Good Beer Hunting

18th Street Brewery Redesigns Sex & Candy Label, Calls for Progressive Dialogue Going Forward

Indiana’s 18th Street Brewery has rebranded a beer that sparked controversy last spring when critics decried the product as having sexist label art. The beer in question, Sex and Candy IPA, kept its name and recipe, the brewery says, but the new artwork reflects a new understanding of their audience, and perhaps a better interpretation of their original intent as well. The new artwork is still a commentary on sex, but not objectifying of any particular gender, intended or otherwise.

Opponents of the original artwork suggested it objectified women, as it prominently centered on what appeared to be a woman’s groin with the name of the beer writ large across lacey lingerie. Speaking with GBH, company founder and head brewer Drew Fox says the new artwork (pictured above) is not open to misreading.

“We want to be part of something positive and not part of something that people see as negative or derogatory,” Fox says. “We know that the [new] imagery would not lead to any interpretation of being a sexist label or objectifying women.”

The craft beer industry’s legitimate problems with sexism are well documented at this point, going so far as to instigate new rules from the Brewers Association for award-winning beers (who can no longer use the BA's brand to promote an offensive label) and the creation of a diversity panel, which is a separate-but-related issue.

Often, the controversies associated with these branding problems play out in a similar fashion. It usually goes like so: A brewery releases a beer with a questionable name (think: Panty Dropper, Tramp Stamp, Happy Ending) which, in turn, elicits a public objection. From there, depending on the brewery’s response, the issue goes away or, as happened here, takes on a new life of its own.

This particular episode played out last May, when beer writer Carla Jean Lauter, known as “The Beer Babe,” tweeted at 18th Street, “Would you consider changing the label for ‘Sex and Candy’ to something less objectifying?” In response, 18th Street shot back, “Would you consider changing your Twitter handle to something less offensive? BeerBabe!”

Support for Lauter then quickly materialized both on Twitter and, inevitably, in the blogosphere. Wrote Anthony Todd in Chicagoist: “There's no need to alienate half or your audience, or worse, assume women just don't drink beer. Further, when someone calls you on it, making a sexist comment about her twitter handle is a low blow.” In the end, 18th Street doubled down, saying it had no intention of reimagining the beer’s branding.

Even today, as the company has, in fact, rebranded the product, Fox defends the label. Asked why his company “felt the need” to rebrand it now, after standing by it nine months ago, he clarifies: “First and foremost, there wasn’t a need to do it. We think Sex and Candy the label itself is open to interpretation,” noting the featured character’s biological sex isn’t identified clearly. Rather, he says changing it is about the bigger picture, conceding he hadn’t paid close enough attention to the industry-wide problem of sexism “until someone called us out.”

Taking a step back and seeing the wider context, and something of a recent trend for offensive labels seems to have given Fox and his team a more sympathetic take, and helped them decide what role they wanted to play going forward.

“Recently we’ve looked at a few, not just us, but other brands… There’s some branding that’s clearly, that really is disrespectful to women, derogatory,” Fox says. “At the end of the day, if we say nothing or if we do nothing, it leaves the customer and individuals in the industry to believe that we really want to be a part of something like that. And there are some labels out there that we don’t agree with.”

The unfortunate reality of sexism in the beer industry pre-dates the craft beer renaissance, though the effort to address and rectify it seems to have gained steam in more recent years. Which is to say: there is, at least, reliable opposition to marketing sexism in beer, if nothing else.

For instance, in November, the Brewers Association announced it would to take steps to address the issue of diversity in the brewing industry, vowing to continue working to quantify marketing efforts towards women while operating “with the belief that there have been significant increases in women starting, owning, and working in breweries and enjoying craft beer with continued opportunity ahead.” That sentiment became a reality this Spring at the Craft Brewer's Conference.

“It’s not an easy topic to navigate, both factually and emotionally,” wrote Julia Herz, the BA’s craft beer program manager at the time. “With the groups under the diversity umbrella representing multiple factions including ethnicity, gender, and even religion, things are neither tidy nor easy to tackle.”

In an email response to GBH, Lauter says the new label art is a big improvement. "This looks like a much more mature label," she writes. "As a whole, it satisfies my original concern—there is no objectification here. Yes, there's some hinting at some kink (what I think is a cat-o-nine-tails and fuzzy handcuffs), but it's done in a playful and non-derogatory way. Also, on the shelf, it will be far less blatant than its previous incarnation—from far away it looks like trendy wallpaper. I think it is more than a suitable replacement."

As for 18th Street, Fox says he felt his business was personally targeted at the time, while other breweries that have made similar labels have been largely ignored. Now, with the benefit hindsight, he says he might have handled the situation a bit differently.

“I’m a growing human being, people do stupid things and make mistakes. Some people will forgive you for it and some won’t,” he says. “Looking at it again, I would keep an open mind to the individual’s request and respond to it with a positive answer, [or] in some cases not respond to it at all.”

He emphasizes, though, this was never about his business versus a community with a different opinion. Instead, he hopes the ordeal will help keep alive an important discourse.

“It’s not about coming to the other side or giving in. I can tell you, there’s no victory in this for anyone,” he says. “The only victory that’s gonna come about is the open, honest dialogue and conversation that will encourage individuals to keep an open mind, but also encourage this industry to look at things in a way where you say, ‘Hey do we want to be a part of something that is inflammatory or demeaning towards any gender? Do we want to be a part of that, knowingly or unknowingly?' That will be the real victory in the outcome of this… Myself personally, and my team here, we want to engage in that.”

—Dave Eisenberg