Fifteen years ago, the names of BridgePort's beers ran like exhibits at the zoo: Blue Heron Pale Ale, Pintail ESB, Coho Pacific Extra Pale Ale. Then they went through a period lasting until roughly four years ago when the names read like this: IPA, ESB, Porter, Stout--and Blue Heron, their legacy label. Now, as they have almost completely reworked their line, it looks different once again: IPA, Blue Heron, Cafe Negro, Kingpin, Hop Czar, Haymaker. Do you see the difference?
Some breweries use a style as the name of a beer, and some actually name their beer. So:
My first exposure to this phenomenon came, coincidentally, back when BridgePort was ditching the animal names. They were very confident this was the right move, for two reasons: 1) with the proliferation of beers, no one could follow so many names, which weakened the line, and 2) they wanted to brand "BridgePort," not specific beers. The brewery was sure that with this change, people would just start asking for whichever BridgePort was on tap. Brand loyalty and yadda yadda. The big problem was a factor they hadn't considered (but which every beer lover in America could tell them): people drink beers, not brands. There's not a brewery on the planet I would order exclusively without ever hearing which beer was pouring. (Okay, Dupont, but mainly because it's so rare on tap.) And so, here we are a decade later, and BridgePort has slowly worked its way back to named beers.
I don't think there's any right answer--as the Sierra Nevada and Mirror Pond examples demonstrate. If a brewery is lucky enough to have several well-selling beers, they're probably better off not tinkering with things. If, however, they become known for one beer, trying to develop an identity for other beers is probably not a bad idea. In BridgePort's case, IPA has long been the most popular beer in the line (overwhelmingly). The launch of Hop Czar was wise and I think has helped bring a bit of balance back--and no doubt BridgePort hopes Kingpin and Cafe Negro will find loyalists, too.
Of course, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the beer. I'll have some reviews of BridgePort's new beers soon.