If the descriptor crushable did not yet exist, its invention would be necessary. In an era when domestic light beers want to be Margaritas, ciders want to be natural wines and seltzers and teas want to be spiked, “crushable” may be a fitting way to explain how booze’s categories and hierarchies have flattened in attempts to attract new audiences.
But “crushable” has existed for years, and it’s become arguably the drink world’s most pervasive marketing term today. “Crushable,” a decade ago, was still part of the party pidgin of bro culture, where the act of drinking classic, light beers in succession took on the kinematic language of sports. Beers were crushed, slammed, chugged and pounded. It was a language of vaguely violent synonyms, each landing with the same blissfully ignorant irreverence. This was a demographic with a parlance that the craft beer world, up to that point, had largely ignored. But it was the attitude that would define the next leg of the craft boom: The future was crushable.
“There is energy to that word, ‘crushable,’ that does not exist in the word ‘easy-drinking,’” says Karmen Olson, who, back in 2012, was the brand manager of Seattle’s Redhook Brewery, one of the oldest craft breweries in the United States. And it was energy, not necessarily expertise, that newer, more hesitant craft consumers responded to.
“How did a word with violent connotations become representative of a carefree ethos? And how is one to respond beyond, 'just vibes, bro'?”
In the early 2010s, Redhook had developed Audible Ale, a session pale ale geared toward sports fans, in partnership with veteran sportscaster Dan Patrick. However, the term “session” (which, at least since World War I, has denoted a low-ABV beer that someone could drink many pints of in a single bar outing) didn’t land—it was still a word for snobs. So Olson went in another direction. Redhook trademarked the tagline “Crushable Craft” in 2012; the earliest online usage of the term came a year later when Punch contributor Aaron Goldfarb referenced Audible Ale in a piece about tailgate beers. It’s been a near-exponential ascent for the term in the decade since, in ways the industry could not have foreseen.
“Crushable” is not a timeless term; in fact, it might only ever make sense in the now. The shorthand of a self-serious portrayal of American drinking history is dominated by the knockout strength of moonshine, bourbon, full-bodied Napa cabernets, palate-wrecking IPAs and holiday-ending imperial stouts. Thus, it is through a kind of paradigm shift that “crushable” has captured the public imagination. The current zeitgeist revels in crisp lagers, dry ciders, effervescent hard seltzers, young natural wines and nonalcoholic cocktails. Beverages that, more than anything, promote the idea of laissez-faire fun and of a lightness of being. The power inherent to the word “crushable” resides in the drinker, not the drink.
It’s a power that allows for choice. After all, beverages that score high on the crushability index can simultaneously satisfy those looking to drink less and those wanting to drink more. “You can make the argument that ‘crushable’ and ‘sessionable’ parallels with American binge-drinking culture,” says Elle Holcomb, a Portland, Oregon–based winemaker and alcohol sales representative. But she stops short of this conclusion, offering that the initial intention of “crushable” is less about indulgence than it is an accessory for socializing. The malleability and paradox of the term circles back to the curious irony of its origin: How did a word with violent connotations become representative of a carefree ethos? And how is one to respond beyond, “just vibes, bro”?
Maybe “crushable” was inevitable. Like “smooth,” it’s a descriptor that invariably finds its way to the lowest common denominator without betraying too much. “Crushable” isn’t as specific as beer parlance’s “sessionable.” Likewise, it isn’t as rooted as natural wine’s “glou-glou.” But that’s beside the point. Its value lies in its universality. True to its name, “crushable” has collapsed those words into a broader synonym, one that trivializes the barrier of entry to the craft drinks industry and the “aspirational authority” baked into its vocabulary.
“There’s no North Star that helps average consumers approach complex beverages,” Holcomb said. “Having verbiage that allows for that, I think it’s friendly marketing.”