By Nicholas Goroff
It’s time again to raise a pint to free speech. Last year, in a case which pitted the Maryland brewery against the Michigan liquor commission over both the name and label art of the Belgian Style IPA known as “Raging Bitch,” Flying Dog scored a victory for free expression when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that not only did Michigan’s ban on the sale of the beer violate the brewery’s 1st amendment rights, but that Flying Dog could hold the commission liable for damages. As reported by Reason, the brewers have not only experienced praise throughout the beer world for their anti-authoritarian stance on the matter, but announced that any awarded damages will be used to fund a non-profit “1st Amendment Society” to advocate for a preservation of free speech rights.
Last August, while the case was filtering through the courts, CEO Jim Caruso reflected on a previous obscenity case stating to the brightestyoungthings.com that “We don’t like that kind of arbitrary authoritarianism.” Earlier that year while talking with Craftbeer.com’s Andy Sparhawk, Caruso laid out in unambiguous detail just what his brewery’s real sentiment on the challenges were saying; “We didn’t take this appalling attempt at censorship laying down…”
Plenty of fights it seems, have previously been picked with breweries over other releases deemed “sexist” or “offensive” by many a bored and overpaid culture critic in desperate need of a first world problem to write about. Among these, their Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout was singled out alongside Raging Bitch, as well as “Tramp Stamp” from Clown Shoes brewing and Pig Mind Brewings “PD” blueberry ale.
However the suits and complaints made against Flying Dog regarding obscenity are but the tip of the iceberg in respect to authoritarian efforts to censor and control the growing culture of craft brewing. Last year, UK brewer Brewdog came under fire not just once, but twice from LGBTQ+ activists who claimed the brewery’s marketing and beer labels were “offensive” to trans people, sex workers and others. The first claim came about as a result of an ad campaign and video entitled “#DontMakeUsDoThis,” in which the bearded male brewers posed as red light district prostitutes.
Activists quickly assembled to shake their pudgy fists and limp wrists at BrewDog with (of course) an online petition demanding the brewers pull the ad and images. Stating that they adamantly supported the rights of the LGBTQ+ population, BrewDog attempted (and failed) to placate the triggered masses by releasing another line called “No Labels,” which they branded as the first transgender beer. Citing that the hops used in the beer change sex prior to harvest, BrewDog even announced plans to dedicate a portion of sales revenue to Queerist of the Queer, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group.
This however was (predictably) not enough to placate some activists, with the gay rights activism group Stonewall saying through a spokesperson;
“While it’s encouraging to see BrewDog raising money for trans youth communities, and we like the ‘No Label’ concept, we’re concerned about the language. The trans community is diverse – many trans people do not transition, or identify with binary genders, and BrewDog’s language undermines that.”
Flying Dog’s label art however, racy or not, is the simple scribbling of another struggling artist. Recognizable to anyone with the right set of eyes, on the label to every Flying Dog beer is the work of Ralph Steadman, acclaimed artist and longtime friend to the late godfather of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. It was Steadman who drew the now famous portrait of two tripping weirdos driving madly through the Bat Country in which they could not stop from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Amidst Steadman’s more outlandish line work, one lesser known label used on Flying Dog’s “Counter Culture” created by him surprisingly failed to court the sorts of outrage a pair of saggy dog teats and the word “bitch” engendered, when he recreated Christ’s “Last Supper” with a gender swapped savior of mankind. Surprisingly though, this bastardization of what to many is a sacred image has inspired little in the way of public backlash. While those of us in our thirties may remember the days of evangelical outrage lashing out at seemingly everything, we’re once again presented with evidence that the roles have once again changed hands.
It would seem that in certain circles of the beer world, at least in respect to the brewing side of things, some companies, CEOs and brew masters are catching on to the unfortunate truth which members of the atheist and gaming communities have known for years. This of course being to never, ever capitulate to the throes of social justice warriors or censorious government authoritarians when it comes to your art or speech. Whether the lessons of such as exemplified by Flying Dog are fully realized throughout the beer world –of which your author is a proud part– or, if such sad realities in respect to reactionary politics are only realized after said world is inundated and overrun with such authoritarians, has yet to be seen.
However with such a growing community enjoying a demographic split in respect to age, with everyone from fledgling millennials to veterans of middle age, who themselves largely still remember the mind numbing growth of political correctness in the 1990’s, many remain hopeful that the craft brew culture can not only rid itself of feckless hipster influences, but remain free of such as its growth continues.