Last night, just as I was tucking into my “yay the child is in bed” beer, my phoned beeped. It was a message from our Women in Beer group, a screen grab of labels from a new contract brewery in Gauteng. There was a fairly instant uproar.
I read a lot about sexism in beer and I often hear myself saying that it’s not such an issue in South Africa. I certainly don’t find much of it from colleagues in the industry, though I do sometimes get talked down to from bartenders who soon find out they know less than they thought. We have also managed to largely avoid the blatantly sexist beer labels that are, happily, on their way out in countries like the US and UK. You know – stuff like Leg Spreader or Panty Dropper or Pearl Necklace. There’s a brewery in the Overberg whose blonde ale is emblazoned with bra and knickers (they name of the beer and the brewery evade me – the beer was as tasteful as the label) and Boet Beer does an ‘Easy Blonde’ (for the love of god people, get some imagination – a quick google for easy blonde beer brings up dozens of matches from breweries around the world).
And now Vale Bru has gone one further. As well as Easy Blonde (yep, another one) they have released beers called Ripe Redhead, Raven Porra and – I shit you not – Filthy Brunette. And that’s not even the worst bit. The worst bit is the taglines that come with these poorly named beers. “The best head in town”. “Gushing with moist hops” and of course, “A California Blonde all your friends have had”. It’s like a bunch of 14 year old boys were tasked with designed a range of beer labels.
The ladies mobilised quickly and posted across various platforms, including Vale’s own FB page. The response has been pretty rapid and largely one-sided. The FB post I quickly penned is my most viewed of the past couple of weeks, with 30-odd comments so far. None of which are defending the brand. Vale, however, replied with the most pathetic apology since, well, since Donald Trump turned his badly-read apology for the “pussy” comments into an attack on Hillary Clinton. Here it is:
There seems to be a lack of understanding from them as to why their labels are offensive. If you don’t find them funny, well, then you’re no fun. Well, they offend me on two levels:
1. As a woman
“Oh it’s just a bit of fun, don’t be so sensitive.” It’s a typical reply when someone is called out for making sexist jokes. Well you know what – it isn’t fucking funny. Clearly the whole #metoo movement has passed these guys by. Your “hilarious” beer names show your attitude towards women – as something to have sex with. Not to be respected or included. I’m not a prude – I understand that sex sells, but these names don’t hint at respectful sex. Maybe they should have asked themselves whether these are things that they would appreciate people saying about their little sister. I think what really irritates me though, is that these labels automatically exclude me as a drinker. It’s like a giant “fuck you” to all female beer drinkers – essentially saying, we do not want your business, for no self-respecting woman would ever purchase one of these beers. And while we’re at it, I strongly believe that no woman-respecting man would buy them either.
2. As a beer drinker
This industry is, as Sam Calagione once famously said, “99% asshole-free”. But here we have not just a lack of respect for women, but also a lack of respect for beer. If you’re going to launch a beer brand, do some research. Learn how to spell beer styles (and don’t make snide comments that you’d have to be a beer nerd to spot that Indian Pale Ale isn’t correct), understand what a hop is and how it is used they don’t tend to fit into the category of “moist”, sorry. Realise that while the word “gushing” is doubtless very entertaining to you, it is never anything but a bad thing when it comes to beer (read up on bottle infections). Do some test brews, do some tasting, do some research – don’t just go to your local brewery (Swagga, in case you were wondering) and stick your puerile label on one of their existing beers. The whole misogynistic thing aside – just for a moment – it seems Vale have no clue about the product they’re peddling. The industry can do without the bandwagon jumpers with no passion for the product. The industry can do without the 1%.
Sexism in beer marketing has long been an issue, but mindsets are changing. Earlier this year, SAB released an apology for years of sexist marketing, with a promise to do better. I hope it was genuine and not just a women’s day publicity stunt (If you don’t know the backstory, it basically followed a mini Twitter storm when radio presenter Dineo Ranaka posted a pic of the beer she was relaxing with after a long day and some douchebag criticised her, suggesting that women should not drink beer. Seriously).
Last year in the US, the Brewers Association, in an ongoing bid to nurture diversity in craft beer, added a section to its marketing code, saying that craft beer marketing materials should not “contain sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video, or other images that reasonable adult consumers would find inappropriate for consumer products offered to the public; or contain derogatory or demeaning text or images.” We have a recently formed association in South Africa, CBASA – I hope we will see a similar response from them, and sooner rather than later.
I wasn’t sure whether to write this post or not. That old adage about there being no such thing as bad publicity was rattling around my head. But I really think there is such a thing as bad publicity and I have great faith in you, beer-loving reader, to not support this bullshit. And to you, Vale Bru, I lay down a challenge. Be brave: admit that your labels are tone deaf and do something about them. Tone down the “fuck you” marketing, learn a little about the product that you’re attempting to sell and have the balls to apologise in a grown up way, not a way we’d expect from Donald Trump. Don’t be the 1%.
UPDATE: On June 7th, two days after this post was written, Vale Bru posted a new apology on their FB page – one where they promise to remove their labels and rebrand, one where they pledge to be inclusive and where they offer a far more sincere apology. You can read the full statement here: https://www.facebook.com/valexvix/posts/414544925623397. Credit where it’s due – it is not easy to admit when you’re wrong, especially on a public forum. Well done Vale.