Say What? Say Who? Say Why?
Once you’ve dotted all “i’s” and crossed all “t’s” to the governments’ (federal and state) satisfaction, you can still get worked over in the court of public opinion. Sometimes, the most innocuous labels can generate the most controversy. In 2009, Gene Muller, president of Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill, NJ, began releasing his “Exit” series of experimental, one-off beers in 750-ml bottles. As Muller explained, New Jersey lacks geographic features like towering mountain ranges or mighty rivers, so residents size up one another by asking, “What exit are you from?”
The series, however, hit a speed bump when both the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and Mothers Against Drunk Driving registered their protests. “The combination of a roadway and advertising for any kind of beer doesn’t make any kind of sense,” charged Mindy Lazar, executive director of New Jersey’s chapter of MADD. “This is almost a mockery.”
Muller was taken aback. “Did MADD feel that kids were going to buy the beer and party at the exits? What kid is going to buy a $10 bottle of beer?” Nevertheless, he placated his critics by posting the disclaimer on his website: “The New Jersey Turnpike Authority has no affiliation with the Exit Series. Both the Turnpike Authority and Flying Fish agree that you should never drink and drive.”
Sex sells products, but it can also get you covered up. In 2007, a Reading, PA, microbrewery called Legacy Brewing Co. began marketing a product called Hedonism Ale, which it claimed was “brewed with an orgy of ingredients.” The label showed an assortment of cartoon characters engaging in public displays of affection (nothing beyond kissing and hugging, really). However, one Lancaster distributor called Beer Ink viewed the brand as pornographic and began wrapping cases in plain brown paper.
Poking fun at someone’s religion is another way to inflame public opinion. About 2005, Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka, CA, introduced a product called Indica IPA. On the label was an elephant-headed Hindu deity called Ganesha, shown grasping a beer with his trunk and one of his four arms.
Ganesha is worshipped by millions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains who revere him as the remover of obstacles and a patron of the arts and sciences. Many were offended enough to complain to the brewery and organize boycotts. Some emailed bomb threats. One angry Hindu even filed a lawsuit, calling the label “a hate crime.” Brij Dhir, identified in the press as a Golden Gate University law student and licensed attorney in India, said $1 billion in damages would be an appropriate sum to compensate Hindus around the world for their emotional distress.
Lost Coast subsequently redesigned the label, removing several of the elephant’s limbs to make him appear more nonsectarian. But to this day the controversy remains a sore point with the brewery. Lost Coast doesn’t even mention Indica IPA on its website. “This way we feel like we’re not rubbing salt in anyone’s wounds,” says sales director Briar Bush. “We’re not trying to profit off of anyone’s religious preference.”
On the other hand, Greg Schirf of Wasatch Beers in Salt Lake City was actively courting controversy when he premiered his Polygamy Porter (slogan: “Why have just one?”) in 2001. Schirf brews in a state whose population is more than two-thirds Mormon. More properly called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion outlawed its controversial practice of plural marriage in 1890 and has since tried to integrate itself into the American mainstream. However, some breakaway sects still allow men to take multiple wives.
We’re not making fun of anyone’s religion, just saying this is a part of Utah’s heritage,” insisted Schirf in an interview several years ago. Not long after the brand’s introduction, however, Utah raised its state beer tax—already the highest in the nation—another $1.88 to $12.88 a barrel. That act of retaliation continues to cost Schirf around $50,000 extra per year. On the plus side, he’s made a small fortune in T-shirt sales, raking in $100,000 in the first three months after the wire services picked up on Polygamy Porter.
In 2005 Schirf made headlines once again, this time with an amber beer called Evolution Amber Ale. A “Darwin Approved” seal specifies that the beer was “Created in 27 days, not 7.” The brand, Schirf explained, was inspired by a Utah state senator who tried to pressure state schools into teaching intelligent design theory as an alternative to Darwin’s theories.
It might appear to be risky policy to tweak the powers-that-be, but as Schirf once explained, Mormons don’t drink alcohol, and “you can’t lose a customer you’ll never have.”