Saugatuck Brewing Co. thought it was being edgy in 2011 when it coined the name “Hop on a Blonde” for its new blonde ale.
The thinking carried over to the beer’s label, which depicted a buxom woman in a red bikini, covered in hops and sunbathing on a beach.
Consumers gave the beer average ratings in various online forums, and few drinkers leveled any criticism at the brewery for its marketing.
However, executives at Saugatuck Brewing opted in 2016 to discontinue the beer.
“We made a decision last year to not go forward with it any longer because of the label,” Vice President Kerry O’Donohue told MiBiz. “We didn’t want to be portrayed that way. We looked at it and decided that wasn’t the message we wanted to put out there.
“Back at the time, I’d say that looked a little edgy, which back then we saw that as positive. The face of our company is certainly family-friendly and we need to include that messaging in all of our marketing.”
Saugatuck Brewing’s decision to pull the beer highlights a growing sensitivity in the craft brewing industry to questionable labeling.
After years of building criticism, the craft brewing industry appears poised to crack down on racist, sexist and lewd labels in a bid to increase diversity and attract new drinkers to the market.
Specifically, the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association added provisions to its advertising and marketing code preventing a brewery from using the trade group’s branding on any offensive beer, including examples that win awards at the Great American Beer Festival or World Beer Cup. Moreover, the Brewers Association said it would not read the names of any offensive beers on stage during the event.
The association detailed the changes last month during the annual Craft Brewers Conference, held this year in Washington, D.C.
“We’re not telling any brewery what they can or should name their beer or what their label should look like,” said Brewers Association CEO Bob Pease. “What we are saying is that we’re not going to let our intellectual property be used to promote what we would consider offensive marketing or behavior.”
Although most applauded the Brewers Association’s move to curb offensive labeling as a step in the right direction, the action also drew criticism from some in the industry who believe the marketing guidelines lack teeth and do not go far enough to curb sexist and lewd marketing among brewers.
“Maybe all the ideas aren’t there yet, but to not say they’re going to implement some sort of vetting system to root out these products ahead of the GABF or the World Beer Cup to me is just sort of tone deaf,” said Chris Furnari, an editor at Brewbound, a Boston-based craft beer industry trade publication. “They’re happy to cash the check but don’t want someone to trade on their name with the recognition they’ve given them.”
Other critics have noted that the Brewers Association should screen for breweries with offensive names or beer labels prior to allowing them into the organization. However, Pease said limiting membership is fraught with issues over free speech and limiting brewers’ creativity.
“I understand (the criticism) but I would say those people aren’t familiar with what it means to run a trade association and what you can and cannot do,” Pease said.
At this time, the Brewers Association does not have plans to limit membership based on beer labels or provide further enforcement measures, Pease said.
HARMING THE INDUSTRY?
Regardless of the dispute over the Brewers Association’s new marketing guidelines, industry insiders say eliminating sexist and inappropriate names or labels remains essential to growing the number of craft beer drinkers as a whole. Many people may be put off by names such as “Raging Bitch Belgian IPA” from Flying Dog Brewery or “Panty Peeler” from Midnight Sun Brewing Co.
“Even though more and more women are coming into the industry and becoming craft beer drinkers, there are still plenty out there who have yet to become really loyal craft beer drinkers,” said Pauline Knighton-Prueter, president of Fermenta, a women’s craft beer collective based in Michigan. “Those are the groups that you absolutely want to target. … It disappoints me when I see a label that’s clearly offensive. You cringe because that’s not going to bring people in, that’s going to turn people away.”
Knighton-Prueter, a sales manager for Bellaire-based Short’s Brewing Co., noted breweries with inappropiate labels will likely be punished by the market.
But in the meantime, one brewery’s demeaning label could spark vast consumer backlash against the entire industry in an era of heightened scrutiny over brands, said John Koziatek, an instructor of graphic design at Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) who specializes in branding. He also operates his own design firm, Koz Creative Inc.
“I think the Brewers Association as a whole could be a little bit more forward with their guidelines or regulations governing over the body of craft brewers so that it doesn’t take a negative hit,” Koziatek said, citing recent controversies involving Pepsi and United Airlines as examples. “If a particular craft brewer takes a hit in regards to any type of controversy, it’s negative PR and that’s going to reflect, eventually, back upon the industry as a whole.”
As the craft brewing industry wrestles with how to deal with inappropriate labeling that could alienate consumers, large domestic breweries are launching campaigns aimed at attracting a more diverse group of drinkers. For example, Anheuser-Busch InBev said in April that it would open Veza Sur Brewing Co., a “Latin-American inspired craft brand,” this summer in Miami, according to a report in Brewbound.
‘A WINK AND A SMILE’
Most sources contacted for this report see the inappropriate beer labeling as more of a marketing tactic than evidence of companies harboring sexist or racist views.
“I don’t think any of these companies are supporting … these openly hostile, anti-woman or anti-queer, or anti-people of color agendas in terms of their value system,” said Susan Freeman, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at Western Michigan University. “I think we’re supposed to forgive them for just kind of playing around or (for) tongue-in-cheek kind of nods toward sexism. They’re not endorsing sexism, yet using sexist tropes.”
Most offensive craft beer labels are created with a “wink and a smile,” and often include some sort of double meaning, Freeman said.
For example, Odd Side Ales brews Bean Flicker beer with coffee, leaving it up to the customer to make the connection with a sexual innuendo. Another beer, Hazel’s Nuts, a barrel-aged imperial coffee stout with hazelnut, features a bearded man in drag and makeup on its label.
An executive at Odd Side Ales agreed to comment for this report, but could not be reached by the time it went to press.
While Saugatuck Brewing discontinued Hop on a Blonde, the company still contract brews “Bareback Ale” for Mackinac Island Brewhouse, which depicts a topless woman in a cowboy hat on the label. O’Donohue said the two companies are currently in discussions regarding the label, but he declined to discuss the issue further.
THE PC PENDULUM
Marketing with inappropriate labels often works. Some customers will buy additional beer simply because the labels are offensive, said Rishi Makkar, who owns Grand Rapids-based Rishi’s International Beverage, a retailer of craft beer, wine and spirits.
As a retailer, Makkar does not turn away beer with sexualized or otherwise inappropriate names or labels. However, if customers complain, Makkar will pull the beer from the store’s shelves as he did with one West Michigan-made beer whose name mocked people of Asian descent.
“I guess I’m immune to it and that’s really sad because that sums up the narrative of the country,” Makkar said. “For a while, we were going toward the PC side of things and I think we went too far to the PC side. Now it’s like that PC bubble burst all of a sudden, and we went backwards 30 years. I see the same thing in beer.”
Others see some craft brewers’ reliance on lewd and derogatory labeling as evidence that the industry is still in its “pubescent years,” said Koziatek of KCAD.
The relatively young craft brewing industry was founded on a spirit of rebelliousness and the use of inappropriate labels is, in part, an offshoot of that, according to industry sources. However, as the industry matures, most sources believe the use of those labels will decline.
In the meantime, Koziatek advises brewers to be wary of the perception they create for themselves and for their industry by using offensive labels.
“I’d say just be cognizant that it is a reflection of your personal beliefs and values,” he said. “(It) makes me question how you treat your kids, how you treat or value your spouse or significant other.”