Flying Dog Brewing announced this week that it was leaving the Brewers Association because new rules asked brewers to take responsibility for complaints about childish naming conventions. For those of you who don’t recall, Flying Dog fought for years against the Michigan after that state’s liquor control board wouldn’t banned the brewery’s “Raging Bitch” label. Flying Dog appealed on First Amendment grounds and won. I was among those who was glad they did. It was a long, expensive process, so on some level you can see why even the shadow of pushback makes the company a little twitchy.
According to Brewbound, Flyng Dog’s beef was that new rules by the brewers association also were an attack on their free speech. Looking at the rules, it feels like a dodgy claim at best. The Brewer’s Association wanted a mechanism to deal with complaints about lewd or offensive beer names (along with complaints about marketing to minors, encouraging drinking and driving and other normal alcohol stuff). It essentially was a statements about what the trade association thought breweries should do. “Should” is bolded throughout the linked text and, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is radically different from “shall.” Should versus shall is an important point in all rule-making as it implies the wishes of a body to suggest loose guidelines, not a hard and fast rule people must follow.
The way it would work is if someone complained to the BA, they would let Flying Dog know, if Flying Dog didn’t respond satisfactorily to the complaint (from the BA’s perspective) the organization would convene a hearing of industry professionals to see whether the complaint and the response seem legit. This is different from a state banning a beer because it thinks the name is lewd. The state working to prevent sale of a brand because they don’t like the name is radically different from a trade association setting up an accountability board. I get that they might be a little gun-shy after the whole “Raging Bitch” fight but the fact that they quit the association in light of all those bolded “shoulds” makes them come off as reactionaries, especially given how clearly this is not a First Amendment issue.
Flying Dog’s further claim is that suggesting that there be a process for dealing with complaints about crass names will have a chilling effect on brewer’s naming conventions. In a world where brewers get essentially bulk mail delivery from one another about trademark infringements, this feels specious at best. Naming conventions are part of a brewery’s profile and culture. The quest to be clever often beats out the quest to be original when it comes to naming conventions. Bawdy humor is a significant part of that for some breweries.
Flying Dog is among the class of craft breweries who ought to have (Get it?) below many of their innuendo-heavy beer names. Bros snorting is one of my least favorite things about craft beer culture and I’m sure “Gimme a Pearl Necklace” never gets old in the tasting room, but this isn’t about innuendo or humor aesthetics.
What’s really disappointing to see is such a massive overreaction by a brewery I always thought of as an industry leader. Leadership means, in part, being accountable to the group, not taking your ball and going home if things don’t go your way. And that lack of self-awareness is a big part of it for me. If you don’t trust the members of your own industry, who have lots of the same interests and concerns, to tell you whether or not you’ve gone too far, you might be being a little bratty about it. One of the most tiresome things about this period of American culture is that we’re all about protecting individual rights without saying a word about communal responsibilities.
Flying Dog doesn’t seem so much to be standing on principle as turning their back on friends for fear of being called out on possible future bad behavior. By leaving the brewers association they’re saying their right to hypothetically name their next sour “Suck it” Dry Hopped IPA outweighs their responsibility as an industry leader, which is a shame, because it looked as if they were going to be a good one.
Drink what you like and be happy.