Despite the old adage about never discussing politics in polite company, drinking establishments have long been fertile ground for political revolution. Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern became known as the “headquarters of the American Revolution,” while Le Procope in Paris was used as a meeting place by the leaders of the French Revolution. Then, of course, there was Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch.
As it turns out, many B.C. craft breweries are mixing politics and alcohol themselves, raising their voices and supporting various political causes, often with unintended consequences.
Last October, Kelowna’s Boundary Brewing Co. made headlines after being targeted online by right-wing hate groups after posting a video of an anti-fascist flag being hung in the brewery’s tasting room.
Owner Oliver Gläser and his staff decided to hang the flag to let people know that hate wasn’t welcome in his brewery.
“Our brewer is from the States, and with the rise of the alt-right and white supremacy, he said he felt powerless,” says Gläser. “After we saw what happened in Charlottesville, we wanted to do something.”
More than 100 people have been killed or injured by members of the alt-right movement since 2014, according to U.S. hate crime watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center. As someone of German descent brewing German beers, Gläser says it was important for him to take a stand against Nazism.
“I thought we’d have some conversations with our customers, and that would be it,” Gläser says. “I never thought it would go viral.”
One month after the video was posted, it was discovered by members of a far-right anti-Islam militia called the Three Percenters who began to bombard the page with negative reviews. Within an hour, the video received more than 7,000 views and the brewery’s Facebook page had 15,000+ hits, many of them from white supremacists in the U.S.
“I’m a rugby player and a boxer, so I’m not afraid of a fight,” he says. “But these people were threatening me, saying, ‘you’d better have good fire insurance,’ things like that. I’ve got my son and daughter with me a lot of the time, so if you’re threatening me, you’re threatening my whole family.”
However, as media coverage of the online attack increased, so too did the messages of support. Instead of hurting his sales, the troll campaign had the opposite effect.
“Our sales went up by about 30 per cent in our slowest time of the year,” Gläser says. “We were getting people coming in to buy beer from Kamloops, Vancouver, Calgary, who said they heard about us on the news and wanted to support us.”
As for the threats?
“We never had anyone come in here and try and start trouble,” says Gläser. “Someone put an Infowars sticker on the door, that was about it.”
Despite the stress and chaos caused by the entire incident, Gläser says he doesn’t regret posting the video for a second.
“They gave me thousands of dollars of free advertising, but more importantly, they gave me a platform,” he said.
Fighting The Good Fight
For some breweries, political activism is a part of what they are, by design.
Before starting Crannog Brewing in Sorrento, owners Rebecca Kneen and Brain MacIsaac were both anti-poverty activists in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They decided to open the brewery, Kneen says, because they wanted to get involved in organic agriculture and brew beer in a sustainable and ethical manner.
“You can’t do that without talking about what you’re doing and why. By necessity, that’s political,” she says. “To divorce that from running a business is unethical.”
When Crannog opposed the development of a nearby golf course, the brewery lost an account in Salmon Arm as a result.
“Does that bother me? No,” says Kneen.
Crannog has proudly flown an antifa flag for more than a decade, and when Kneen and MacIsaac learned about the online campaign against Boundary Brewing, they reached out to help any way they could. Brewers being brewers, the two breweries got together and collaborated on the Not For Nazis Nutbrown Ale.
By being honest about who they are, and standing up for what they think is right, Kneen says Crannog has actually benefited from being political.
“I feel the benefits for us far outweigh any negative backlash,” she says. “Our consumers are much more passionate about what we do, and that encourages loyalty.”
Business As Usual
Of course, businesses get involved in politics all the time. During the last provincial election cycle, corporations donated millions of dollars to political parties, with $7.8 million in corporate donations going to the B.C. Liberals and about $700,000 going to the NDP (who traditionally get most of their donations from labour unions).
After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Red Collar Brewing Co. in Kamloops thought it would make its displeasure known by releasing two beers ridiculing the US president: Alternative Facts IPA and Impeachment Peach Witbier.
“When Trump was elected we were all watching the live stream at the brewery, and [owner/brewer] David [Beardsell] was watching in absolute disbelief,” recalls Lara Beardsell, Red Collar’s head of sales and marketing. “He swore, he yelled, I thought he might cry, and I almost had to make him leave, but I think he was vocalizing the shock that we were all in that night, and the totally incredulity about what our southern neighbours had just done.”
Instead of dwelling on the negative, Lara says they decided to contribute something positive—in the form of beer—at Trump’s expense. She says the beers were well received and Red Collar plans to re-release them this year. However, Lara said the brewery is less interested in wading into Canadian politics.
“I think that would be a little more decisive within our own community,” she says. “I will say that, in general, we try to maintain that Red Collar is a business, not a person, and therefore doesn’t have opinions, take sides, provide commentary, etc. But we didn’t think we were being all that radical by having a laugh courtesy of Trump and his administration.”
The Wrath of the Internet
Vancouver’s Faculty Brewing Co. incurred the wrath of the Internet after taking part in a Pints Not Pipelines event last April to raise funds for First Nations lawsuits against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline. Now that the pipeline is back in the news, with Alberta recently banning the importation of B.C. wine in retaliation for our provincial government’s insistence on studying the effects of diluted bitumen spills, online commenters are back accusing the brewery of being hypocrites.
“[The cause] resonated with us because it goes with our values—environmental sustainability is a big deal for us,” says owner Mauricio Lozano of his decision to support Pints Not Pipelines. “Every decision we make is through a green lens: we use car share instead of a company car, we run on 100% renewable natural gas, which is very expensive, but makes sense for us. Yes, we use fossil fuels, but we use as little as possible and we support policies that would get us away [from using them entirely.]”
Lozano says that despite some of the negative reactions he’s faced, he feels that it’s important for businesses to stand up for what they believe in.
“As a business, you can be a megaphone for a cause. But some people won’t like that,” he says. “You have to assume that if you take a stand, there’s going to be some pushback. But for us, it was important. We’re also citizens, we have opinions and we vote.”
Lozano and Gläser both hope their tasting rooms can be a place for frank and lively discussion, and just because someone doesn’t believe in the same things as they do politically, doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome.
“Beer halls have always been a place to discuss politics and everyone is welcome here,” says Gläser. “But I draw the line at hate. If some people want to boycott me because of that, that’s fine by me, these are exactly the kind of people I don’t want coming in here.”