Saturday, 11 March 2017

Inappropriate labels... or not?

Way back in 2011, Flying Monkey's owner Peter Chiodo
held up this bottle of Smashbomb Atomic IPA that got
grounded by the LCBO. In this photo from Ian McInroy
of the Barrie Examiner, Chiodo displays the "bomb blast"
label that the LCBO found to be potentially offensive. 
Well, the issue of sexism on craft beer labels has been causing a stir for a few years now and I recently weighed in on the matter when I discussed the 1950s Pin-Up girls quietly disappearing from the cans of Old Milwaukee, produced up here in Canada by Sleeman Brewing.

But it seems sexism isn't the only social arena where a beer label can run afoul. Oh no, no, my friends, there is much more socio-political controversy out there over craft beer labels that extend far beyond gender issues. Because so many labels have come under fire for so many reasons, I'll just be sticking to the beers I've had whose labels have come under fire for reasons other than sexism. And surprise, surprise, it turns out there's a few.

So let's start with my first-ever IPA Of The Year from way back in 2013, Flying Monkeys (Barrie, Ontario) Smashbomb Atomic IPA. Obviously, this beer has long been a favourite around Donny's Bar and Grill and I was genuinely surprised that this beer had been denied by the folks at the LCBO who screen the labels of incoming products. According to an April 2011 article in the Globe and Mail, the issue was one of sensitivity towards our soldiers who, at that time, were fighting missions in Libya and Afghanistan.
As you can see from the bottle and the six pack carrier, the bomb blasts
were taken out of the label and replaced with an image that looks more
like a dust storm. But wait... those single cans on the right, released last
Summer, have the bomb blasts reinserted again? What trickery be this? 

But while that story looked at many labels on beer, wine and liquor bottles, a much more thorough piece in the Barrie Examiner, written by Raymond Bowe in April 2011, looked at Smashbomb Atomic's label issues exclusively. In that article, Flying Monkeys' owner Peter Chiodo took a very conciliatory and understanding viewpoint of the LCBO's position. "It's a tough one for a small brewer any time we're censored. But the reality is the LCBO is really our biggest fan so we have to be mindful of that. They are supporting the craft beer movement." See? Now that's just a nice guy. A great Canadian boy who plays clean but hard in the corners, as Don Cherry might say.
I don't believe I've ever sampled two of my favourite IPAs side-by-side
before two weekends ago. Quite a difference in colour was the first
thing I noticed of the beers which were my 2013 and 2014 IPAs of the
Year. On their labels, Smashbomb goes for the explosive look while
Headstock goes for a more peace, love and groovy image. But hey,
Nickel Brook also ran afoul of the LCBO with its Bolshevik Bastard.

In that same article, LCBO spokesperson Chris Layton admitted that while there were issues with the name, "It really comes down to the imagery, as a depiction of an explosion." So the two sides negotiated and while he was not willing to change the name, Chiodo toned down the imagery. The bomb blasts were yanked and replaced with a more dust storm-like image. With the name, Chiodo noted that "smash" simply means "single malt and single hop" (Citra hops - the malt is Crystal but when it comes to IPAs, no one cares about malts except brewers) while the "bomb" did refer to the explosion of grapefruit and mango on the tongue that the beer delivers.
The original label imagery for Nickel Brook's
Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout also ran
afoul of the LCBO with its image of Joseph
Stalin. As you can see, the brewery relented
and used the traditional Russian symbol of a
hammer and sickle in their final product.

But it's interesting to note that when Flying Monkeys released the beer in single 473-ml (16 ounce) cans last Summer, that original bomb blast slipped back into the imagery. How did they sneak that one by? I have a theory and it goes like this...
LCBO official: "Hey, wait a minute!! Isn't that the label we nixed five years ago??"
Peter: (in Jedi robes, waves his hand) "This is not the label you are looking for."
LCBO official: *blankly* "This is not the label I am looking for. *Snaps out of trance* Okay, people, let's get this on the shelves!"
Okay, yeah, it's far more likely that the LCBO simply softened their stance but if you can't work Star Wars into every-day situations then what's the point of life? Also, we can never be friends. That is a little more advantageous for you than you realize. Trust me on this one.

Next on deck are my homies at Nickel Brook, down the street and around the corner from Donny's Bar and Grill. At roughly the same time that Flying Monkeys was running into trouble, so, too, was Nickel Brook with its Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout. You see, the original label incorporated an image of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union leader from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. Now the truth is Stalin and the Soviet Union were our allies in WWII. So there is that side of the coin.
This is the cleaned-up version of Lost Coast
Brewery's Indica IPA. It came under fire from
the East Indian community, not just because it
not only used imagery of their elephant god
Lord Ganesha but in one of his four hands and
trunk, he was holding a beer. Eventually, the
brewery modified the label despite winning a
court case of its use under freedom of speech.

However, after the war, when it was revealed that the man had ordered the death of millions of his own people, the West (that's us) then realized he was a nasty piece of scumbag bastard work. (But hey, thanks for the help in the war - much appreciated.) In 1991, when the USSR dissolved and a number of countries became independent, there was a sense of relief in the West (still us) as the Cold War finally came to an end. Nations like the Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and a whole bunch more that end in "stan" were free. So when the LCBO decided that maybe Stalin wasn't appropriate for a beer label, well, I gotta say, I'm in their corner. Can you imagine being a Ukrainian or Latvian immigrant or descendant in Canada and coming face-to-face with a Stalin label at the LCBO? Not cool. Also the present label has a sleeker, cleaner look so I'm calling this a change for the better.

When high school sweetheart Christine flew to Canada from California last Summer, she came armed with six IPA beauties from her state for me. So, of course, I researched each of the six with the exception of the Stone IPA because frankly, I know as much about this beer as the Escondido brewery itself. Well, maybe if consumption equals knowledge. As it turns out, one of the beers, Lost Coast Brewing's (Eureka, California) Indica IPA was been under fire numerous times. The reason? The depiction of Hindu god, Lord Ganesha, an elephant with four arms, on the label. The East Indian community was so incensed with the label that showed Ganesha holding beers and looking intoxicated that the matter landed in court.
Reverend Lovejoy: "And to my right is a man of, well,
let's say, unknown religion." This is how little the West
understands other religions outside of North America. 

Granted, there are probably not many of us in the West who understand the tenets of Hinduism but the matter was serious enough that it became an actual discussion in the India Upper House of Parliament some 8,290 miles (13,300 km) away. While the brewery won the court case under the freedom of speech statutes, they also wisely toned down the label, having artist Duane Flatmo reduce Ganesha's arms on the label from four to two (to lessen the resemblance) and replace the beers with a latte. Now if you're, say, a Christian who is uncertain as to why this was controversial, I will simply ask this: How would you feel about a beer label that depicted a drunk Jesus on the cross? Exactly. You never make light of the religion of others.

Of course, leave it to The Simpsons to poke fun at our North American ignorance of other cultures and religions. In an 1989 episode, Homer decides to skip church. Falling asleep with a lit cigar, he accidentally burns down the house. In the end, the community, regardless of faith, bands together to rebuild the house. But Homer is convinced that God was punishing him for skipping church. It remains up to Reverend Lovejoy to put his mind at ease.
A recent beauty given to me by Beer Store Sister-From-A-
Different-Mister Marie was Flying Dog Brewing's Raging
Bitch Belgian Style IPA. Can you take a guess at why this
beer label was deemed controversial? Go ahead, just try...
Reverend Lovejoy: "No, Homer, God didn't burn your house down. But he was working in the hearts of your friends, be they Christian, Jew or... (looking at East Indian Apu) miscellaneous."
Apu: (indignantly) "Hindu! There are 700 million of us!"
Rev. Lovejoy: (condescendingly) "Aww, that's super."
(So you know, 700 million represents a tenth of the entire world's population.)

Next on the court's (quite literally) docket is the case of Flying Dogs Brewing's (Frederick, Maryland) Raging Bitch Belgian Style IPA, a beer very generously donated to my tastebuds by my former coworker Marie after a recent trip to the United States. Before we examine the label, first up a review of the beer itself. While I have never been a big fan of the spices that Belgian yeast lends to this style, this 8.3%, 60 IBU (international bitterness units) is so jacked up on Amarillo hops, that I didn't care about the spiciness. This was frikkin' delicious. So big ups to Marie - great choice!
Famed artist Ralph Steadman channels his
best Hunter S. Thompson in this pose. He was
the illustrator for most of the late "Gonzo"
writer's books, now drawing for Flying Dog.

Okay, review over - let's talk contentious label. Okay, first of all, an objective look at the art. The work of famed British artist Ralph Steadman, best know for his covers on the late "gonzo journalist" Hunter S. Thompson's books, it is simply a very cool illustration. His art style is instantly recognizable for many of us. Obviously, it's the name that is causing controversy. It would be very easy to say, "Well, it's a female dog that's clearly on the label and they are called bitches." Which is true, as are female wolves, foxes and otters. And bitch, as a subjective noun, can mean others things, such as, "Oh man, this day was a bitch." Or as an active verb, as in, "Geez, my boss bitches about every little thing." The latter two are examples regularly employed by both genders.

That being said, what doe the word usually mean? Yeah, it's a pejorative term for an angry woman. (The male equivalent is probably "douche".) That name alone got the beer banned from sales in Michigan where a five-year legal battle ensued. Eventually, the same freedom of speech statutes that sprung Indica IPA similarly saved this one.
This label by Wellington, New Zealand brewery,
Garage Project, causes a little stink with veterans in
Stevil St Evil's neck of the woods. The imagery of
helicopters flying over Vietcong turf was too much.
Okay, so here's my thing. I've read stats that suggest anywhere from 30% to 40% of craft beer drinkers are women. At the Beer Fests I've been to, it's more like 50/50. Why would any craft beer producer deliberately try to antagonize almost half their potential clientele? How is that good business? Wanna name your beer after an angry dog? Here's a suggestion - Angry Dog! Do you know what percentage of your potential customers are canine? Zero. You can try to offend dogs with a beer label until the sun sets. They don't care! And again, this won't offend every woman - that's painting with too wide a brush. But why take the chance? Business is business. You gotta be smarter. (I do love the Steadman art, though.)

Okay, one more then we'll call a time-out. When Beer Bro and college buddy Stevil St Evil came to visit Donny's Bar and Grill in the Summer of 2015, he came bearing the Gift Of Beer. The gift, much like Christine's, was all IPAs, these ones from Wellington, New Zealand. And one of them, Garage Project Brewing's Death From Above Indochine Pale Ale caused a bit of a stink with a veterans' group down there. Originally slated to be called Hopocalyse Now (after the movie Apocalypse Now), the brewers found 12 other Hopocalypse names and opted instead for Death From Above, the motto of the US Airborne Division.
What was my Main Military Man Hago's view on
Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA label?
Like Peter Chiodo's, it was fair and conciliatory.
The imagery, plucked straight from the movie, and name swiped from the military did not sit well with RSA (veterans' group Returned and Services' Association) president Don McIver, who passed away in Wellington last August. He called the label "cheap" and "disrespectful." Personally, I think it's pretty cool looking but I do not argue with the military, either active or retired. On the list of occupations I respect, it goes military, then firefighters, then nurses. Cops would be higher but they're always giving me speeding tickets. Nurses don't do that.

Okay, of all the labels in this article, I'll be honest - the only one I don't get is the fuss over Smashbomb Atomic IPA. So I went straight to an active Canadian military man, my buddy Hago, who does video beer reviews. So what was his take on the label?

"As a military guy, I couldn't give a shit. Most of us don't. I think in this day and age with craft beer pushing the boundaries of creativity, flavour, aroma and artwork, we have to give them some freedom to move," he told me.

However, he did add a pretty big caveat. "That said, the whole idea of getting smashed and bombed is kinda anti-craft, if you know what I mean.
Have we now talked about craft beer labels
quite enough? Oh yes, I think so. Maybe it's
time to divert our attention to what's in the
glass rather than what's on the label, yes?
I enjoy a beer or two, sometimes three, but it's been a long time since getting trashed." Echoing the words of the LCBO's Chris Layton in the Barrie Examiner article, "I understand how the LCBO doesn't want to advertise their products as something that is going to get you bombed, much like Coke doesn't want to associate their product with diabetes. I say it's simply another label but the LCBO has an image to uphold and they have the final say of what they stock on their shelves."

You see, much like Flying Monkeys owner Peter Chiodo, Hago's take is basically, "I think the label is okay but I get that the LCBO has a job to do." Peter and Hago are both so graciously Canadian that they're practically retired NHL players sitting in a forest of Maple trees sharing a big plate of poutine with a family of moose.

Okay, folks, that's it for today. Talk to stop talking about beer labels and start consuming the craft beer goodness within those plucky bottles. Coming up next is the notion of #BeerSaints, a term coined by my beer writing-videographer pal, Robert, aka Drunk Polkaroo. I recently won a contest he held where the prize was a bottle of Great Lakes Brewing's Alternative Facts. It was a beer created by a bunch of Toronto-area beer writers right at the brewery over a month ago. I'll look at Robert's brewery adventure, the beer itself, as well as GLB's 30th Anniversary Belgian Quad, which nearly took the top of my head off. Also a quick stat about the military. Who has the largest air force in the world? The US Air Force. The second largest? The US Navy. Don't screw with these guys. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! Until next time, I remain...