Industry News

NW Brewers on Voicing Political Opinions through Beer

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The current political climate in this country is so divisive and so tumultuous that it’s difficult to not have an opinion on everything going on. Even breweries are not immune to weighing in on the political discussion, with some even happy to lend their brand to the discussion. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise given the long history of beer drinking and politics, and I’m not talking about Brett Kavanagh. You can start with the role of taverns in the American Revolution and speed to the present where even Budweiser has added their views.

[Publisher’s Note: This article kicks off Interview Month on The New School. Expect special interviews with the people that make the industry tick on a weekly basis now through the month of November. Check back each Thursday for our Brewer on Brewer interviews where we get to sit back and let the brewers interview each other!]

Here in the Pacific Northwest – home to some of the most outspoken liberal communities – a handful of breweries have entered the fray and used their beers to make statements. It’s worth mentioning that being based in or near liberal cities like Portland and Seattle makes for a more receptive environment to politically charged messaging, but that certainly doesn’t keep a brewery safe from criticism. They say no publicity is bad publicity, but choosing to express your political opinions through your brand comes with risks of trolls, boycotts, and straight up haters. It also comes with new fans who might get into your beer just because they like what you’re all about.

To get a look at the reasoning behind using beer as a platform for political commentary, we talked with a few breweries around the Northwest to get their thoughts. Weighing in on the following questions are Jason Barbee, owner and brewer at Portland’s Level Beer, Bryan Schull, owner of Trap Door Brewing in Vancouver, WA, and Craig Christian, one of the brewers at Seattle’s Rooftop Brew Co. Each one of these breweries has brewed at least one beer that reflects their opinion on the current political climate, and some have gone even further.

Where did the inspiration come from to do multiple beers with a name that directly mock our current president?

Jason Barbee, Level Beer:

We’re clearly not fans of him and really just started fairly organically with him saying dumb stuff and us finding it amusing.

Bryan Schull, Trap Door:

We were going to make a peach sour anyway, the timing was just serendipitous with the current callings for impeachment and our utter disdain for the creature called Donald Trump.

Craig Christian, Rooftop:

As a local community business, Rooftop has always tried to uphold a philosophy that we should give back to the community that supports us. After all, the local brewery tasting room has become a great place for community meetings and gatherings, especially in Washington where families with kids and dogs are welcome in tasting rooms but not the local tavern.

Around the time that Trump was elected, Rooftop’s ownership decided to take that step a bit further and begin a campaign to help raise awareness of local non-profits that are doing good things in the local community. We started calling it “Beer Trumps Hate” as a riff on the “Love Trumps Hate” election meme, and the name stuck. It really fits with what we are trying to do – find ways to bring the local community together to raise a pint for a good cause. Ridding the world of hatred one pint at a time.

We started our “Beer Trumps Hate” campaign in January 2017 to raise money for local/community (or local chapters) non-profit organizations that advocate for inclusiveness and community. The idea is to raise some money through the sale of beer, t-shirts and stickers. But more importantly, to allow these great organizations a venue to introduce themselves to our community and to raise awareness in hopes that they will receive even greater long term support. Rooftop is responsible for the campaign in January, and during the rest of the year, we collaborate with other breweries to carry on the campaign. 

In less than two years, we have collaborated with over a dozen local breweries to raise money for local chapters of national organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the ALCU and the National Alliance on Mental Illness as well as local organizations such as Washington Wild Brewshed Alliance, New Beginnings and the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas. 

Talk about some of the reactions you have received since releasing some of your Trump beers from both sides of political views.

Jason Barbee, Level Beer:

We’ve gotten a lot of positive reactions on social media and lots of people taking pictures with our Stable Genius can. A lot of “I bought it for the can. Happily, the beer is awesome too” kind of remarks. Even the handful of pro-Trump folks we’ve heard from have been very positive. It’s tongue-in-cheek enough that regardless of your political views it’s still funny. The non-package ones have all been relatively small batches and draft only, so we haven’t gotten much feedback outside the brewery on those and it’s been overwhelmingly positive.

We did have one guy say that we shouldn’t make fun of the President. He asked our bartender if Obama were still President would we make an Obama Brown Ale, to which our bartender responded, “no…because that’s just racist. But if he said a bunch of stupid stuff we’d probably make fun of him.”

Bryan Schull, Trap Door:

“Stay out of politics”, “you just lost a customer” vs.  “HA, tagging a friend”, “SPAAAAACE FOOOORCE”, and general mockery.

Craig Christian, Rooftop:

We try not to focus on the negative, but I will confide that our sole bad review on Facebook came as a result of the campaign. I can count on one hand the negative comments and all of them came from people located outside of Seattle who communicated with us through web/social media.

When we came out with our Imperial Peach & Mint IPA last year for January’s Beer Trumps Hate month, it often took people a little bit to get the joke (“ImpPeachMint”).  Once they got it, even self-described conservatives seemed to really enjoy both the beer and the play on words. Quite a few bar managers who would not normally purchase such an unusual beer bought it just because of the name. I expect this years’ version to sell out very quickly.

Have you been trolled at all and/or has anyone said they would stop drinking your beer?

Jason Barbee, Level Beer:

We’ve had one troll on FB. Something along the lines of, as a new brewery you should focus more on the quality of your beer than on cheap gimmicks to sell it blah blah blah. It basically amounted to a “shut up a brew” sort of comment. But again it was just one guy, and our FB fans definitely came to our aid pretty quickly on that one and shut him down.

Bryan Schull, Trap Door:

Yes. Our fan base, en masse, trolls them right back and shuts them up (typically)

Craig Christian, Rooftop:

There have been a couple online critics of our campaign, but the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive.

What roles do you think breweries play in speaking out, and do you think a brewery can actually affect change in their community with something like an anti-Trump beer? 

Jason Barbee, Level Beer:

I don’t think that breweries specifically play a role in speaking out. I do think it’s important to voice your opinion and concerns and it just so happens that, being brewery owners, this happens to be the avenue that allows us to do that, but that’s an individual choice. I’m sure others want to keep their personal views and their business separate. It does allow consumers to voice their opinion by choosing products that align with their views, but given that our target audience is already fairly aligned with our views, I don’t think we’re changing a lot of minds.

Bryan Schull, Trap Door:

The pub has been a community center for centuries – a place where people share ideas, brawl, kiss and make up. We are not afraid to share our opinions, in fact we are emboldened during this season of constitutional crisis. We walk the walk at Trap Door. We host campaign parties, environmental discussions/rallies and are very engaged in the issues of the day, both locally and nationally. To quote Ghandi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Yeah, we do that. We absolutely are part of affecting change in our community, not just through one beer can label, but through consistency in our message and community involvement.

Craig Christian, Rooftop:

Yes. Absolutely. Businesses who make a statement can affect change. There is catharsis in knowing that people in your local community are also against the current rhetoric. There is power in community. We stimulate great discussions over beer and a cause. We bring people together and encourage them to do good things. That is how a movement begins. 

Despite the meme, I don’t think our campaign is overtly “Anti-Trump”. We hope people come out of a Beer Trumps Hate event feeling positive, not negative. We are for community building and inclusion of a diverse population. We are for people doing good things, and drinking beer during or afterwards. All things we view as positive and not all that political.

Do you think the reaction to your beer would be different if you were brewing in a more rural, less progressive area? 

Jason Barbee, Level Beer:

Yeah, probably. We still might have made Stable Genius because it’s just funny no matter where you fall on the spectrum, but we’d have probably avoided names like F*ck Jeff Sessions.

Bryan Schull, Trap Door:

Yes. MAGA land is full of mines. How is that MAGA trade war working out for you farm boy? No no no, don’t answer, I know it hurts. It hurts us all as it turns out.

Craig Christian, Rooftop:

Many local craft breweries in rural or conservative areas are able to do similar community building and non-profit work. But no, I do not think Beer Trumps Hate would be as popular in other, less progressive parts of the country. We have spoken to more than one brewery on Washington’s east side, the more rural and politically conservative side of the state. The ones we have spoken to have expressed support for the Beer Trumps Hate campaign, and a desire to collaborate with us. But they are afraid that it would not be appreciated in their communities in the same way that it is in Seattle.

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