For Lambic obsessives and Gueuze enthusiasts, few events are greeted with as much anticipation as Zwanze Day. A tradition begun in 2011, the event sees Cantillon Brewery distribute its annual Zwanze release—an experimental, limited-edition Lambic that changes every year—to bars and breweries around the world. Kegs are tapped simultaneously at 9 p.m., Belgium-time. Celebrations vary among venues (and countries), but Zwanze Day, historically held in late September, is generally known for its frivolity, its teeming crowds, and its carnivalesque spirit.
In 2018, however, the Zwanze Day events that Cantillon co-hosted at Moeder Lambic—one of Brussels’ most popular beer bars—overshadowed the beer itself.
After an introduction by Cantillon owner Jean Van Roy, Colette Collerette, a burlesque dancer who performs with Brussels’ Cabaret Mademoiselle, began to disrobe in front of the bar. The show culminated when Collerette—wearing just nipple pasties and a thong—shook two bottles of beer and sprayed the foam over her nearly-naked body.
[A quick note here: early in my reporting for this story, I traded emails with Colerette, who responded, “You are the first one to ask me my opinion.” Ultimately, though, she declined to comment for the story.]
The live video was posted to Facebook by the venue shortly after the performance, and quickly divided opinions. Some criticized Cantillon for crude and sexist marketing tactics, while others defended the artistry of the performance. Even months later, the resulting firestorm is still smoking.
While many criticized the video on social media, some went so far as to disavow Cantillon entirely. “This may actually be the last ever Zwanze Day I take part in because of this,” wrote Cloudwater’s Doreen Barber on Facebook. “If a brewery thinks this is cool and acceptable, then maybe they don’t need my money.” Hop Hideout, a bottle shop in Sheffield, UK, publicly stated they would be removing Cantillon bottles from the shelves. “After their Zwanze Day antics at Moeder Lambic recently (let alone other items I’ve turned a blind eye to) it’s been a bit of a turning point, and furthermore we will not be stocking for the foreseeable future,” wrote owner and proprietor Jules Gray.
Other bottle shops have taken a similar position. “We've also come to that decision,” Jen Ferguson, co-owner of the London-based Hop Burns and Black, wrote in a comment on Hop Hideout’s post. “It's just one straw too many now, and there are so many other options that are as good if not better.” Even in Lambic is Life—a notoriously irreverent meme group on Facebook (which, bizarrely, counts Van Roy as a member)—some drinkers were critical: “Out-dated, old fashioned and embarrassing,” wrote member Matthew ‘Fuj’ Scher. “But of course the industry is still dominated by old men, so they get a kick out of it. Pathetic.”
One Lambic enthusiast, who we’ll call Tom since he asked for anonymity, notes that “a lot of people jump to the conclusion that the complaint is based on puritanical morality and not on an equal representation attitude.” Or, put another way: the bulk of the comments written in support of the performance defended the nudity as free expression without considering the systemic issues—or the historical precedent—at play.
It’s a given that the beer world has been, and continues to be, male-dominated. Because products, events, and advertising have historically targeted male consumers, it becomes difficult to disentangle the burlesque performance from the industry’s entrenched reliance on sexist messaging to sell beer. Collerette’s artistry and skill notwithstanding, the tenor of the event feels uncomfortably familiar to women who have seen female bodies so often reduced to marketing bait.
Critical theory provides one framework for understanding the Cantillon controversy. Feminist film critic Laura Mulvey was the first to coin the term “male gaze,” which featured in her landmark 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” As she described it, the male gaze is one element of a gender power imbalance. While predominantly inherent or unconscious, it is a perspective that still objectifies, trivializes, and sexualizes women.
Put simply, when an audience is assumed to be male, the role of women is to provide entertainment or pleasure for that male audience. This happens both consciously and unconsciously, but rarely is it challenged—so pervasive is this imbalance that it has shaped the roles we play.
Mulvey’s theory elaborated on British art critic John Berger’s seminal work, Ways of Seeing. In his 1972 television series—and later book of the same name—Berger addressed the different roles that men and women play. There is the active male and the passive female; the role of the latter is being seen by men. “Men look at women,” writes Berger. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” Sound familiar?
The male gaze and the associated objectification of women are evident in much of our culture. From the difference in marketing campaigns directed towards the two most common genders to the representation of women and the female form across advertising and pop culture, there’s plenty of evidence to support Berger’s theory.
There are obvious examples of this phenomenon in beer, too. Globally, the beer industry remains dominated by men, and the majority of beer drinkers are still men—just ask any female bartender about the male gaze. The overwhelming maleness and heterosexuality of those in control of the industry means that women in beer are still often valued for their appearance first.
When viewed through this lens, the Moeder Lambic incident doesn’t come off well. Held at a venue owned and operated by two men, organized by a brewery owned and operated by a man, in front of a largely male audience, a performance in which a female dancer removes her clothes and pours beer over her body reads inescapably as entertainment for men. That it was recorded—which contributes additional connotations to this rich tapestry—and broadcasted to an assumed majority-male audience further compounds the problem. In doing so, this assumption of a male audience extends online, arguably this incident’s downfall.
In his apology, Van Roy seemed aware of the issue. “Having only principally filmed the last number was a huge mistake on our part,” he wrote, “and we recognize that this particular number shouldn’t have been included in the line up for an event like Zwanze Day.”
That Cantillon’s burlesque show is only one example of the beer world’s ongoing sexism problem helps explains the incensed reactions it inspired. “For some reason, the beer industry is split into two groups from what I can see: unashamedly un-PC (we don't give a fuck and if you're offended, it's your problem) and those who fancy themselves woke AF (and maybe half the time are),” says beer writer Beth Demmon. “Just because people care deeply about the ownership structure of the beers they drink doesn't necessarily mean that they care about the everyday culture and messaging ‘craft’ breweries put forward.”
Consider, for example, Big Beaver Brewing Co, in Loveland, Colorado. “If you haven’t heard of them, you should check out their website,” says Nikki Frick, social media manager at a Colorado brewery. “Their logo is crude, their tag line is ‘’bout got ’er licked,’ and they have beers with ridiculous names like, Amber Was Her Stage Name and Bust-A-Nut Brown. It’s really disgusting, and obviously marketed only for men, yet they’re still in business in a competitive market.”
When Demmon called out San Diego’s Acoustic Ales for “tone-deaf’ labeling, meanwhile, she got “a ton of shit” from a female member of the management staff, who claimed that “it's impossible to be sexist if a woman says it's okay.” “I think that belief system is just as damaging, if not more so, than the historic male opinion,” Demmon says. “To deny the culture that has categorically diminished the value of women since the dawn of time because you think it doesn't matter, doesn't happen, or doesn't affect you is ludicrous. It's so blindly shortsighted that I nearly can't fathom it.”
This isn’t the first time that Cantillon has come under fire in the conversation around sexism in beer. Rosé de Gambrinus, a raspberry Lambic, has long been the subject of critical articles, debates, and conversations, as its label artwork depicts a rosy-cheeked and naked woman sat on the lap of a fully clothed and even rosier-cheeked man. Some have also questioned Fou’Foune, the brewery’s apricot Lambic. Cantillon claims that the name is in reference to apricot grower François Daronnat, who is nicknamed Fou’Foune, but the French slang word is also used to refer to the genitalia of young girls.
When Cantillon first exported Rosé de Gambrinus to the United States in 1990, Wide World Imports Inc deemed the label too inappropriate for the American market, and suggested an alteration in the form of a blue bikini.
“That was [the] suggestion of the solution of what [they] thought the problem would be,” Dan Shelton, founder of Cantillon’s current importer, Shelton Brothers, tells GBH. “The brewery and the artist, Raymond Coumans, were appalled at this. They said, ‘That’s obscene’.”
According to Shelton, and confirmed by Jean Van Roy and his father Jean-Pierre, Coumans was offended by the suggested change to the artwork, and exclaimed, “You can tell your American importer that underneath this blue dress, the woman is tous a poil!” Translation? Totally nude.
Shelton Brothers reverted from the more modest label to the original in 1996, leaving many to question why, when so many other inappropriate representations of women have been removed from beer labels, Cantillon seems to play by a different set of rules. For many, Cantillon’s historical importance and vaunted status in the beer world seem to exempt it from the accountability to which other breweries are held.
Some argue that Rosé de Gambrinus’ label is more akin to a classical painting than contemporary sexist advertising. “The attitude is that it is art. It’s an original drawing,” says Brussels-based beer writer Eoghan Walsh. “I don’t think it’s great, but people involved in Lambic—particularly the brewers—are a stubborn lot.” That the painting dates to the 1980s bolsters the historical argument.
Still, that excuse is now being questioned. “On the art history side of things, I think women are overwhelmingly portrayed as objects rather than human beings,” Demmon says. “But all that has done is led to generational conditioning that tells men that women are secondary creatures subject to their desires and ideals.”
The Tasmanian-born comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix special Nanette was a surprise hit in 2018, has also questioned art history’s unassailability in her new, two-part documentary series, Nakedy Nudes. “Just because it’s been around for centuries, doesn’t mean it’s cool to be a creepy old man,” she says. “Stop watching women sleeping; stop watching women having baths. Go away.”
She continues: “We’re not seeing anything new. The art world doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Being an object, being objectified, [creates] a toxic culture, because we don’t have the same cultural influence as men do. They’ve written the story, they have the power.”
In his apology statement on Facebook, Van Roy seeks to contextualize the controversial burlesque performance. It was not the only performance of the night, he notes. It was preceded by “a song and drag number, contortionist, cabaret dancers, etc.” The explanation does shift some understanding of the event.
“Jean, looking back at it, was concerned about the reaction and he made his apology—which wasn’t 100% an apology, but it was more contrite than I would have expected from somebody else,” Walsh says. “I think he understands that they made a mistake or that they misjudged it.”
With that in mind, the performance loses some sordidness. If the evening’s premise was street theater, its open-air location no longer reads as sleazy. A woman isn’t performing in isolation, strictly for the consumption of men—she is part of a diverse cabaret troupe. Considering the performance followed a drag act (which, if done right, is a subversive art form that engages with gender roles and gender norms), the striptease could charitably be viewed as a mockery of the objectification of women within beer.
But when posted out of context, the video not only provoked an online backlash, it confirmed a view some already had of Cantillon as being outdated and sexist. No matter how much mitigating context comes to light, that view may never be changed. For her part, Hop Hideout’s Gray views Cantillon’s statement as a “step forward in empathy and understanding from Jean,” but says, that considering its other beer names and labels, she’s still conflicted.
“In the Belgian beer industry, whilst it has had a good history of female representation in breweries, they don’t have the kind of conversations you might have in the U.K. or the U.S. of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” Walsh adds.
“I saw a problematic issue with the decision to hire a burlesque troupe in itself,” Tom says. “Moeder and Cantillon do have a real relationship with the troupe. It made sense to have a similarly saucy show at the Magic Lambic release [a beer brewed to support the local Magic Land Theatre], but at a global event like Zwanze it felt out of place.”
Given how ubiquitous social networks have become, and how much of the beer world exists online, it’s often easy to overlook how every beer, every brewery, and every event has a global nature. Had a similar performance happened at the Magic Lambic release, and was subsequently recorded and posted online, it’s likely that a similar response would have occurred.
Of the video’s defenders, Tom notes that “they assume the issue with the offended is the sexy dancer sexily dancing and not the decision-making process. The issue for me was two middle-aged white guys getting a sexy dancer for a beer event.”
What’s clear is that 2018’s Zwanze Day events have stirred up debate that will likely continue for some time. As Facebook user Tim Allan wrote on Belgian Beer and Food’s post, “This was for the entertainment of the people on site, on the night,” as opposed to a marketing tool. The fact remains, however, that against the backdrop of the ongoing objectification, fetishization, and commodification of women in the beer world, a woman performing a striptease, no matter how artfully, can’t escape an association with sexist tropes—especially when the brewery in question shows no signs of rethinking its own sexist branding.
“You can have no issues with burlesque. It’s feminist expression, that’s fine. You can think that Cantillon is great,” Walsh says. “You can also think that having a burlesque show on the streets of Brussels on a Saturday evening with a woman pouring beer down her tits is maybe not the best expression of Zwanze.”