Beer

Raging Bitch, Good Shit, and Flying Dog Beer's Fight for Free Speech

Flying Dog Brewery's Jim Caruso took on government censors and won.

|

HD Download

"I've lived my life as a pro free enterprise person," explains Flying Dog Brewery CEO Jim Caruso. "Not pro business. Pro free enterprise, pro consumer choice, artisanal manufacturing."

A central player in America's craft beer revolution, Caruso is dedicated to creating something special both inside and outside the bottle. Famed artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his iconic illustrations for work by Hunter S. Thompson, creates all of Flying Dog's labels. It was Steadman who spontaneously wrote on his first commissioned label "good beer, no shit." And it was this label that kicked of Flying Dog's first—but not last—fight with government censors.

Caruso sat down with Reason's Nick Gillespie to talk about his run-ins with the state, why he is a libertarian, and the how his values keep him happy.

"I'm a happy person. And I attribute that to living as an individual, taking self responsibility, self reliance, but connected to society. It's not a Lone Ranger sort of thing."

Cameras by Meredith Bragg, Todd Krainin, and Mark McDaniel. Edited by Bragg.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.

This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: America is in the throes of a beer revolution. Today the United States has more breweries than colleges. But it wasn't always this way. It was only after Jimmy Carter rescinded the prohibition on home brewing that Americans began innovating and experimenting. Flying Dog Brewery CEO Jim Caruso was there during the early days. And while today Flying Dog has cemented it's place as a leader in the craft brewery movement—as well as an unlikely champion of first amendment rights—Caruso still remembers the challenges of being a pioneer.

Jim Caruso: Nobody knew anything. There was nobody to turn to. So, bottles of beer exploding, we're selling out of the trunk of our car. All that sort of stuff in the start up industry. It wasn't taken very seriously.

And today for example we have Flying Dog University, we want people to make good beer. We've made it through 27 years, we're happy to share that knowledge. Even today breweries are opening faster, the capacity is increasing faster than demand, people are really getting into it. The last two years, three breweries opened per day for the last two years, every day for the last two years.

Nick Gillespie: Wow.

Jim Caruso: More breweries opened in the last 90 days than existed in 1990.

Nick Gillespie: And it's not just beer, I mean there's been an explosion in food and when you think about supermarkets like Whole Foods has really kind of changed the way people think about food or what the possibilities are. In all sorts of fields you see this, the rise of the artisanal of individualized, of niche products.

What's driving that in your estimation?

Jim Caruso: Yeah, s everal aspects of that. One is, certainly the artisanal nature, it's higher cost, it's lower production, it's scaling demand, not scaling supply. We're not pushing into the market, we're responding to consumer demands and offering this interesting portfolio of design and clothing and getting close to it.

When you look at local, think global, buy local, what does that mean? It means different things to different people. One is hyper-connectivity. It's not just that we contribute to the local events, we are engaged on that market at many, many different levels. And that's important to know the people behind the business. To be able to believe in that business. The other is a quality aspect. There is a freshness aspect to it because you can offer a wider range of products without worrying that they're aging on the shelf more than I'd want it to.

Jim Caruso: Caruso and the Flying Dog team are still dedicated to creating something special both inside and outside the bottle. Famed artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his iconic illustrations for work by Hunter S. Thompson, creates all of Flying Dog's labels. It was Steadman who spontaneously wrote on his first commissioned label "good beer, no shit." And it was this label that kicked of Flying Dog's first—but not last—fight with government censors.

Jim Caruso: This was our first run-in with the "thought police." Our very first label from Ralph Steadman and we had an encounter with the thought police in Denver Colorado. It was too perfect, right?

So we loved it, we thought it was art. The Colorado Liquor Commission said it's obscenity. They received a complaint from another brewer. So this is an industry that's not that exciting and we put this beer out there and this looks like, this is really a competitive advantage so we'll file a complaint that "shit" is obscenity. Well, first of all obscenity, the least defined term in the English language. They might find it offensive but it's certainly not obscenity.

Nick Gillespie: Isn't it, it's supposed to be by definition, it is prurient. I don't know that this label, that you could call it a lot of things, I don't know that I'd call is prurient.

You're correct.

Jim Caruso: Taken as a whole, does it have any literary, artistic, social, scientific value? Of course it does and by the way, "Good beer, no shit." Is not exactly using shit in any obscene way. So the liquor commission, we said, "We think it's art. Ralph Steadman is an internationally famous artist." They said, "It's obscenity, pull it from the shelf."

This is 15,000 cases with a start-up business. A couple hundred thousand dollars in today's dollars. If we didn't have deep pockets, we would have been out of business. So we dug deep, we pulled that beer. We actually ran "Good beer, no censorship." On the label, you know, we're a small brewery, not going to fight the Colorado Liquor Commission.

Mark Silverstein from the ACLU, bless his heart, took it upon himself to pick up this case. Carried it to the Colorado Supreme Court, and of course we won. Shit is not obscenity. It may be offensive to some people but offensive is not, offensiveness is protected by the First Amendment and it's certainly not offensive. So, that was our first run-in with it, we went back to "Good beer, no shit."

You know it was interesting, one of the most famous bookstores in America, The Tattered Cover. The most famous independent bookstore, the top floor is now called The First Amendment Room. That's where our win against the state was announced in 2000 and a number of reporters there, CNN, Newsweek. And they asked Mark, "Why, with all the injustices in the world, and people perhaps on death row incorrectly convicted, why would the ACLU spend it's limited resources and time defending something as sophomoric and trivial as a beer label?" This is like the perfect question. Because when it comes down to losing constitutional freedoms, they're not lost overnight. They're chipped away at bit by bit at the edge until you're down to a point that's too late to defend.

And that was brilliant. Where there's smoke under the door the fire is not far behind. This of course resonated with us because this is just part of our DNA.

Nick Gillespie: You've had more run-ins since then including in 2007 you had a beer called, "In Heat Wheat." So, it's a Belgian wheat beer I assume?

Jim Caruso: It's a German wheat beer.

Nick Gillespie: And that was banned in Arkansas, was that also considered obscene?

Jim Caruso: It was. After the 21st Amendment, the repeal of Prohibition, states were again given the ability to monitor alcohol. And a lot of states thought that meant they were exempt from The Constitution. And if they didn't like something, they would reject it. It's very expensive to sue a state, we didn't get that hung up on In Heat Wheat. Interestingly enough, we had another beer banned later in Michigan, rejected in Michigan. It had the terms "In Heat Wheat" on it and Michigan had approved that beer but objected to the words, "In heat" on the beer label "Raging Bitch."

So this is what you get into when you have bureaucrats and legislators applying their personal opinions and some whims to what is protected free speech, certainly commercial free speech.

Nick Gillespie: Lets talk about the, it started in 2009 Michigan banned, your beer "Raging Bitch."

Jim Caruso: They did.

Nick Gillespie: And this ended up being a tremendous win not just for you but both beer lovers as well as free speech and free expression advocates. What was the complaint? Why did they say that you can't sell a beer or you can't have a label that says "Raging Bitch" on it?

Jim Caruso: It was outrageously bad behavior by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. They had three appointed officials, had pretty much established the policy that nothing with the name "bitch" on it will be allowed into the state. No wine, beer or spirits. Including …

Nick Gillespie: Why did they, I mean, had one of them been called a bitch or … that just seems a very odd word to fixate on.

Jim Caruso: I never got deep enough psychologically to figure this out.

Nick Gillespie: That's like trying to understand a serial killer where you might not be able to come out of it so that's a good idea.

Jim Caruso: So, they'd even banned a beer, "Bitches Brew." The famous 1970, Miles Davis album, our friends at Dogfish Head did a beer to commemorate that. And they banned it. However, anything with the name "bastard," fat bastard, arrogant bastard, backwards bastard was fine. If you want to talk about entomology, that's a slightly more difficult word to define. You know, that a nobleman beds a peasant woman on a saddle as opposed to bitch.

So they banned it. To make a long story short, I went up there, I knew the official reason was it was detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the good citizens of Michigan. Well in reality, when I went for the first appeal at the Liquor Commission, word to my ears, "This is not about the First Amendment, Mr. Caruso." Fantastic, what's this about?

And it started with, "Well, you know, Oprah Winfrey doesn't allow that word on her show." Okay, I'd prefer that we'd talk about the Constitution here and the laws that govern the law makers. The other was, the Westminster Kennel Club no longer uses that word. Okay, well it was a tortuous explanation, we sued in the western district. We lost on these grounds, they didn't rule that it was a violation of our First Amendment right to freedom of expression, but that even if it were, we can't sue these appointed bureaucrats who have been outrageously rejecting this.

And for us, our marketing is built into this label. If you ban my ability to express my message, whether it's a political message, citizens united, whether it's a marketing message and idea, you're effectively taking part of my identity away. This is unacceptable, so it went to [Amagura 00:17:54], a hero in Libertarian circles. Took our case, went to the ninth circuit, sixth circuit in Cincinnati. After several years the opinion was in our favor. And the minority opinion went so far as to say, "Yes, and they clearly violated your First Amendment right so go back and settle."

We did, this was never about the money. We were awarded damages, obviously a lot went to legal fees. The rest went to form the First Amendment Society. This was never about the marketing, it was never about publicity. This was one style of beer in one state. But it's the same as Road Dog in Colorado, you have to fight these battles where they exist.

Nick Gillespie: What is the mission of the First Amendment Society? And what are the activities that you do through that?

Jim Caruso: First Amendment Society is to ensure that we have some ongoing value from this and continue the conversation about free speech. Aaron Weston is the executive director. We funded it but it's separate from Flying Dog. We endow speakers here at the brewery, Bob Cornrevere, Ron Collins, professors about constitutional freedoms. We have a banned book club to talk about whether it's leaves of grass or howell.

Harry Potter, the most banned book in America. Aaron is working with the University of Maryland on a scholarship for investigative journalism. Obviously Reason does brilliant journalism but a lot of people just press releases. Actually, coming up on Easter, we have The Slants playing here.

Nick Gillespie: Okay, they're a band that can't get their band name trademarked because it's seen as an anti-Asian epitaph even though it's an Asian-American rock band.

Jim Caruso: They are the only all Asian-American rock band in the world. And they want to embrace that name as empowering. The Patent and Trademark office said we can't allow you to disparage yourselves so therefore you can't do this. You know our opinion is, you can call your band whatever the hell you want and you can call your beer whatever the hell you want. And if the market doesn't like it, they're going to reject you.

Nick Gillespie: Are people getting more comfortable with the idea of something, like okay, part of this being an interesting society, part of it being a good society, a prosperous society is having to put up with Raging Bitch when I go to the local beer store. And if I don't want it I turn away.

Are people more comfortable with kind of free expression or do you think it's actually as bad as it ever was or is it getting worse?

Jim Caruso: That's a very good question. I think on average, I think people reject stuff that's just manufactured to be outrageous. The frat boy kind of stuff. That's not who we are, we have a very famous artist. Everything we do here, we find funny and there's an audience of weird people that agree with us.

Nick Gillespie: And you'll agree that some of it is sophomoric but it's …

Jim Caruso: It is.

Nick Gillespie: But it's not done simply to outrage.

Jim Caruso: Exactly.

What I'm seeing and I do have an opportunity to speak at colleges from time to time. It's quite concerning, Greg Lukianoff speaks about this quite a bit. The younger generation embraces freedom of speech but they're not, they want to be free from speech. In other words, there's a lot of stuff they say that you shouldn't say. That you shouldn't hurt people's feelings, the very squeamish sort of mentality about it. They do not understand the principle behind the First Amendment and how that connects to everything.

Intellectual freedom, political freedom, economic freedom. Free markets and free minds, it's all about freedom of speech. And it's concerning because that's the generation that's coming up. It's interesting because it's the same generation that voted 80 percent for Bernie Sanders and says that, 80 percent say that socialism is better than capitalism.

But when you say, "Define socialism." It's so different from what socialism is so there's a real need to talk about the principles of constitutional freedoms. What a constitutional republic is versus a democracy or a constitutional democracy. And I think this is missing. Glaringly missing in education these days. I took civics when I was growing up.

Nick Gillespie: What was different then? Because when you were growing up, you're in your early sixties, there's no question it would have been harder, there was nothing like this on the shelf. You couldn't watch dirty movies on TV. There was no porn hub but there was no HBO really to speak of.

So how does it happen that you go from an era in which you're learning civics and you're learning basic principles of the American founding but in a lot of ways objectively you were less free to express yourself than people now who are more free but have no idea what they should be doing with it.

Jim Caruso: I only have my opinion and I think it's been a long period of peace. It hasn't been a generation of a lot of challenges, a lot of stuff is taken for granted that we're more removed from the immigrants that came through Ellis Island in the early 20s and 30s. My grandparents came from Russia and Italy. It was surprising to me there was even such a concept as "freedom of speech."

America was free speech so this was something that you just embraced. You just appreciated the American dream and America having the strongest constitutional protection for freedom of speech. I think that just got lost in all these conversations out there. I have the good fortune of speaking to IHS, Students for Liberty. So it's an audience that is looking for this information and wanting to understand it.

Nick Gillespie: So these are all Libertarian student groups or youth groups. Do you find yourself as a Libertarian and what kind clued you into that kind of thinking?

Jim Caruso: I came to Libertarianism through Objectivism.

Nick Gillespie: So the Ayn Rand philosophy?

Jim Caruso: Ayn Rand. The week of July 21st 1977, I picked up the 20th anniversary copy of Atlas Shrugged. By the time I was a hundred pages into it, I read it straight through, espresso-fueled weekend from Thursday night to Sunday morning. And point was, I want to be in that world. That's the world that I want to be in. I didn't know the term Objectivism, didn't really break it down to reason, purpose, self esteem. It resonated because that's just who I was.

Other people are influenced by it. I felt validated, that it's okay to want a society this free. It will never be as free as I want but it's okay to move in that direction. And then for the next 40 years, it informed defined everything about myself. And I think most Libertarians, Libertarianism is a subset of Objectivism. It's subset of classical Liberalism and you know I think I'm a Libertarian because I would like the smallest possible government.

Contracts, property, restitution, self defense, that's sort of enough for me. We obviously need a lot more than that.

Nick Gillespie: And that, part of it is that if that's what government is doing then it gives you more free time and resources to get on with the world or creating the life and the society and the community that you want. It's not, you're not fixated on the state, you don't wake up in the morning and like, "Oh, I hate the post office." I mean, you want to get on with making the best beer possible and having fun doing it. Is that something that Libertarians broadly speaking, should be more focused on? You know you want to watch out for the government but if you're fixated on the government, you're wasting a lot of bandwidth.

Jim Caruso: Absolutely. You're asking the best philosophical question. Up until the Raging Bitch case, four or five years ago, I don't think anybody would have knew I was a Libertarian. I'm not affiliated with anything. Like most Libertarians, I belong to no parties including the Libertarian party.

So, with Alan and so forth in conversations with these groups you're talking about, of course I'm a Libertarian. The difference is, I've lived my life as a pro free enterprise person. Not pro business. Pro free enterprise, pro consumer choice, artisanal manufacturing. And that's what you go with. This crony capitalism, special interest politics, you go through ignoring that. You don't get caught up by it, you don't play the game, you don't want the special interest legislation that might come your way.

And you go through with a sense of ethics and a political philosophy that just works. I'm a happy person. And I attribute that to living as an individual, taking self responsibility, self reliance, but connected to society. It's not a lone ranger sort of thing. What is the situation? There's a Buddhist concept called Prajna. See reality for what it is. No worse, no better. And then decide the best way to respond to that reality. A objectivist concept too.

Nick Gillespie: That may be the first, I'm guessing that Ayn Rand was not a big fan of Buddhism.

Jim Caruso: Neither am I. The good news is Buddhism is not a religion but it's a mystical thing which I don't believe any more than Plato or anything else. No I look at that but, even from Buddhism I have a concept like, what is reality? Take the emotion out of it. You won't see me exuberant during a good month and you won't see me walking around ready to kill myself if we had a bad month.

What is it and what's the one thing anybody can do in a situation to make life a little bit better? Most people choose to make their life a whole lot shittier, given some stress and I step back from that. See it from a third person perspective.

Nick Gillespie: You said you're happy, are you optimistic about the next five months, the next five years, the next ten years? And if so, why?

Jim Caruso: Well I am. You know I don't view happiness as a state. It's choice that you go through life happy. I define myself more as cheerful and optimistic. That I try to bring the best energy, the best enzymes and neurotransmitters to a situation so I can think clearly. I'm not clouded by all these negative emotions and adrenaline and cortisol. Or I try not to be.

So yeah, I think everybody has a choice in any given day, how do you want to go through this period of consciousness? This is it. This is not a dress rehearsal, folks. So, lets make the best of it. And how do you give meaning to life? Well it's happiness. The purpose of an individual's being is happiness. Defined for them the way it is. And you have the freedom to explore and develop that happiness.

I'm a builder and grower, that's what I do. Businesses and jobs and I'd like to think that I'm a good teacher. And I spend a lot of time because it had great mentors in life. I had an okay education and I had great mentors and I'd like to be the person that imparts some wisdom and knowledge to people. It's what gets me out of the bed in the morning.

Nick Gillespie: All right and …

Jim Caruso: I'm on the die on program, I want to die on the job.

Nick Gillespie: And a fair amount of Raging Bitch goes into your everyday happiness?

Jim Caruso: My goal is to be the best part of your day. So those days that do get a little bit stressful, yes, Raging Bitch. Raging Bitch is the sexy cousin of Snake Dog, it's wicked cousin. We've been brewing Snake Dog for 20 years, it's the 20th anniversary and it's my go-to beer everyday for the last 20 years. So at the end of the day if I'm at the brewery, I have a Snake Dog and the world is right.