[It] was only with the development of widespread literacy that the wisdoms—and follies—of uniformity could be learned.” —beer writer Michael Jackson, 1991
Like all great writers, Michael Jackson’s words spoke multitudes. He could have turned his hand to any topic and written perfect prose—but we were blessed to call him the first dedicated beer writer.
Jackson didn’t just approach beer with a certain narrative savvy—he contextualized and codified a language around beer in the first place. He could be discussing Tripels, but actually musing on religion. He could be considering glassware, but really talking about politics. He could be reminiscing about Bitter, but really dreaming about home.
In the case of the above quote, he was explaining how the recording and sharing of brewing recipes blurred the idea of “local” beer styles. While literacy spread good brewing processes and exciting new ideas, it also led to homogenization, and the dominance of Pale Lager. He crams a lot of subtext into that sentence, and increasingly I read it as being about language, too.
Before Jackson, beer had no common tongue. Brewers the world over could describe their beers, and maybe even had names for them, but no one had joined the dots and put it all together to see the wider pattern. With his background as a local reporter in Yorkshire and then London, Jackson dropped by breweries and demanded their time. Those same skills helped him distill complicated ideas and philosophies into short, engrossing narratives, and trace various beer styles’ origins and techniques from village to village in places like the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.
He built a new language through these conversations with brewers, but also through talking to people from the worlds of food, whisky and—in particular—wine. Decades of writing had sought to elevate wine above all other forms of intoxicant, and Jackson hoped to close that gap back up.
Wine vocabulary happened to be going through its own simultaneous development. Previously, wines were often described in ways that were alienating to drinkers, and not tied to flavor—think of phrases like “muscular,” or “romantic.” While beer was trying to elevate itself, wine writers and producers were wrestling with the idea that they were elitist.
In the 1980s, just as Jackson was starting to gain notoriety, a professor at the University of California, Davis, Ann C. Noble, developed the “Wine Aroma Wheel,” which compared wine flavors to food. Consumers were empowered to liken wine’s fruit notes to raspberries, or plums; they could describe an aged Champagne as tasting like brioche, or acknowledge that Syrah had a black-pepper character. Such direct and relatable language proved a vital selling tool in supermarkets, which had slowly become the place where most people bought their bottles. It also made wine labels prime real estate for communication with the drinker, and encouraged wineries to put tasting notes right on the bottle, while keeping the details short and highly accessible.
Jackson took inspiration from all those developments in the wine world, using evocative but precise language, food comparisons, and the simple phrasing that came so easily to a trained journalist. What he created was a much wider lexicon than even the wine writers had. He could talk about acidity, as in white wine, and tannins, as in red, as well as the fruit characteristics that are common to both. But, given beer’s breadth, he could also talk about coffee-like roastiness and bitterness, cigar-like smoke and leather, spice and caramel like in whisky.
Jackson then took those words—and the chaotic, uncharted world of beer—and mapped it all out. Like a biologist organizing species, he traced lines between styles using their geographies, lineage, and characteristics. He found the links between disparate societies and their breweries, and categorized them in his seminal first book, The World Guide to Beer, published in 1977. This influential tome created a path for other writers just as the American beer revolution was dawning, and might even have influenced the changes in wine writing that were happening at the same time. Throughout the 1980s, thousands of new beer lovers started looking for more information. In the days before blogs, social media and even other beer writers, invariably they found Jackson.
His success made him a celebrity. He was given a TV show, “The Beer Hunter,” and appeared on “Conan” next to Lucy Liu, reaching an audience most beer writers still only dream of. He was the apostle of beer, and we still work from his texts without even realizing it. His books have sold millions of copies, and were translated into 18 languages. Where there was no direct translations for words like “hoppy” or “roasty,” his words became the standard, transcending borders and cultures. A specific language around beer had begun to form.
By the time Jackson died in 2007, the world of beer had grown enormously, and so had the language surrounding it. The explosion of new breweries, processes, and styles meant new words were being created all the time. A term was needed to describe this wide, new movement to those on the outside. The word we collectively chose was “craft,” and it has come to mean multitudes.
Its origin is hotly contested, but journalist Vince Cottone was perhaps the first to use “craft” in a way we might understand it now. He employed the term back in 1986 in his book, Good Beer Guide: Breweries and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest, preferring it to the more common “microbrewery” and Jackson’s own, very quaint “boutique.” As Cottone puts it, “[‘craft’] was simultaneously more specific and more versatile.”
Given the huge gap between the entrenched macros and the upstarts, the definition of “craft” was pretty clear 30 years ago—it meant small, independent and traditional, and was defined as such in 2006 by the Brewer’s Association. It was the very opposite of the colossal, closed-off, stainless-steel cathedrals in which most of the world’s beer was produced.
That definition worked for the next two decades, but as beer evolved, the word gained layer upon layer of connotation, and became increasingly controversial. Nowadays, “craft” has significantly more meaning than it was designed to handle. It seems to mean small, but does not exclude large; traditional, but also experimental; hands-on, but also technological; independent, though it’s used increasingly by multinational companies. Craft has come to define a movement, while itself is completely undefinable.
Linguistically, none of this is a surprise at all.“Language is a living organism,” says Professor Jo Angouri of Warwick University’s applied linguistics department. “Unless it is a dead language like Latin, it changes as human beings engage with different phenomena and social worlds. Think what the word ‘apple’ means today—connotations are very different in different contexts.”
The context we use craft in now is wildly different to when it was coined. From a tally of just 89 in the late 1970s, the U.S. now has over 7,000 breweries, ranging from countless 1-barrel brewpubs to “craft” giants like Yuengling. Finding threads and meaning between two such companies is very hard indeed, and not especially helpful either. “Craft” has, however, become very political, as larger breweries trade off the goodwill that surrounds the label. James Watt, founder of BrewDog, has campaigned long and hard for a definition of craft. His argument has always been that larger breweries could co-opt the term, confusing consumers about what they are buying and who has made it. He is still pushing for a definition in the U.K. even as his own brewery pushes at the limits of what might fall under it—in 2016 private equity firm TSG Partners acquired a 22% stake in the company, just 3% below the Brewers Association’s limit for ownership by anything other than another craft brewery.
“For me, it is as important as ever to come to an accepted definition of craft,” says Watt. “The best thing we currently have is the BA definition in the U.S., and this is the one we always default to and hang our hat on. The speed of change in the global beer scene is only going to accelerate and protecting the values that independent craft brewers hold dear is vitally important.”
The problem is words cannot be static if the “values” around them change, and these multiple contexts are what make language around something as fast-moving as beer so complex. When Jackson started his adventures, he mostly dealt in history, and on that subject his word was definitive. But by 2007 there were so many people talking about beer, and the world was evolving so quickly, that neither the brewer, writer, nor drinker could claim that authority. Craft’s definition is now completely contextual. To Angouri—who says she is a wine lover—the phrase “craft beer” denotes authenticity, locality, flavor. All those things could be applied to say, Wicked Weed, but argue that Wicked Weed is a “craft brewery” on a beer Facebook forum and you’ll get all sorts of colorful responses. Clearly, language isn’t just the words we use—it’s who we are, where we speak, and to whom. Because of this, Angouri believes that language cannot be studied in isolation. It isn’t just how we express our culture—it is our culture.
“Through our language we mark our desire to be part of a culture or community and indicate to others,” says Angouri. “So if I wanted to show I was part of the small brewing community, I would do it with my language as well as my choices like where I go to drink.”
Within the world of beer, language functions more than just descriptively—it’s a way to signal your place, and status, within a scene.
To understand how and why beer language has changed from the poetic, longform days of Jackson, we need to understand the changes that have happened around it—specifically how beer has been premiumized, but also how it has been democratized by social media to form a community with clearly defined linguistic borders.
Until the last decade, beer communication was largely in the hands of a few thought leaders—Jackson, Roger Protz, Pete Brown, Randy Mosher, Fred Eckhardt, Melissa Cole, Charlie Papazian, Garrett Oliver. Their mission was to give beer the attention it deserved, so their concise, clear language reflected that shared goal. For them, beer communication was all about welcoming in new drinkers with words and similes that were approachable. It was outward-facing.
“It is important to have language that is both inclusive and exclusive enough,” says Angouri. “Inclusive so that you invite those who aren’t members to join, but also exclusive to indicate to those inside that you speak the same language.”
Nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than on the internet, where the rise of amateur beer writing changed the way that people new to the scene gathered their information. While professional beer writers were at the mercy of editors and the need to generate book sales, clicks, and ad revenue, a new generation of writers wrote articles, op-eds and interviews on platforms like Blogger and Typepad, with no one to edit them. It’s likely that more was written about beer in a few short years during the late 2000s and early 2010s than had been written in the entire history of humanity.
Suddenly there were travelogues, homebrew diaries, and beer review sites. They were filled with people attempting to mimic the styles of the longform writers, backed by Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Guidelines and hyper-local knowledge of scenes and styles. At the same time, forums and social media became the most important sources of news and information in people’s lives. Amateur writers were able to promote their work in bubble communities like Facebook groups and subreddits.
The language they used in those spaces was different again. Using the text speak they had learned from MSN Messenger or AIM and their non-smart phones, people wrote more prolifically, and their language became more visual. Caps lock became the default way to denote panic or excitement, and ellipses were as flirty as fluttering your eyelashes. Your mood changed depending on your comma usage, while the period became a passive-aggressive sucker punch. Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, puts it succinctly: "The new rules are about: How are other people going to interpret your tone of voice? ... The old rules are about using language to demonstrate intellectual superiority, and the new rules are about using language to create connection between people."
This had several interesting effects on the language used around beer. Logically, social media would open up the beer world to anyone who came across it. Borders and oceans could be traversed in one click, cultures and languages translated through tone and punctuation. And yet, the divisions between beer and the rest of the world only became more tangible.
“Today we communicate much more than before and there’s more media we can use, so the changes are more visible,” explains Angouri. “You come across different communities and their language more often, and in ways that make the boundaries more visible.”
In effect, more people were aware of the beer world as a result of social media, but also more aware of the fact that they did not reside in it. Words that beer lovers consider everyday—“cask” and “keg,” “tallboys” and “750s”—became powerful markers of identity. As the beers we drank became more experimental, our language did the same. Our vocabulary only made sense to people who had tried the same beer or experienced the same flavor we had. And as our lexicon expanded, we even found new words for old experiences: a Bud Light drinker would just call their beer “beer,” but a beer geek would use words like “macro,” “session-strength,” “adjunct” and “Pilsner.”
Influenced by our innate desire to form communities, we created more words and more unique language. Craving the warmth of our own private world, we drew the curtains, and our words turned inwards.
“This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest you stick to safer and more familiar territory.”
The above text can still be found on cans and bottles of Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale. While it was first brewed in 1997, and while the copy is a provocative bit of marketing, it is a clear example of writers and brewers looking to create an identity around beer—to include and exclude. In this example, words like “sophistication” elevate the beer, before actively telling those who don’t understand the joke to move along.
Many people wonder why the beer scene isn’t more diverse when the liquid itself is universal. Language is one answer. In fostering a community, we pulled in new words—the kinds of words that might help outsiders understand—but then twisted their meanings beyond recognition.
Take “dank.” It’s a harsh, ugly word associated with moldy attics and damp basements. While converts know a “dank” beer as a sticky, funky blend of weed, onion, and resin notes, outside the beer world, you’d be forgiven for thinking it meant the beer smelled like a cellar floor. The new, positive use of “dank” originated in descriptions of quality weed, where it denotes a rich, oily, and potent aroma; it has also permeated the digital world in the form of surreal “dank memes.” As a result, dank has gone from grim insult to cherished compliment.
From that same scene and system, we also have “crispy boi”: a term used to describe pin-bright, lagered beers that are designed primarily with refreshment in mind. Again, the phrase is an unusual twisting of established words; it plays with gender, and takes an adjective that many beer drinkers would likely recognize (“crisp”), and morphs it uncannily. Its function, perhaps, is to draw a line between macro Lagers and those made by celebrated independents. These linguistic innovations within the beer world show its sense of innovation and fluid identity, but also betray its exclusivity.
The same process can be seen in one of beer’s most notable linguistic perversions: “pastry.” Originally used on the satirical beer blog Don’t Drink Beer, “Pastry Stout” started as a joking insult about the proliferation of huge, sweet, adjunct-laden dark beers. But now it has become a style in itself, adopted and revered by a subsection of the beer world.
“It was one-part pejorative and one-part self-aware, tacit agreement,” says Don’t Drink Beer’s Alex Kidd. “It was as though the brewers furtively stated, ‘Yes, we know this beer is ridiculous,’ and the self-loathing consumer standing in line for them in humid Tampa heat was like, ‘And I am equally ridiculous and culpable for embracing the batter.’ The synergy between the two is this knowing relationship predicated on excess; both sides are validated.”
In the digital world, Pastry Stout has taken on a life of its own, and is so common that it even has its own Untappd category. As Kidd implies, though, most people who use it do so with a knowing wink. The phrase functions both as a dismissive insult as well as a stamp of authority that can be used by anyone who understands the joke. “Pastry Stout” was a rebellious rejection of both Jacksonesque language and technical terms, but it also served another important function: contraction.
“The framework of beer language previously was wholly technical and sterile,” says Kidd. “In the mid-2000s, every flavor adjective was rote from BJCP guidelines or homebrew competitions. If you look at the traditional model of Brewers Association reviews from the late 2000s to the pithy ways that Untappd users must economize 140 character reviews, people have leveraged creativity to service this need.”
That creativity, exercised within the echo chamber of the beer internet, has had an intriguing effect. As thousands of people use those new, highly contextualized words, they impart their own experiences and meanings to them. What’s “juicy” in Rio de Janeiro might apply to the sharp citrus of their Lacto-based Catharina Sours, while in New England, the term “juicy” is most likely to mean the rich, overripe mango notes in a Hazy IPA. In the U.K., “juicy” might be applied to the combination of caramalts and stone-fruit esters in classic Bitters, while in Belgium it might denote the tart tang of jammy raspberry. And so the term “juicy” comes to mean many things, and is both grown and diminished by the additional layers.
Beer writer Chris Hall was one of the first to apply the term to beers with residual sweetness and huge fruity character, but says that “juicy” had more touch points than that. His original coinage was “juicy banger”, which also included reference to a beer’s endless drinkability, something not many hazy, juicy beers even try to achieve.
[Editor’s note: Chris Hall is a Good Beer Hunting contributor.]
“It’s not just a flavor,” says Hall. “You’re not going to find it on the flavor wheel, but that’s how people use it. The brewer can say ‘juicy,’ the marketer can say ‘juicy,’ the drinker can say ‘juicy’—and they can all mean completely different things. That’s fine, but what do we call the old thing now?”
Unfortunately, beer language doesn’t like looking back on itself. Character limits and fast-scrolling mean we’re getting more creative, but we’re also reducing the words we use to mean the same thing. On an Instagram post or Untappd check-in, why list guava, mango, and pineapple when a simple “juicy” cuts to the chase?
“I think ‘simple’ isn’t quite right,” says Angouri. “I don’t think it does justice to the hard work we all do to create our communities and develop the language we need to elaborate and code the meanings we want. It’s an extension of meaning. It’s as if the community has given an extra layer of meaning to this word that indicates a specific experience the group had.”
However, economy of language isn’t always helpful. As the term “craft beer” shows, it’s a fine line between a word gaining layers of meaning and becoming meaningless.
“Nowadays it’s like the things driving growth in beer are called ‘juice,’ ‘pastry’ and ‘sour,’” says Hall. “I don’t want to see whole beer styles collapse into each other and become just those three things. They’re accessible terms but are they also reductive.”
At the same time, though, the war to stand out during fast scrolling has taken beer names the other way. New beers regularly cite niche games and TV shows—often engaging in some IP theft along the way—and have grown much longer than the phrases we use to describe them.
Now over 2,500 beer geeks like an Instagram post showing off Omnipollo’s SOFT SWIRL PINA COLADA MILKSHAKE COCOALMONDCOFFEE MANGO LASSI GOSE. Below the line you find plenty of astonishment, but mostly excited tags of other people. Head to any hyped brewery’s Instagram, and below every “juicebomb” or “Pastry Stout” photo are endless messages of “ISO” and “FT”: a window into the murky sub-community of beer traders, as well as a very new phenomenon.
Pictures don’t need to speak a thousand words any more: they can speak one word and still save on characters. Emojis are the logical progression of text speak, and have become a subject of academic study in linguistics, particularly among students who have grown up using them. There is debate around whether they constitute language at all, but by being a form of communication they can’t be ignored.
“There is a lot of debate in academia about where you draw boundaries in terms of language,” says Angouri. “But if you think of it not as verbal but as interaction, it gives you a more dynamic understanding. You’re just making different use of your resources.”
The resources in this regard, however, are limited to the emojis you have on your mobile device. Where beer language to this point has always been self-edited, Apple and Google now decide the resources we have at our disposal. There are 17 fruits on Android’s latest update (16 if you discount tomato) and while other foods like bread, nuts, chocolate and literal pastry can be used to describe beer, they don’t come close to the scope of our rich languages.
These emoji-imposed limits could have a very distinct impact on the way we talk about beer. Passion fruit could die out as a descriptor if there is no emoji to represent it, and we’ll have no way to differentiate between milk- and dark-chocolate notes. On the other hand, there’s space for invention and wordplay, too. Perhaps Brettanomyces will be symbolized by a horse’s face, or Lactobacillus by a pot of yogurt. Will unicorn-emoji IPA become a style of ultra-rare, candy-inspired beer?
We talk a lot about the challenges that craft beer—indeed, all beer—faces over the next few years. A crowded market, teetotaling teens, mounting debt, and buyouts all threaten the beer world as we know it. We will express our hopes and fears through writing, and hope that our intentions remain clear as our language twists and shrinks under the weight of endless new meaning. Have we taken our beerspeak too far, or have we managed to edit ourselves down into a concise and welcoming lexicon that, once learned, can open up whole worlds of communication?
Right now, the only answer to that is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.