Craggy Peak Research
Driving empathovation.
hops growing

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:

This New England style India Pale Ale sports a soft mouthfeel with a pillowy texture. Tangerine and tropical notes dominate the nose; while soft bitterness with flavors of stone fruit, citrus, and a slight grassiness round out this delicious IPA.

Many descriptions don't stop with describing the beer itself. They suggest who might like to drink it:

They suggest when we might want to drink it:

They communicate a set of values:

They convey something of the personality of the brewery:

And they even try to teach us something:

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.

Analysis

Data collection

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
1 ale ale
2 hops hops
3 malt IPA
4 beer malt
5 IPA light
6 pale pale
7 light beer
8 brewed organic
9 wheat brewed
10 dry hop
11 hop lager
12 organic wheat
13 notes dry
14 bitterness hopped
15 citrus crisp
16 pilsner notes
17 flavor finish
18 crisp refreshing
19 smooth flavor
20 fruit citrus
21 finish pilsner
22 roasted caramel
23 malts smooth
24 style hazy
25 refreshing style
26 aroma clean
27 lager malts
28 barley bitterness
29 caramel sour
30 yeast roasted
31 flavors Citra
32 American barley
33 hopped aroma
34 Citra stout
35 hazy American
36 Cascade Cascade
37 tropical flavors
38 clean made
39 golden Mosaic
40 coffee fruit
41 dark dark
42 chocolate yeast
43 body aged
44 Mosaic honey
45 balanced classic
46 honey Simcoe
47 aromas amber
48 floral valley
49 Munich balanced
50 German barrel

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.

Beer styles

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:

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:

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:

As seen in these examples, use of the term "stout" was always to indicate the style of beer:

Ingredients

It should come as no surprise that among ingredients, hops and malt were most frequently mentioned. Sometimes they were discussed in the description itself:

hops and malts in the description 1
hops and malts in the description 2

It was also common to have the varieties of hops and malts in a stand-alone list, as shown below:

hops and malts list 1
hops and malts list 2

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:

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.

Color

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.

Taste and Aroma

The word "light" was used in several ways in descriptions, but most commonly it helped describe taste:

The word "dry" was frequently used to describe the brewing process ("dry hopped"), but also was also frequently used to describe taste:

The words "crisp" and "refreshing" were frequently used to together but also appeared on their own:

The words "floral," "tropical," and "citrus" were used in similar ways to describe aroma and taste:

The words "coffee" and "chocolate" were also used in similar ways, sometimes in combination:

Finally, "bitterness" was used both to describe what a beer had and what it didn't have:

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.

Conclusion

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:

As another approach, a brewery can insert a human interest element into a description, which can both make it unique and hard to replicate:

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.