In many ways, cracking open a beer is the ultimate apolitical act, the initiation of me-time after a long day on the job, a reprieve from public work and the beginning of private play. Yet micro-brewers have released protest beers with some success, supposedly for little profit.
These days, Quebec features Canada’s most colourful protests, and its most political beer. Last month, Brasseurs Illimités brewed La Matraque, which means billy club. It was released in stores on the same day the emergency law restricting protester rights took effect. The beer’s label features three batons and a red square, and the satirical preface to the ingredients includes a not-so-veiled rebuke to Quebec’s “scammer-in-chief,” referring, naturellement, to Quebec Premier Jean Charest. The beer tastes like maple, in honour of the “Maple Spring.”
“We make beer, but we have political opinions like everyone else,” says René Huard, president of Brasseur Illimités. “We were moved by what has happened.” They sold about 10,000 bottles in less than two weeks. At this volume, Huard says, profit was minimal. “This was about the message, not the marketing. We didn’t make a second batch for precisely this reason.”
The idea wasn’t to support the students so much as to denounce the government and the way it conducted itself. To maintain a measure of balance, each case featured one bottle with a green label to represent those who support the tuition increase. Back in the fall, Huard also released a beer called La Magouille (The Scam) to ridicule the government’s failure to address Quebec’s blossoming corruption scandals. All 8,000 beers sold in less than 48 hours.
A cynic would call this edgy advertising. Others might call it political commentary, with benefits. In the spring of 2008, a British Columbia brewer released Bailout Bitter and sold over 50,000 bottles. “We want to put on the shelf topical beers from a taste perspective and a social perspective,” says David Fenn of Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Company. The label in question featured a red arrow teetering downward, in honour of the collapsing stock market. It announced itself as “A bitter ale for bitter times.”
“Our primary purpose with a beer like that is not to make money, but it is part of our marketing strategy,” Fenn says. “We want publicity with little advertising budget, and we get that from making topical products.” Fenn’s company admittedly keeps its political speech within an anodyne range. They quickly dismissed a suggestion to release a beer about the Vancouver hockey riots. “In the end, rather than serious social commentary, we prefer something humorous or charitable,” like some of their recent beers which raised funds for the military and the environment.
Indeed, it is more common for brewers to ridicule politics than to take a firm stand. In California, the Lagunitas Brewing Company released a Recession Ale in the spring of 2009 and sold more than 100,000 beers. It was brewed to honour “the government statements telling us we are not in a depression, just a correction,” says marketing assistant Don Chartier. “In 2010, we were planning on releasing a sequel beer called Recovery, but obviously that didn’t happen.” They did release a beer called Walter Tango Foxtrot, otherwise known as “WTF.”
Selling products catering to a politicized audience is nothing new, as bearers of the ubiquitous Che Guevara brand know. “There have always been opportunistic efforts to capitalize on tastes of social movements,” says professor David Soberman of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
The Brewers Association of Canada estimates that there are about 1,000 beer brands in Canada. A tiny few have anything substantively political to say. Large brewers do not venture beyond the milquetoast. The risk, of course, is alienating consumers. As Soberman notes, political brewing is for “small companies that don’t have too much to lose. Big brands like Molson and Labatt are more interested in creating long-term earning potential.” In other words: Liberals in Quebec buy beer too.