The Strange Stories Behind the Names of 5 Popular Beer Styles


Not a wine! [Photograph: Mike Reis]



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Beer labels can be a confusing world of foreign and funny-sounding words. That much we've established.

"Where do all these words come from!? What do they all mean?"

Stop shaking your fist at the sky, dear reader. We've got your back. Here's the story behind the names of 5 beer styles you'll see all over your local beer store:


Have you ever wondered why there's often a goat on the labels that adorn bock beers? There's a story there. Beer of this style is said to have originated in Einbeck, Germany. The brews found their way to Munich, where the locals ordered their "Einbeck bier"—a name that ultimately morphed to "ein Bock bier." "Ein Bock" is a term in German used for a male goat, so the critter on your label represents a little wordplay. The name, and the goat, stuck.

Russian Imperial Stout

Russia isn't exactly known for its influence on American craft brewing yet many bottles on the shelves of your beer shop bear its name. The history of Russian imperial stout stems back to the 18th century. Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, held court as the Empress of Russia. During her reign, she developed a taste for a very strong stout from England's Anchor Brewery (no, not the guys that make the Steam beer). Being in a position to call a few shots, ol' Kate the Great had the beer exported to her to satisfy her cravings. Sensing a marketing opportunity, the brewery (which was known as Courage Brewery at the time) eventually renamed the beer Courage Imperial Russian Stout. Today, the market is full of imitators and innovators playing with the style.


This one seems to throw a lot of people off. Let's start by saying this: there are no grapes in this beer. It isn't a wine in any sense of the word. We call this beer "barleywine" because, first of all, it approaches (and can exceed!) the strength of wine. "Barley-based beverage brewed to the strength of wine" just doesn't have the ring that "barleywine" does.

But why make the comparison to wine at all? It can probably be explained away with one word: marketing. Honestly, there isn't a totally clear explanation. Historians seem to agree that Bass was likely the first brewer to market their beer (in this case, the beer called simply No. 1) as a barleywine and it seems to have taken off from there. In any case, barleywine is most definitely a beer, and a strong one at that.


Meaning "season" in French, this is a style of beer that originated on farms in France and in the French-speaking area of Belgium known as Wallonia. Produced in the cooler months and consumed throughout the farming season, these beers were made to refresh seasonal workers known as "saisonnières" as the weather warmed up. A seasonal product brewed for seasonal workers—I think you get it.


This style's name is a direct translation from German meaning "yeast (hefe) wheat (weizen)." Appetizing, no? If unappealing, the name is apt. The beers are characterized in part by their pale color (from the large percentage of malted wheat used in their production) and cloudy appearance (caused in part by the wheat and in part by the yeast used to ferment this style of beer). The attention paid to yeast in the beer's naming is especially appropriate when you consider that it's responsible for the signature banana and clove flavor found in traditional examples of this style.

Any other beer styles you're curious about? Chime in the comments below.