Slutty Cousins and Yellow Snow: Brewers reveal secrets behind their greatest labels

Slutty Cousins and Yellow Snow: Brewers reveal secrets behind their greatest labels

VicesAugust 07, 2017 By Amanda Pampuro

A master of minimalism, Ernest Hemingway’s "Baby Shoes" spanned just six words. While it takes most writers a bit longer to reach a point, great beer labels leave Hemingway's greatest work looking like purple prose:

Nib Smuggler Milk Chocolate Porter.
Yellow Snow IPA.
Scotty Karate.

Like great poems tied together with twisting metaphors, these literary labels are headlines hovering over greater stories, inside jokes and historical moments in brewery lore.

Nib Smuggler Chocolate Milk Porter, brewed by Funky Buddha of Oakland Park, Florida, is the title page on a tale of attempted agricultural smuggling squashed by customs.

“The story goes our head brewer was looking for cacao nibs to use in this beer that fit the specific flavor profile he wanted,” says Brand Director John Lin. “He found a certain type of Brazilian cacao nib that he liked, but he wasn't able to order industrial quantities of it. His brother-in-law was coming to visit him from Brazil (his wife is Brazilian), and so our head brewer asked if he would bring 20 pounds of nibs back with him in his luggage. His brother-in-law was stopped at immigration and the nibs were confiscated, and so they started affectionately calling him the ‘nib smuggler.’ The name stuck with the beer.”

Rogue Brewery, of Portland Oregon, released Yellow Snow IPA in 2002 to honor the Winter Olympics being held in Utah. To this day, Yellow Snow is released with Mount Hood’s first snowfall in November and poured through the spring thaw. The patron drink of “winter sports and common sense,” does not mock the individual who willingly drinks yellow snow, but is a jab at rumors of bribery and corruption surrounding the 2002 Olympics.

“Either you get the reference or you don’t,” mysteriously noted one Rogue henchman.

Despite national notoriety, a number of brews are dedicated to beloved local landmarks and icon, like one-man band Scotty Karate. One year, Scotty accompanied Michigan’s Dark Horse Brewery crew to the Great Taste of the Midwest Festival. When they wrote the name of the performer on the chalkboard beside their drink list, founder Aaron Morse said, “All day people started ordering the Scotty Karate, and we had to explain, ‘no that’s Scotty Karate.’ By the end of the day, we decided to make him a beer. It turns out that Scotty Karate Scotch Ale just rolled off the tongue.”

But are all brews bestowed with such thoughtful, loving names? No. Not even most. In 2015 alone, Funky Buddha brewed 130 different beers and had to come up with a way to christen each and every one of them. Pressed for time — and caught in a pun drought — most of the names just sounded really cool at the time.

One marketing coordinator for Boulder Beer Company — famous for euphonic epigraphs Sweaty Betty Blond and Past Time Pale Ale (discontinued) — confessed, “I believe our managers just brainstorm names and then they check TTB.”

“The funny thing is, there isn’t usually a huge backstory,” Morse of Dark Horse says. “A lot of the time, we open books and pick a word and go off that.”

What about Kamikaze Kaleidoscope? That summer citrus wheat was pulled from a book. Scary Jesus Rock Star? “A collaboration with a chef in Chicago [Cleetus Friedman of the Fountainhead], who sent me a bunch of names and none of them were very good, so I ended up taking one word from each and making that up,” More says, adding sometimes he picks a name like Slutty Cousin, “mainly to make people say the name when they order it.”

Well, surely Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale has some skeletons in the closet? Not really. Dead Guy was originally a Dia de los Muertos themed-brew for the belated Mexican restaurant Casa U Betcha.

Like click bait, most labels might be leads to stories so boring you’ll wish you never asked, but now and then, you’re bound to find a gem. Next time you're in a new neighborhood and don’t know whether to pick Peter Piper’s Pickled Pint or the Pig Latin Lager, try asking your bartender for the brew with the best story.