A Response to Portman Group

On June 11, 2019 a UK alcohol industry ‘watchdog’ called The Portman Group sent a letter to our UK importer. Odd, it seemed, why not send directly to the creator of the beer? It’s not quite the responsibility of our importer to create our label artwork and text. Nevertheless, they did the dutiful deed of forwarding it to us for our eventual, and significant bemusement. One might think that being British the good folks at the Portman Group would exhibit a keener grasp of the range of word usage in the English language. You will find said letter, and our response below.

Click here to see the Portman Group Letter


Dear Portman Group,

Thank you for your letter. We’re sorry to hear that our beer, identity, and labels offended you. Since Arrogant Bastard Ale has been around for 23 years (a year before Portman was formed), and has been distributed in the UK for over a decade, the most devastating news may be how long it took you to identify your feelings. It would be insensitive for us not to recognize that this must have been a difficult emotional process. And clearly it was emotional, as your letter contained a lot of emotional words.

So, due to this highly emotional place that you must be coming from, we felt it was important to give you time to fully process before we responded. We recognize that you’re going through some changes, and change can be difficult for any person, organization, or watchdog group.

All that being said, we believe you deserve a truthful response. And that is: Your letter strikes as both random and arbitrary.

Random, because you specifically describe it as such with your sentence “Zenith Global were asked to collect a random sample of 500 alcoholic products on sale in the UK off-trade.” One might think that if a goal is to protect the public from themselves, the mission would not be satisfied via a random process, but rather a thorough and exhaustive audit of every single product available for sale in the UK off- and on-trade. Being not in the watchdog business ourselves, this is admittedly not our bailiwick.

Arbitrary, because it seems the definitions you’ve chosen are arbitrarily applied to our Arrogant Bastard Ale. By suggesting your actions are arbitrary, we’re being polite and giving you the benefit of the doubt. Because the other possibility would be that you did it intentionally, and that would be irresponsible. We believe in you, Portman, and believe you wouldn’t be intentionally be irresponsible. But we’ll get into that shortly.

Every aspect of Stone Brewing is built on best practices. We consider them at every stage of growth, and in our goal to improve the world of beer. We invite you to research our company’s standards and ethical values. We believe them to be worthy of your inquiry.  

We actively rail against the evil things in Portman Code 3.2—violence, aggression, dangerous behavior, anti-socialism, and illegal activities. We do, however, struggle to understand the inclusion of the offense that we’re being accused of—“bravado.” Hopefully understanding the Arrogant Bastard story will convince you that we are not being bravado-y, and that “bravado” itself may not be a very useful criteria by which to judge a beer, brand, or person.

As such, we humbly yet firmly request a challenge to Zenith Global’s accusations.

“Stone's contributions to the craft movement must not be downplayed. With Stone's iconic west coast IPA, an entire line of aggressive "Arrogant Bastard" ales, and an undying commitment to consistency of quality, the company not only helped to revolutionize the way Americans think about and enjoy domestic beer — it also continues to employ over 1,000 individuals, which is more than 99% of breweries in the world can claim.”

- Men's Journal

At press time, there are 250,582 reviews of Arrogant Bastard on Untappd.com. By comparison, the #1 selling beer in the U.S. has 381,478 reviews. Point is, Arrogant Bastard Ale is hardly a fringe brand that escaped your ethical radar for over 10 years. So, why now? Why so many years after it became one of the top-selling 22 ounce craft beers in U.S. chain stores (in many years, it has occupied the #1 position)? Why after we’ve been honored to have been named the “All Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth” by BeerAdvocate, twice? From the U.S. to the UK to Asia and Australia, Arrogant Bastard is now one of the most widely recognized craft beer brands in the world. Arrogant Bastard Ale is the beer that is credited by many as what inspired them see beyond the world of industrial beer into the craft and artisanal side of the equation. It’s hard to believe that millions of people in differently awesome cultures around the world would show such support for a beer whose branding was truly offensive. Maybe Zenith Global’s analyst has rare, keen insight that millions missed. Or maybe they were having a rough day. Or maybe they were working to fulfill an undisclosed quota to justify their no doubt pricey consultancy? Again, we’re not in the watchdog business.

Another possible option is that Arrogant Bastard’s success came at the cost of the industrial brewers who founded and fund Portman Group. Now that Arrogant Bastard has been taken so seriously as an alternative to their products on the global stage–well, that admittedly seems convenient.

If the rest of the world had been as offended as your analyst, we assure you Arrogant Bastard would be long gone by now. Our goal is to inspire, and we’ve always been crystal clear about that. It’s not bravado for us to say that our track record has proven to be successful at that. Perhaps a tad braggadocious, but not bravado.

Top 30 beers US

As you know, memorable branding is crucial to any small business. Too bland, and no one remembers your name. Too bold, and you’re an energy drink. With any creative endeavor, there will always be some who misunderstand the intention, or even wildly misinterpret it. Such is the nature of art, as any person or politician can attest. Especially when it comes to the sort of ironic creative expression Arrogant Bastard Ale is based on.

Though we feel our respectability and innocence in these charges to be self-evident, we have nonetheless taken the time to address their specific issues:

YOUR ISSUE: “The packaging and naming in both a direct and indirect way suggest association with bravado.”

Merriam-Webster defines “bastard” as “something that is spurious, irregular, inferior, or of questionable origin.” This is clearly an archaic definition based upon the now long-passed view that being a “bastard” was something inferior. In modern society we no longer accept Victorian-era prejudices and have wisely adopted the more humanistic understanding that people of every kind of background are all worthy of equal respect. However, when we started making craft beer, we were seen as spurious and irregular. The giants of industry claimed we were inferior, and doors were accordingly closed to us. They claimed no one would want our weird beer, because of its questionable origin. By the very definition of the word, we were deemed bastards who were arrogant for thinking we stood a chance in this industry. And so we adopted the accusations against us. We used their words in a positive manner. We named a beer in their, and our, honor.

“Arrogant Bastard has to be one of the best-named beers of all time.”

- The Irish Times, August 12, 2016

ISSUE: “The packaging and naming in both a direct and indirect way suggest association with bravado. The name of the product is “Arrogant Bastard,” and directly under name is a slogan stating “You’re not worthy.” The text on the can tells the customer that they won’t like it because the consumer prefers a safer option.”

The name we have covered. Regarding the phrase, “You’re Not Worthy”—this is something we were told repeatedly as young brewers. We took the insult and used it as a rallying cry for our cause. As for playfully teasing a customer that they won’t like it, we don’t see how this violates any of the Portman Code 3.2. It is a brotherly tease, and does not suggest bravado, violence, aggression, danger, anti-socialism, or illegality. In addition, it was also a playful reworking of the oft-repeated phrase from the cinematic classic, Wayne’s World, in which the two protagonists regularly proclaim “We’re not worthy!” when they find themselves in the presence of someone they greatly admire. They also famously, and mightily, rocked out to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in a Pacer. Now that’s bravado. So much so that nearly three decades later writer and actor Mike Meyers was invited to appear in the recent most excellent biopic movie Bohemian Rhapsody in a specially written part. Point is, they’re both great movies and you should watch it. Up to you if you’re enjoying an Arrogant Bastard while you’re doing it, although it does feel like it’d be thematic at this point.

Back to the point being that we turned the phrase “We’re Not Worthy” around, playfully suggesting Arrogant Bastard Ale demands admiration. Is that “bravado”? Lighthearted bravado perhaps.

In that line of thinking, and for the sake of argument, we’ll take the same momentary leap of faith you have taken and imagine we are guilty of exhibiting bravado. “Bravado” is defined as making bold or showy statements, and having an appearance of courage and confidence. Given the current political climates of our two countries, the writing on Arrogant Bastard Ale hardly seems worthy to appear on the “bravado” radar. However, if we are guilty of bravado it is in one—and only one—specific way: flavor profile.

Fact is, good people with taste have been underestimated. For centuries, we’ve been given food and drinks that are facile and breezily palatable because companies lumped us all into the lowest common denominator. Remarkable humans were given unremarkable beer that tastes like back alley whispers or computer generated smooth jazz. We’ve conversely been taught to eschew food and drink of actual depth, character, and intense flavor.

Arrogant Bastard Ale Cans

To wit, I recently read an article that complained vociferously about the food scene in Rome. It argued that the glory days of restaurants with quality and flavorful food had been lost because chefs were forced to accommodate the pedestrian tastes of tourists. Rather than be distinctive, the article alleges restaurants had aimed at the heart of bland in an effort not to offend a single palate. Here’s the thing: that article was written over 800 years ago. The unfortunate reality is that pandering to the lowest common denominator is not a new phenomena.

The result is that many people struggle to appreciate the boldly bitter profile found in Arrogant Bastard Ale. It’s a pretty intense beer with a big personality (especially in the beer climate that existed when we released it in November 1997). So much so, that we did not release the beer for more than a year after we opened our doors. We feared it was too big in character, and would only drive customers away from our fledgling brewery. And yet, we ourselves loved the beer.

Arrogant Bastard's Release

Stone Brewing co-founders Greg Koch & Steve Wagner during a promotional in-store 3Litre bottle signing circa 1998. Whole Foods, Hillcrest, San Diego, CA

Acknowledging this, when we finally couldn’t hold the beer to ourselves any longer, we felt obligated to clearly warn people away from trying Arrogant Bastard Ale. We figured if a warning label was sufficient to chase someone away, that person probably wasn’t our target audience anyway. By providing a warning label, fewer feelings would be hurt and there would be more of the beer for people who actually wanted an intense flavor profile. After all, if people expected a whisper beer or a smooth jazz beer and instead receive Arrogant Bastard, they might be disappointed. We didn’t enjoy wasting people’s valuable time or money. That’s why we were very clear that Arrogant Bastard is a very different beer. It was, and is, truth in advertising.

We wrote about all of this and more in our 2011 book “The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.”  You can read it yourselves. It’s available on Amazon.

It’s even gotten some nice ratings.

“The bottle comes with the tag line ‘you’re not worthy’ and the damned truth is, some people are not.”

- The Red & Black, November 8, 2016

ISSUE: “The language, name, and visual are suggesting that one has to be tough or daring to drink the product, and by consuming it, the customer is tougher or more daring than a regular beer drinker.”

The “visual” in question is our logo. A gargoyle. We chose a gargoyle because, historically, it wards off evil spirits. As we state on our website, on coasters, on posters, on bottles and can, our gargoyle represents our commitment to quality by helping us to ward off cheap ingredients, chemical preservatives, and pasteurization…the modern day evil spirits of beer. Historically, gargoyles were erected on churches, and on the day of their christening, the archbishops would release a prisoner. We relate to the idea of fizzy-yellow beer drinkers as prisoners, and hope to aid in their release by providing them craft alternatives. In no way does any of our branding suggest a customer should be “tougher,” physically imposing, or aggressive. We ourselves have few muscles to speak of (me especially), and are pacifists.

Arrogant Bastard Pint

Zenith Group also suggests we consider our customers “more daring.” They are correct. We do believe this of our customers: they are aesthetically daring. They dare to develop new tastes and palates. This is a positive attribute. We do not endorse daring that dangerous or destructive or anti-social. Our dare is to explore beyond the status quo of aesthetic experience, not to go bungee jumping with a disreputable operator. I believe that the UK sometimes uses the term “lager louts” to describe someone who is drunk, disorderly and scrapping for a fight. That term is not one associated with any of the beers we make.

ISSUE: “The language is… challenging the consumer to not be ordinary.”

This is semi-sorta-but-not-really true. We believe not being ordinary is a great goal in life and urge everyone, including Portman Group, to be extraordinary. In fact, our company motto of the last couple decades has been two simple words: “Be Amazing.” It’s tough to consider that someone would insist on viewing that through a negative lens. We like to believe we make an extraordinary beer. We don’t believe urging someone to enjoy extraordinary beer is bravado, violence, aggression, danger, anti-socialism, or illegality.

However, the language is not even a challenge, as Zenith claims. Once again it’s a warning to consumers of what to expect. The label was written in a time before craft beer was a widely known thing. Back then, any level of IBUs (International Bitterness Units, the measurement of bitterness in a beer) were not acceptable to the general consumer. In many articles and videos over the years, I have consistently explained I wrote that label as a warning, not as some goading “reverse psychology.” It was plain speak. Open, honest and straightforward (admittedly while employing a little Monte Pythonian light elbow to the ribs).

If you have not researched this history of Arrogant Bastard and its legacy and meaning, or the history and ethos of our company, I invite you to do so. I believe that in your country, as in ours, the burden of proof lies with the accuser, and not the accused. As such, I politely decline to do the research for you. I have never bookmarked all these instances of my telling the story, as I never imagined I’d need to.

“It's difficult to process just how iconic Stone Brewing's Arrogant Bastard Ale is.”

- Minneapolis City Pages, August 22, 2016

ISSUE: “The language used on the packaging is derogatory to consumer. Phrases such as ‘If you don’t like this beer, keep it to yourself—we don’t want to hear from any sniveling yellow-beer-drinking’ wimps, cause this beer wasn’t made for you’ are pejorative and may encourage anti-social behavior, as they challenge the consumer not to be a wimp.’”

Millions…quite literally millions…of our consumers have understood and enjoyed the playful irony of this statement. There are many truly derogatory words in the English language, none of which we would ever use at Stone. We do not believe “wimp” to be one of them. We chose that word because one of Merriam-Webster’s definitions is “an unadventurous person.” In the beginning, and still to this day, trying craft beer requires a sense of adventure. The word “wimp” doesn’t insult gender, race, religion, creed, or anything else we hold as sacred to human beings. We believe the issue here is that the irony and playfulness was not comprehended by Zenith Global’s analyst, and the word does not express bravado, violence, aggression, danger, anti-socialism, or illegality.

In your complaint, you claim the label “may” encourage anti-social behavior. Again, we refer to the fact that this is one of the best-selling craft beers in the world. That seems exceedingly social. It is more likely that interstellar energy particles would cause voting machine irregularities than the label of Arrogant Bastard Ale would encourage anti-social behavior. Indeed, there are literally more recorded instances of the former than the latter. Last-call binge drinking is far better example of an anti-social behavior. We have a problem with it in some parts of the U.S., and we have heard the U.K. struggles with this as well. Such behavior is not the culture of the environment at any of our restaurants or pubs.

ISSUE: The word “bravado.”

We agree with all other words that constitute violations in Portman’s Code 3.2. No company should encourage violence, aggression, danger, anti-socialism, or illegal behavior. But bravado simply means “blustering swaggering behavior” and “a pretense of bravery.” Accusing a company of bravery, or even a pretense of bravery, seems a bit harsh. It’s a compliment in many uses (“she had a sense of young bravado.”). As people who are on the receiving end of Portman’s efforts, we encourage consultation with linguists, and the removal of that word from the list. It allows for far too wide of interpretations, and could lead to some unfounded accusations against responsible companies.

Babies in arrogant bastard onesies

The very popular "My Daddy is an Arrogant Bastard" onesies on twinsies.

In closing, with Arrogant Bastard Ale having been sold for 23 years—10-plus years in the UK, all over Europe, Asia, and Australia, we have never been accused of such outrageous things as those of which your complaint outlines. This includes UK wholesalers, retailers and consumers. So, either the entire world is wrong, or you are. It is the latter.

Thank you for hearing us out.

Sincerely,

Greg Koch

Co-Founder, Executive Chairman, and Author of the Arrogant Bastard Ale label

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Comments

Chris's picture

Your response is inspiring. As a restaurant owner/operator serving distinctive Mexican cuisine, it is tough to receive criticism from those guests who want the less flavorful and cheaply made plates they are accustomed to. I’m convinced we need a proper “warning label” and similar marketing campaign so as to more easily reach our target market, from which we receive overwhelming compliments on our food. Thanks for the inspiration.

PS- Greg, I hosted you at a Stone tap takeover in Hermosa Beach around 2011. I was running a taco joint and you were an awesome guest! The staff loves you, as did our guests. Thanks again!

Carl's picture

Great read, amazing letter Greg!

Henrik's picture

What wonderful reading, I so enjoy an eloquent, spirited, intelligent way to reply to mindless, unsubstantial accusations in a sassy, slightly condescending way. Well done Sir, I believe you gave a voice to millions, if not billions of people.
Nobody likes a bullying, arrogant show off of a bastard - unless it is a Stone beer! I for one will keep hoping to see your wonderful Bastard in Sweden again. I SO enjoy it, even more so now that I can do it with bravado!

Keep up the wonderful brewing!

BWR's picture

Make another beer in their honor- call it 'Whining git'.

Scott's picture

Tastefully arrogant. Kudos, Mr. Koch. I think I'll be extraordinary and buy some of your beer today!

Garrett Jones's picture

A beautifully written rebuttal to an arrogant, unfounded inquisition. Keep doing what you do! Cheers!

Tommy's picture

“Show me on the feels where the beer hurt you.”

Graham Davies's picture

Well, now there are two reasons why I'm ashamed to be British - brexit and the Portman Group.

I hope you guys know about the Berkshire Brewing Company. They seems to have similar goals and values. My regular beer is Hoosac Tunnel Amber Ale, which I find similar to Marston's Pedigree. Apparently, BBC modify the chemistry of the water they use to brew Hoosac Tunnel to be the same as the water in Burton-on-Trent. But, right now, I'm drinking Arrogant Bastard.

Nick Labbe's picture

Greg, this was a fantastic read and i feel robbed of the chance to ask you about this in person after just recently having met you. (i was the one who walked in embarrassingly early to find myself interrupting your speech here in ohio - i am very sorry again)

have there been any new developments? And more so - if there is a negative outcome, how can all of us help?

Also proud to say, Arrogant Bastard was my first of many many... many stone beers. I'm as smitten now as i was then, and promise to raise a glass in honor of the gargoyle by weeks end.

Cheers!

Greg  Koch's picture

Thanks @NickLabbe! Yes, there has been a development, and we’re formulating a response that will be posted soonish (don’t want to rush haphazard). Great to meet you in Cleveland. Oh, and what can you do to help? You’re doing it my friend!

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