Every once in a while I find a dispute between a brewer and a regulatory agency that goes public. Rarely is this dispute over one of my favorite beers. So, this one has a bit more relevance.
Flying Dog Brewing Co. is a prominent Baltimore brewer that started in Aspen, Colorado over 20 years ago. Flying Dog is perhaps best known for its label art, which is the brainchild of renowned “gonzo” artist Ralph Steadman. Steadman is the British artist who designed the depictions of Hunter S. Thompson’s alter egos.
Flying Dog’s art is unmistakable, which is why you may have seen the subject of this post, “Raging Bitch,” on your local shelves. Over the past few years, “Raging Bitch” has become the brand’s best-selling ale, a remarkable feat considering the beer is a hybrid IPA made with a Belgian strain of yeast. Its been quite the celebrated ale.
Apparently, Michigan did not find need for a celebration. The Michigan Liquor Control Board has denied a label approval for the beer, opining that the language on the label is “detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the general public.” Specifically, the Commissioner pointed to the following language, which is written on the side of the label:
“Remember, enjoying a Raging Bitch, unleashed, untamed, unbridled — and in heat — is pure GONZO.”
Flying Dog is not taking this laying down (pun?). They have decided to file a federal lawsuit alleging violations of constitutional freedom of speech. Their lawyer, Alan Gura, stated that “[r]egrettably, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) and its members have taken it upon themselves to control not merely alcoholic beverages, but speech as well.”
Is the MLCC reaching too far? Probably. The MLCC’s Licensing Division Director noted the panel can lawfully reject labels that are “deemed to promote violence, racism, sexism, intemperance or intoxication” or are found to be “detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of the general public.” In my opinion, the words on the “Raging Bitch” label are merely a joke-filled play on words, relating to the style of beer and the way it was made. Further, the term “Gonzo” is merely a tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, the Aspen man whom both Flying Dog and Steadman have often celebrated (Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter is a tribute to his death).
Need some more convincing? Legal Blog Watch pointed out that “Michigan has previously approved beers named ‘Doggie Style,’ ‘In Heat Wheat,’ and ‘Dirty Bastard’……” It might now help though to point out that those first two are Flying Dog beers. But at the end of the day, the MLCC has to truly determine whether the label violates the regulations in place. Most likely, they were not expecting this lawsuit.