Carolina Beer Guy: What’s in a (beer) name?

IN MEMORIAM: Wedge brewer Carl Melissas pours a glass of Vadim Bora Russian Imperial Stout. The annually released beer is named after the late River Arts District artist who frequented the brewery. Photo courtesy of John Fletcher Photography via Wedge Brewing Co.

In the early days of local craft brewing, picking names for the beers wasn’t that tough. In the late 1990s, there were just a few Asheville breweries making a handful of ales and eventually lagers.

Now it’s another story. Buncombe County is home to 37 breweries, with more than 70 total in the Western North Carolina mountains. Some of them turn out dozens of beers each year, including small-batch releases, each needing a clever and memorable name.

The process becomes even more complicated as breweries must avoid using identities already claimed and protected by more than 5,300 U.S. craft breweries. A wrong move can lead to legal action, something Asheville Brewing Co. has faced with its popular Ninja Porter. The company has protected the brand with a trademark, but brewery President Mike Rangel says he continues to discover the name being used by other producers. In each instance, he must decide what action to take, be it a simple conversation to straighten out the matter or a potentially costly court battle, the latter of which he’s so far been able to avoid.

New Belgium Brewing Co., however, has not been as fortunate. In 2015, it took action against the much smaller Oasis Texas Brewing Co. of Austin over the use of Slow Ride IPA. New Belgium holds the national trademark to the name, but the matter was settled out of court in 2016 with Oasis Texas continuing to use Slow Ride solely in the Lone Star State — where New Belgium’s product goes by the name Session IPA — and New Belgium using it everywhere else.

As for the Asheville area’s more oddly dubbed beers, many are nods to real people. Such is the case with Oskar Blues Brewery’s G’Knight Double Red IPA, which brewery spokesman Aaron Baker says “has the best story behind it” of any of the brewery’s creations. The beer is named for the late pioneering Colorado brewer and fireman Gordon Knight, a friend of Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis. Knight was killed in a 2002 helicopter crash while fighting the Big Elk Meadows forest fire near the brewery’s original hometown of Lyons.

In a similar vein, Asheville Brewing drew inspiration for its Putin’s Unicorn Dance Party Baltic Porter primarily from current events. Russian President Vladimir Putin “was on the news all the time,” says Rangel. “We just wanted to have some fun.” As for the rest of the name, Rangel turned to his own fascination with unicorns, the mythical beast with a single horn coming from its forehead. He notes that it’s difficult to find a beer name not already in use and that he starts with a Google search to ensure that the intended moniker isn’t already claimed. “Anything with the word ‘dog’ in it has been used a thousand times,” he says. “When we came up with Lemon Space Dog [American Wheat Ale], we needed several names. It couldn’t just be Lemon Dog or Space Dog — it had to be Lemon Space Dog.”

Highland Brewing Co.’s Jet Flyin’ IPA likewise has celebrity roots. The small-batch beer comes from a quote by wrestler Ric Flair, who described himself as “the Rolex wearin’, diamond ring wearin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’, dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet-flyin’ son of a gun.” It’s the only Highland beer that has any sort of wrestling connection, according to brewery President Leah Wong Ashburn, who notes that there’s been a recent fascination with Flair among the production department.

In choosing names, Ashburn says Highland is often more playful with its small-batch pilot beers, which are usually only sold in the brewery tasting room. “You can get crazy with those,” she says, pointing to the brewery’s Lunch with Alpacas Brown Ale, which came from Troyer’s Country Amish Blatz in Fairview, whose deli makes enormous sandwiches and has a few of the titular animals on the property. “If you’re doing a beer that will be made year-round or three months and it will be in your whole distribution system, it’s got to fit on a label, and the name has to make sense to consumers,” she says. “It’s hard to do.”

Turning its attention to local figures is Wedge Brewing Co. Its Vadim Bora Russian Imperial Stout, which makes its annual return Thursday, Nov. 16, is named for the late artist who was a regular at the River Arts District brewery. Wedge also has beers named for the late local philanthropist Julian Price and the late Wedge Studios building owner John Payne. “We don’t want people to forget who they were,” says brewery owner Tim Schaller.  

Elsewhere, Hillman Beer’s Four Fat Baby Belgian-style Quad is named for the baby figurines found in Mardi Gras king cakes, while Currahee Brewing Co.’s Kawi Coffee Milk Stout comes from the Cherokee word for coffee. “We utilize Cherokee words for many of our beers, including our year-round lager Wayah [which means ‘wolf’],” says brewer Taylor Yates.

Creative as the above names may be, thinking outside the box isn’t reserved for seasonal and one-off creations. Now Catawba Brewing Co.’s best-selling flagship beer, White Zombie Belgian-style Witbier was originally a Halloween seasonal that earned its name both from the holiday and its color. “The name stuck even after it became a year-round offering,” says marketing director Brian Ivey.

Then there’s New Belgium’s Fat Tire Belgian-style Ale, one of the most popular craft beers in the country. The name appropriately comes from the company’s origin story, a nod to the type of bicycle co-founder Jeff Lebesch rode across Belgium from bar to bar, a trip that inspired him to start the brewery on his return to the U.S.


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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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One thought on “Carolina Beer Guy: What’s in a (beer) name?

  1. Beer Geek

    Such a missed opportunity for Highland not to mention the naming of their seasonal beers with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy…and this being the “non-profit” issue, too.

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