pun (n): the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound.
I used to calculate that there were about 20,000 beers produced in the United States each year--figuring about ten beers a brewery. Oh, those gentle old times! I was recently looking at the beer lists of the largest three breweries (Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium), and they will produce a combined eighty-three beers this year--28 each. So probably, given the spurt of new brewery openings and the inexorable logic of the novelty curve, there are something like double that number. That means two things: 1) more beer than any human can even comprehend, much less drink, and 2) lots and lots of bad beer names.
The worst are puns.
I was reminded of this when I got an email that Ninkasi (maker of Helles Belles and Maiden the Shade) was releasing their tasty winter sticke, Sleigh'r. It seems no one can make a rye ale without succumbing to pun--usually with increasingly abstruse meaning. When I was drinking Smooth Ryed with some friends, not a single one got the joke--they all just thought it was a strange and inexplicable name. A contender for most blighted by puns are fresh hop beers, where at least half have punny names.
I get it. My father was late in his family's birth order, and by the time my grandparents got to him they said (paraphrasing), "screw it--no middle name for you." Brewers have to come up with dozens of names, one every other week or so, and they get a little overwhelmed. A pun pops into the noggin, and it both amuses and gives some insight into the type of beer: seems like a good idea. I chose to call out Ninkasi because I am amused by those names. All three of the ones I mentioned are triple-meaning puns, referencing not just the style/season in the name, but a favorite heavy metal band. Matt Van Wyk once named a beer Willamette Dammit and I swooned. So they're not all terrible.
But I would like to put in a request on behalf of beer drinkers everywhere. Mind the puns. Like crystal malt, they are best when used sparingly. What they offer in amusement they many times lack in memorability. Sometimes they don't make sense because the reference is too obscure. Often they require spellings that make rational people blanch. Sometimes they're just bad. Name beers after your family, your pets, your favorite salmon species, but beware the seductive allure of the pun. There's a reason everyone groans when you make a pun in mixed company, and the same is true for beer names.