Analysis of Craft Beer Descriptions
Prepared by Todd Haskell
Background and Goals
The birth of the craft beer industry in Washington State is often linked to the federal legalization of homebrewing in 1978 followed by relaxation of regulations on brewpubs in 1982. Only forty years later, there are over 300 breweries in operation, and Seattle boasts the most breweries of any major metropolitan area in the U.S.. Although this is good news both for Washingtonians who like to brew beer and those who like to drink it, it also means that the craft beer industry is highly competitive.
In this competitive climate, how a brewery talks about their beer is an important element of branding and marketing. We've come a long way from the days of 'Tastes great. Less filling.' Here's a representative beer description from the dataset used in our analysis:
Many descriptions don't stop with describing the beer itself. They suggest who might like to drink it:
- This is a great beer for the person that says they don't like dark beers.
- Hop Heads of the world unite!! This is an IPA for the IPA lover.
They suggest when we might want to drink it:
- The perfect beer after a hot summer day or a long day on the slopes.
- At 7.5% abv this winter warmer is sure to keep you cozy on a cold snowy winters day.
They communicate a set of values:
- Malts: Organic Pale Organic Pilsner Organic Caramel Blend; Hops: Organic Magnum Organic Chinook Organic Cascade Organic Simcoe Organic Palisade [this all goes into the Organic Highline IPA]
- Things We Don't Say is a part of the worldwide Hope For A Day collaboration to support Mental Health Awareness month in May.
They convey something of the personality of the brewery:
- Patience is a virtue. Fish are scaly. The sea is the sea. This beer was made with patience (not fish, nor the sea). [For a beer named The Patient Fish the Sea]
- Cloaked in a semi-translucent haze, an imposing presence beckons you to come closer. As you do, your nose opens to a tangent of wistful memories — peach season in the orchard, a tangerine tree on a hill, fresh honeydew cold from the fridge, and a vanilla cream soda in your hand. What kind of bittersweet initiation is this?
And they even try to teach us something:
- The name means ‘old’ in German and refers to the old style of brewing, before industrial style lagers were ubiquitous across the land.
- Before mechanical refrigeration made year round brewing possible, stronger beer was made in March (Marzen is March in German). The beer was then laid down in ice caves until the harvest festivals.
The goal of this analysis was to paint a picture of how Washington craft beers are being described today. This can help breweries to understand current best practices and identify opportunities to make their beers stand out.
A list of Washington breweries was obtained from the website of the Washington Beer Commission. Breweries were randomly selected from this list, and their websites were searched for descriptions of their beers. Up to 10 such descriptions were gathered from each brewery. If there were more than 10 descriptions, 10 were selected so that they were evenly spread across the entire list. The final sample consisted of 253 beer descriptions from 31 separate breweries.
Detailed information about the methods used for data collection and analysis are available upon request.
Words most commonly used in descriptions
Each description was split into individual words, and the number of times each word was used was tallied. The 50 most commonly used words are shown in the Raw Counts list below, excluding function words like "the," "is", "for", etc. Since each brewery could have anywhere between 3 and 10 descriptions in the dataset, and since descriptions varied greatly in length, there is a risk that the Raw Counts list will mostly reflect breweries with many beers and verbose descriptions. Thus, we also present a list labeled Adjusted Counts where every brewery contributes the same amount to the counts, and shorter descriptions are given the same weight as longer ones.
|Rank||Raw Counts||Adjusted Counts|
Roughly, the most common words refer to a style of beer (ale, IPA, lager, pilsner), ingredients (hops, malt, wheat, barley), color (pale, amber, golden, dark), or taste/aroma (dry, crisp, floral, bitterness). We will look at each of these in turn. Note that to keep the report to a manageable length, we won't discuss every word in these lists.
Almost all descriptions in the sample indicated the style of the beer. The word "ale" was the most common word in our data set, and it frequently occurred with a further descriptor to indicate what kind of ale. Here are some examples:
- cream ale
- fruited sour ale
- barrel-aged golden ale
- summer blond ale
- straw-colored wheat ale
- Norwegian-style farmhouse ale
- winter seasonal ale
Not surprisingly, of the ales, IPA was the most common by far. The short form "IPA" was most commonly used in descriptions, though it was sometimes written out as India Pale Ale. A subtype of IPA was often specified, as in these examples:
- traditional PNW IPA
- East coast style IPA
- hazy IPA
- Imperial IPA
- American Double IPA
- West Coast IPA
- New England style IPA
Pilsner and lager also made it into the top 50 lists, as well as stout in the adjusted list. Although pilsner was sometimes used to refer to the beer style ("Bohemian style Pilsner", "Czech-style Pilsner"), it was more often used to describe the variety of malt. Lager, in contrast, did generally refer to the style of beer, as in these examples:
- Mexican style lager
- mild dark lager
- unfiltered lager
- pale amber-hued lager
- Vienna lager
As seen in these examples, use of the term "stout" was always to indicate the style of beer:
- oatmeal stout
- sweet milk stout
- farmhouse stout
- export style stout
It should come as no surprise that among ingredients, hops and malt were most frequently mentioned. Sometimes they were discussed in the description itself:
It was also common to have the varieties of hops and malts in a stand-alone list, as shown below:
Mentioning the specific hops and malts used was so common that even some individual varieties made it into the top 50 list (Citra, Cascade, Mosaic for hops; Munich, Pale, and Pilsner for malts)
Several other ingredients were also commonly mentioned:
- barley (typically in the phrase "malted barley", i.e., malt again)
Fruit and coffee were sometimes ingredients, but more commonly these words were used to describe the taste of the beer, so they are discussed in later.
Beer drinkers experience beer through multiple senses, and many descriptions mentioned a beer's color. The most commonly used color words were "pale", "dark", "golden", and "amber". Note that "pale" and "amber" can be used to refer to a beer style, the beer's color, or both. Most uses in our data could be interpreted either way, though we tried to choose examples where the intent was clearly to describe color. "Light" was a common word in descriptions, but was more commonly used to refer to taste than to color. Examples for each color term are shown below.
- pale colored
- golden pale hue
- pale garnet colored beauty
- deep dark brown with ruby red tones
- big, dark brew
- easy drinking dark lager
- deep golden in color
- golden straw color
- butterscotch golden hue
- deep amber color
- pale amber-hued lager
- amber in color
Taste and Aroma
The word "light" was used in several ways in descriptions, but most commonly it helped describe taste:
- light tannin
- light malt character
- light herbal notes
The word "dry" was frequently used to describe the brewing process ("dry hopped"), but also was also frequently used to describe taste:
- finishing dry
- dry malt backbone
- with a dry linger
The words "crisp" and "refreshing" were frequently used to together but also appeared on their own:
- finishes crisp and refreshing
- a light crisp malty ale
- this refreshing summer brew
The words "floral," "tropical," and "citrus" were used in similar ways to describe aroma and taste:
- a unique floral aroma
- floral and spicy notes
- aromas of tropical fruit,
- intriguing tropical notes
- aroma of citrus
- notes of citrus and stone fruit
The words "coffee" and "chocolate" were also used in similar ways, sometimes in combination:
- notes of milk chocolate, caramel and coffee
- rich malt flavors of toffee, chocolate and roasted coffee
- aromas of toasted hazelnut, chocolate and candied citrus
- bright coffee acids
Finally, "bitterness" was used both to describe what a beer had and what it didn't have:
- intense bitterness with very dry character
- just the right amount of hop bitterness
- low bitterness and huge tropical aroma
- almost no bitterness
Note that it was very common for breweries to specify a beer's IBU alongside ABV before or after the description, so it's interesting that descriptions frequently supplemented the numerical value with descriptive language as in the examples above.
The goal of the above analysis was to give a general sense of what a typical beer description from a Washington craft brewery looks like. There are two ways to use this kind of normative data: To fit in or to stand out. Either one can be useful depending on the target audience and the goals.
If the intent is to fit in, it would be advisable to use many words that are found in the top 50 lists above. This will tend to give the description a more comfortable, familiar feeling.
There are multiple approaches to standing out. One is to focus on describing the beer itself; note how different each of these three descriptions feels:
- Altered contact rewires your perception of IPAs with it's electrifyingly tart and juicy demeanor. Plug into galvanized notes of orange, tangerine, mango, and pineapple. There's no turning back now.
- Time and nature can do wondrous things, causing beautiful flowers to spring forth from fallow fields and, in this case, causing a beer that was rather rough around the edges in its youth to develop a surprising elegance and sophistication with age.
- Delicate aromas of light oak, lemon rind, peach and strawberries. Ruby-straw hue with tastes of tropical fruit, melon and dense strawberry.
As another approach, a brewery can insert a human interest element into a description, which can both make it unique and hard to replicate:
- We wanted to showcase the locally roasted coffee our neighbors in Packwood make, so we added 10% fresh-roasted, cold press coffee to our porter.
- We (Steve and Ari…STARI) have created this sweet milk stout tailored after our favorite coffee drink.
- This is a special collaboration for us. We were honored to have Kyle brew here at Trap Door Brewing and now he’s off to fulfill his dream with “Kings and Daughters”. We couldn’t just part ways without collaborating on a beer. So Kyle teamed up with new Head Brewer Kevin Hanny and Brewer Jake Watt to create a delicious farewell beer that will definitely be missed when it’s gone!
Whatever the approach, be aware that this analysis only covers the tip of the iceberg in terms of the variety and creativity in craft beer descriptions today. It is well worth your while to spend some time carefully examining the descriptions created by other craft breweries.