PhD candidate cracks open the 'language' of craft beer

February 4, 2021 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Do you remember when a beer was just a beer and there were no fancy names or eloquent descriptions of flavour on the side of the can?

Times have changed with the emergence of the craft beer market in North America. And with it, a new language has emerged.

Lex Konnelly, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Linguistics was intrigued by this new language and decided to explore “craft beer talk” in a paper recently published in the academic journal Language & Communication.

“As a craft beer drinker myself, I have a personal interest in the industry,” said Konnelly. “And I noticed a lot of meta-linguistic discussion about craft beer talk, even in my own social networks. I was really interested in just what exactly was happening there — like what features people were picking up on that came across as pretentious or elitist, for example. And what flew under the radar.”

Just exploring how the language developed was in itself interesting, but Konnelly wanted to delve deeper.

“I wanted to think about how these formulations, these descriptions of products work to perpetuate and reinforce various types of inequalities — particularly class inequality — which is a central interest for me in terms of how we talk about these sort of artisinal things,” they said.

Craft beer wants to borrow some of these features of how we talk about wine in order to say, ‘hey, beer is a fancy thing, beer can be a fancy, elite commodity.’ But at the same time, we don't want to take ourselves quite that seriously.

Konnelly focused their attention on the Toronto craft beer scene, exploring small craft breweries in the Greater Toronto Area. They reviewed each brewery’s website, the descriptions of the companies themselves, as well as the descriptions and language used to describe the beer they crafted.

Konnelly notes that much of the eloquent and descriptive language used around craft beer mirrors that of wine, “which is not surprising, particularly for linguists who are familiar with how people talk about food.”

What they mean is that when we describe what we’re consuming, we often do so in terms of other things, typically other commodities that in many cases aren’t even ingredients in what we’re enjoying. Among serious craft beer drinkers, craft beer doesn’t just “taste like” something — it’s far more complex. Now there are expressive descriptions about hints, notes and traces of flavour, or combinations of flavours.

“There's this kind of specificity that happens when we're assessing the flavor of something. So it's not just citrus, it's tropical citrus, like citrus on its own is somehow not fancy enough,” said Konnelly. This is part of how beer is subtly constructed to be fancy in a linguistic sense — not only is the consumer expected to recognize ‘citrusness’ in the beverage, but also to be able to distinguish between regular citrus and tropical citrus, for example. 

This practice of evaluation is heavily borrowed from wine, Konnelly says. But there are differences between wine and craft beer language.

“For the most part, when we think about how people talk about wine, it is very serious. It's intense and it's very particular,” said Konnelly.

A hint of pretention and a whisper of playfulness

“Craft beer wants to borrow some of these features of how we talk about wine in order to say, ‘hey, beer is a fancy thing, beer can be a fancy, elite commodity’. But at the same time, ‘we don't want to take ourselves quite that seriously.’”

In other words, craft beer language walks a linguistic tightrope that includes some of these more ‘elitist’ aspects paired with wanting to reach a wider audience.

“And so that's something that I found to be really fascinating about how Toronto brewers, in particular, constructed beer as this simultaneously fancy, but also egalitarian thing,” said Konnelly.

So while you can market craft beer as something for everybody, that raises a really big question of who exactly everybody is.

Take the description of one local pale ale as an example: “The minute you crack your can, an aroma of grapefruit, mango and pine hit you in the face; like a beaver slapping his tail on a pristine small body of water in Ontario.”

Using craft beer terms — there’s a hint of pretention, but also a whisper of playfulness.

Another interesting observation is that though craft beer talk is perhaps meant to be inclusive, it’s still a landscape perceived to be dominated by white men who can afford expensive beer. Though it may not be meaning to, it does create somewhat of a gender and socio-economic divide.

“So while you can market craft beer as something for everybody, that raises a really big question of who exactly everybody is,” said Konnelly.

“At the end of the day, access to the language really depends on who can afford that access in the first place. And so, even if you change the language of how craft beer is described, that might not necessarily change that you have to pay $8 for a pint. The way we talk about craft beer is part of how we justify its value.”

That higher price — along with the involvement of the craft industry in the gentrification of neighborhoods — suggests that craft beer is becoming an increasingly important part of the ‘hipster,’ or ‘yuppie’ lifestyle, where authenticity and locality are important selling points — all of which can feed into class, race and gender biases.

“And this is part of a broader story that connects even outside the craft beer industry, to how we think about artisanal markets in general,” said Konnelly. “There's a class divide that continues to widen in access to these commodities.”