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When Dogs Can Fly: Maryland's Largest Brewery Leaves the Brewers Association

If you attended a North American institution of higher education starting in the late nineties and continuing into the aughts and beyond, you may have received and forwarded an email describing humorous and/or offensive sex acts that later became the staple of sites like Urban Dictionary and games like Cards Against Humanity. Some of these acts are anatomically near-impossible, and a handful crossed the line (blurred though you may think it is) into sexual assault. Many of these involved men doing things to, and not with, women. Men, as subjects, acting on women, objects. Think of recent debates around consent and the act of “stealthing,” and you’ll get a good idea about the darker side of this list.

Included in this email was a sex act called a “pearl necklace,” also the name of Flying Dog’s Chesapeaker Oyster Stout, which debuted in 2011. Earlier this month, Flying Dog announced that they would leave the Brewers Association (BA), citing freedom of expression and free enterprise. It is a reaction to the BA’s decision to crack down on offensive beer names.

The BA represents thousands of smaller (compared to their macro competitors) American-owned breweries. They are a trade association whose primary mission is to advance the interests of their brewery members, namely, to sell beer. While I doubt the BA has any hard data, they have plenty of anecdotes that some brewery labels and beer names are hurting sales and the image of “craft, independent” beer. Some of these anecdotes involve market pressure in the forms of beer and/or brewery boycotts and social media campaigns, among other means. This site has chimed in on some of these discussions via Twitter and Instagram, urging breweries and their representatives to do better when it comes to labeling and naming beer.

Beer remains overwhelmingly white and male (and Flying Dog is no exception), so much so that the BA did not even think to collect demographic data on brewery owners, staff, and employees until earlier this year. If they are to expand “craft” or “independent” beer’s share of the marketplace, it will have to come from, in no small part, women and other historically marginalized groups. Referring to a beer as a “panty dropper,” or naming it “Once You Go Black” or “Date Grape” [note: these are actual fucking beer names!!!] will not help that cause.

In response to beer names and labels like this, and with the presumable goal of aiding the expansion of craft beer to untapped audiences, the BA updated its marketing and advertising code. We’ll let the Denver Post take it from here:

An independent, three-member panel that brings expertise from academia, marketing and law will take up a case when another brewery lodges a complaint. If a brand name wins an award but has been deemed inappropriate, it is not allowed to use names and logos from the Great American Beer Festival, which will be Oct. 5-7 in Denver, or World Beer Cup to promote their winning beer.

The beer name will not be announced onstage during the award ceremony or promoted in competition materials, such as the winners’ list — although the brewery producer and style of beer will be. A brewery’s membership is not at stake if a beer is found inappropriate, and the new rule does not apply to previous winners. The Brewers Association also created a diversity committee to identify inclusivity issues. 

Beer should be for everyone, except Nazis (who are the first entry in a non-exhaustive list). Offensive labels send a message that not all are welcome. Sure, we can “let the market sort it out,” but markets are inefficient, having given us our current president, redlining, rising healthcare costs, and any number of items on Taco Bell’s menu. Don’t further legitimize the racist and sexist crap advanced, intentionally or not, by a subset of breweries. Doing so hinders craft beer’s development.

The BA isn’t “the state;” it’s a voluntary trade association and Flying Dog is well within their rights to leave it. Indeed, one can see how Flying Dog, which also has a beer named “Raging Bitch,” would feel under attack by the revised marketing and advertising code. However, their departure from the BA goes beyond beer names, even if they were a proximate cause. Flying Dog’s chief executive officer, Jim Caruso, has a long track record of First Amendment advocacy, having sued the state of Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission, which blocked the sale of Raging Bitch, a Belgian-style India Pale Ale. Flying Dog won that battle after five years of appeals. Caruso then launched the 1st Amendment Society with the damages awarded by his legal victory. The foundation “aims to raise the public consciousness of these rights by advocating on behalf of and organizing events that promote the arts, journalism and civil liberties.” Proceeds from Pearl Necklace Chesapeake Oyster Stout sales go to rebuild oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay. So at least Flying Dog puts their money where their mouth is.

Caruso and Flying Dog probably don’t need the Brewers Association. The brewery has built a viable brand using its “Good Beer, No Shit” ethos (that slogan was also the subject of a court case). Those beer names, and label art from Ralph Steadman, play a large part in that brand. This move by the BA to enforce standards is a preliminary one; it’s understandable that Flying Dog doesn’t want to stick around should the Association take other, more punitive, measures.

In a six-page letter that is by turns scathing and hyperbolic, Caruso tore into the BA’s decision to form an “Advertising Complaint Review Panel,” and sent out a press release for good measure, writing that the BA’s actions are, “nothing more than a blatant attempt to bully and intimidate craft brewers into self-censorship and to only create labels that are acceptable to the management and directors of the BA.”

The split from the BA is not coming from some backbench member. Flying Dog is the 33rd largest brewery in the United States, and by far the largest producer of beer in Maryland. Their sales footprint includes 27 states and 22 countries. Beyond that, this is also a brewery that has engaged with the BA. Flying Dog has been a sponsor of the BA’s premier food and beer event, SAVOR, and hosts visiting breweries at an annual “Backyard Symposium” during SAVOR Week. [Note: our editor Bill DeBaun has chaired panels at past symposiums.] Flying Dog’s profile and the public announcement of their departure have unsurprisingly generated conversation in the beer world.

All BA members sacrifice something when joining, be it time to serve on committees, or simply paying dues. It is shitty that this new BA panel and process is a bridge too far for Flying Dog, who could stay and influence the shape and scope of BA policies.

The brewery maintains that it is their commitment to the First Amendment driving their departure, but in a recent Washingtonian article they at least acknowledge the market pushback to some of their more “colorful” labels and names. They counter this criticism by contending that female employees approve of the beer names and labels and argue that the phrase “Raging Bitch” is empowering to women. Insisting that female employees’ approval of the beer ameliorates external concerns about a name or label either misses or avoids the reality that problematic labels don't become less so just because some supporters of them can be found.

In an industry still dominated by white men, it's easy to imagine women and other underrepresented groups opting into a “go along to get along” approach rather than pushing back on the powers that be. That seems not to have been the case at Flying Dog, per the Washingtonian article and conversations with staff there, but the more instances of legitimizing names and labels like this, the more pressure is put on women and groups elsewhere in the industry to accept labels they may not like because “other breweries have done it, too.” [A point also nicely made by Tony Budny in this week’s Screaming Into the Void.] If these names and labels become part of our shared discourse around beer it will lead to a less inclusive environment and industry.

In the aforementioned Washingtonian article, Caruso offers his perspective on women’s reactions to Raging Bitch:

Every time Caruso tells the story, he makes a gushing and defensive show of highlighting all the female buy-in for the name. One employee he gut-checked “was in her mid-twenties,” Caruso tells me. “She said, ‘I love it. It’s perfect, but I have to ask my mom.’ She came back the next day: ‘My mom loves it.’ ”

With Mom’s say-so, Caruso turned to more women on staff. One said, “If you don’t do that, I’ll be forever disappointed in you.”

Then there was the time he was in New York, focus-grouping the Bitch with the lady ball-busters of hedge funds and investment banks. “I went down to the Financial District to do a happy hour,” Caruso explained at the Newseum. “It was all women, all the financial people from Wall Street, all women. . . . I had a bunch of Raging Bitch swag—you know, T-shirts and so forth. You would have thought I was bringing rice to people who hadn’t eaten for two weeks. They attacked. I almost got a black eye. . . . They were pulling down, like, their pants and their shirts to show me the Raging Bitch T-shirt underneath, and I said, ‘Well, it’s really great to be here at the happy hour.’ And they said, ‘Jim, this is not a happy hour. This is a bitch session.’ ”

A few sentences later, he added: “This beer has empowered women in ways I can’t really relate to.”

Uh huh. Sure.

Again, Caruso and Flying Dog are more than entitled to leave the BA. One may not like the beer names or the CEO’s libertarian politics, but both are nothing if not consistent. This is who they are, and this is the brand they’ve cultivated. Deciding to leave is a puzzling choice given Flying Dog’s previous BA involvement and charitable works. The brewery was part of something larger, right up until they weren’t, all because the Association wants to sell more beer and thinks that the decency standards will do so. Flying Dog’s brand could be Steadman’s artwork alone, and I doubt sales would suffer. They don’t need to rely on double entendres and offensive names to move beer in the way a small subset of their younger, less-established competitors seem to. That the company has taken some steps in this direction, removing the phrases “Doggie Style” and “In Heat” from some labels, makes the decision to leave the BA all the more puzzling.

No doubt the Brewers Association will face challenges as it tries to herd more and more cats, especially when breweries are increasingly competing amongst each other for market share, which necessitates standing out in a crowded field. Factor in more diverse business models and approaches, and the brewing business is significantly less monolithic than it once was. The BA holds out hope that breweries, whether they brew on a half-barrel system in a small-town brewpub or make millions of barrels per year, are a like-minded lot in that as businesses they recognize the power of collective action. Breweries, like other entities advocating for themselves, are stronger as a group than they would be individually. Based on market share, the BA is correct. The Association is successful in that annually there are more breweries taking more market share from larger multinational brewing conglomerates, at least until the conglomerates acquire BA member breweries. As individual breweries without a trade association, it would be easier for those conglomerates to use their capital and distributive power to crowd out smaller breweries. And this is what is so odd about Flying Dog’s decision. Their cost-benefit analysis led them to leave the BA over the right to have potentially offensive beer names read from a podium at the Great American Beer Festival. The brewery could have been an elder statesman of sorts, showing others how to transition from sophomoric dick jokes to, well, anything else. Sure, free expression. But just because you can say something, it doesn’t mean you should. That those names and labels are more important to them than the collective organization and mutual defense of the industry speaks volumes: namely, that Caruso and Flying Dog didn’t believe in the BA as much as it seemed.

Disclosures: The author has three bottles of Raging Bitch in his fridge, gifted; has attended events at Flying Dog’s brewery as both a member of the media and a beer aficionado; and has lobbied Caruso directly, in vain, to bring back the 7 oz bottles of barleywine, named, yes, “Horn Dog.”  The author thanks Bill DeBaun for his editorial and creative contributions this piece. Even if you disagree with the argument it is a much stronger article thanks to his efforts.

Beer bottle photos via BeerAdvocate.

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