Names can be whimsical and funny and offer a sense of place or insight into a brewer’s mind. But what happens when you have to change a beer name or the recipe associated with an established name? We talked with three breweries that confronted different reasons and challenges with changing a beer name or its recipe. They offer their stories, advice, and tips.
Mother’s Brewing Company Materfamilias
“One of the big assumptions right off the bat is that we were capitulating to something or that there were outside pressures, and that’s not the case,” says Kyle Jeffries, the brewery liaison for Mother’s Brewing Company in Springfield, Missouri, when asked about the change the brewery made in rebranding its imperial stout, long known as MILF, to Materfamilias.
“We’ve been aware of how things are changing with the industry and society, and we weren’t moving with the times by having a beer with that name, so this was an internal decision we made after some soul searching.”
He calls the 11 percent imperial stout, which the brewery had released annually for many years, one of the brewery’s most popular and highest-ranked beers on social media sites. “It’s certainly one of the beers we’re most proud of, but the name didn’t serve the pedigree of the liquid itself,” Jeffries says.
At the time when the brewery opened in 2011, the name was meant as irreverent and cheeky, he says, and while some might find it mildly funny, other folks don’t.
“Over time, we’ve come to realize that what first seemed cheeky and funny no longer fits us or this beer. We always want to win over new customers, and right off the bat we were testing comfort levels with people when they came into the brewery or into stores when we had the name front and center.”
The idea of keeping the beer recipe the same was never a question, he says, but changing the name was fraught with risks. In the end, they looked to the most popular word in beer right now—independent—for inspiration.
Independent means having the courage to stand for your convictions, so the brewery started off with a full rebrand of the beer, which included issuing a candid press release about the change, educating customers, and getting their sales staff on board with the changes to talk with outside accounts.
“The change has been received in a largely positive way. It might actually be more popular than we thought it would be. People understand that people change, breweries change, businesses change. Of course, we knew that the trolls wouldn’t be happy, and we accepted that. We also thought that maybe there would be a handful of people who won’t buy the beer anymore because of this, but in the end, we believe that the beer is good and that most people will get over a name change.”
The beer, which is released annually in January and also has variants, is a good reminder of the maturity that comes with owning a business over time and that evolution can be scary but can also lead to a broader sense of inclusion.
Tributary Brewing Co. Mott the Lesser
Not long after he started brewing at Portsmouth Brewing Co. in New Hampshire, Tod Mott, the longtime New England brewer, had an idea for a Russian imperial stout. He wanted to infuse the already big, boozy beer with port that had been aged on oak spirals. He named the beer Kate the Great, and it was almost immediately heralded as a marvel. The beer made all kinds of “best of” lists, and each year when it was released at the small brewpub, folks would come from throughout New England for their chance to get a bottle. So there was some worry when Mott announced that he was leaving Portsmouth to open his own brewery, Tributary Brewing Co., just across the river in Kittery, Maine. The fears were for naught, as it was announced that Mott was going to take the recipe with him, but not the name. The beer returned a year after Tributary opened its doors, this time known as Mott the Lesser.
“[Portsmouth] had the rights to the name, and I’m cool with that,” Mott says. The owners of that brewery didn’t want there to be any confusion in the marketplace from any kegs that might still be in the cellar awaiting their time in the glass or during a release at a now-competing brewery.
While at Portsmouth, Mott worked in tight quarters that didn’t allow for much in the way of barrel aging. So he would fill a 10-gallon corny keg with oak spirals and port. It would age that way for about 18 days and then be blended with a 15-barrel batch of Russian imperial stout and aged for 45 days before being released. He’d also reserve ten gallons of the finished beer, put it back into the corny keg with the port-soaked staves, and release the result as a very, very limited edition, Double Oaked Kate the Great.
Mott the Lesser is done in the same spirit, but in a brewery that allows him to have barrel space. Now the corny-keg step gets the full wood treatment in a barrel. He’s also experimented with the annual release in April by adding new spirit-barrel blends into the mix. For a limited-edition beer, Mott knows the name matters. But when it comes to the everyday lineup in his brewery, he finds names to be a distraction. So you can drink the Tributary (insert style) when you visit the taproom or find them on offer at area shops and restaurants.
“They are all under the generic name,” Mott says. “We just didn’t want to be wasting time looking up beer names. I’m just tired of all the names. If it’s a double IPA, we call it Tributary Double IPA.”
In fact, there are only two other beers that have been named at his brewery. Jacque! is a pumpkin ale, and there was a Kölsch that the head brewer named for his sister’s wedding.
But with Mott the Lesser, it’s a good reminder that beers, like brewers, can have a new life in a new location.
Odell Brewing Co. Mountain Standard
There are some cases in which a brewery comes up with a great name and then puts it to work over a variety of styles as the years tick by. A case in point is Mountain Standard, a beer that Odell Brewing Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado) first released early in its history as a “deep mahogany ale” in a cage-and-cork 750ml bottle, says Director of Marketing, Alex Kayne.
From there, Mountain Standard evolved to a double black IPA, also in 750ml bottles. Then, after getting a full redesign, complete with a sun-and-moon label motif, the name and the beer were relaunched as a regular black IPA and offered in 12-ounce bottles and eventually cans. And that’s how the beer, along with the name, was retired last year, a commentary on the current state of black IPA in the marketplace.
Kayne says that as the brewery was experimenting with new beers and trying to find a new IPA for the marketplace, they wanted a beer that would be representative of the brewery, its location, and its reputation as moving the needle in beer. They settled on a beer that they are calling (and hope catches on) a “Mountain IPA” style—kind of a cross between West Coast and East Coast. It’s golden with slight haze and bursting with Cashmere, Strata, and Sabro hops.
“When we retired the black IPA, we didn’t have any plans to bring the Mountain Standard name back,” Kayne says. “We pored over hundreds of names for the new IPA, and here it was staring at us all along.”
There are some risks associated with releasing a completely different beer with a familiar name, but Kayne says that all along the brewery has been committed to educating the public. This includes a rebranding of the label—gone are the sun and moon—and making sure that all advertising and public-facing material have a shot of the beer in the glass. They also went to review sites such as Untappd and reset the counter to zero and updated the logo and description so as to avoid any confusion with any stray black IPAs that might be in the wild.
“You can’t just release a beer and hope people will figure it out. You need to have the educational component,” Kayne says. “We knew when we announced the new Mountain Standard there would be some fans looking for the black IPA, but we hope they will give us a chance with this one.”
Sometimes there are risks brewers have to take when it comes to having a great beer name—one that resonates with customers at first glance—but having a beer that doesn’t live up to long-term goals. A well-planned recipe change in which everything is new except the name needs to be managed carefully so as to not confuse consumers. And after what’s likely to be a brief period of adjustment, the older iterations just become happy memories.