The American beer business has come a long way since Budweiser’s march of the Clydesdales, and Jim Caruso is one of the reasons why. In the early 1990s, after stints on Wall Street, in the hospitality business, and urban reclamation, he founded Flying Dog Brewery, which quickly became known for its quirky labels with art provided by illustrator Ralph Steadman, longtime collaborator with the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. When Caruso, who describes himself as a small “l” libertarian, submitted his 20th anniversary brew, Raging Bitch, to Michigan liquor regulators, it sparked a six year censorship battle and inspired him to establish a free-speech educational program. Caruso and Steadman are currently at work on a book. He spoke to us from his 50,000 square-foot brewery in Frederick, Maryland.
Where were your formative years spent and how did you end up a successful brewer?
I was born and reared in Cleveland OH, a dying rustbelt town in my youth. My paternal grandparents came from Italy, my fraternal grandparents from Russia. I started working at 14 and haven’t stopped. My degree is in economics. I also have a degree in brewing science, which is basically organic chemistry. I’m a certified hypnotist here and in Europe. I got into the restaurant business in Denver in the late 80s, then left the corporate world and became partners with John Hickenlooper who was operating the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He wanted to expand across the country. We combined our mutual love of historic renovation of core urban areas with craft beer production. A lot of these factory areas were pretty rough. They were deserted. You were crunching hypodermic needles under your feet in derelict factories. We acquired historic buildings from California east to New York. We converted buildings of 15,000 to 30,000 square-feet into brew pubs with bars and shiny copper kettles. We also introduced high end pool halls as a signature element. In 1994, in a separate venture, we created what is today Flying Dog Brewery to manufacture, bottle and ship beer rather than just serve it over the bar.
You’re known for pretty rigorous training of your employees.
When I was on Wall Street I trained with the same people who taught Tony Robbins and Richard Branson. To me it’s all about training my people to be persons you want to do business with. I want to make them feel empowered. I call the sales program I developed “influencing with integrity.” Twenty hours of training twice a year.
Give me the bumper sticker of the Michigan case?
First of all, the federal government approves all beer labels for health warnings and so forth. They can also reject one if they find it offensive. After you satisfy the Feds you submit your labels to every state where you intend to distribute. So in effect you’re doing business in 50 countries. You notify the state that you’re selling the beer, and they look at the label and decide to approve it or reject it. In Colorado in 1995, for example, we submitted our Road Dog beer with a label that read “Good Beer. No Shit”. Their commission claimed that the word “shit” was an obscenity. We had to pull the beer and remove the labels— a quarter million dollars worth of beer. The Colorado Supreme Court eventually ruled in our favor.
Wow. That’s a lot of beer.
So fast forward to 2009.
We produced Raging Bitch for our 20th anniversary. It was just a funny name. We shipped the beer to Michigan not knowing that they had rejected the label. So I get a phone call telling me that if I did not remove the beer, the state police would confiscate it because we were shipping beer that was not approved. So it turns out that the three-member commission, all of them lawyers sworn to uphold the Constitution, have for years not accepted anything with the word “bitch” in it. This is a clear example of regulators imposing their personal opinions.
But they didn’t have any problem with the word “bastard.”
No. Fat Bastard, Arrogant Bastard, Backwoods Bastard. Just nothing with the word “bitch” in the title. Same thing happened in Michigan to a Delaware brewery that came out with a beer called Bitches Brew named in honor of the 40th anniversary of the classic Miles Davis album by the same name. When I went up to Michigan to challenge the decision they defended it on the basis that Oprah Winfrey doesn’t allow that word on her show and that the Westminster Kennel Club no longer uses that word. They assured me that this wasn’t about First Amendment rights. They rejected my appeal, but the committee was made up of the same three people who rejected it in the first place, so it wasn’t really much of an appeal. Eventually we took the case to the 6th Circuit Court in Cincinnati and won. They stated that our Constitutional rights were violated and told us to come to a settlement with Michigan.
What specifically was Michigan’s objection to the label? They said at one point it was sexist, then that it should be banned to protect children. Did they ever give you a reason?
Who really knows? A lot of these commissioners are neo-prohibitionists. They just don’t like stuff, so they concoct these crazy reasons. For example, when I appeared before the committee without an attorney, by the way— I pointed out that one line on the label reads that the beer is “unbridled and in heat.” They said, “Ah ha! Right there! That’s a troublesome phrase.” I said, Ok, but you approved a beer of ours called In Heat Wheat nine years ago. They also said that they made their decision based on looking at our website. I said you can’t make a decision based on that! That’s like the DMV denying a person a driver’s license after looking at their Facebook page. These commissions get away with this shit because craft breweries and wineries don’t have the time or the money to fight them. It’s gone on since Prohibition.
Was there ever a point over the six long years this case lingered on that you thought, hell, let’s just change the name and be done with it?
Not even for a nanosecond! They agreed to settle for the six figures we were asking and I said, look, I’ll settle for one dollar if you agree to state on the record that this was a violation of our First Amendment rights. This was at the attorney general’s office. And they said we can’t do that. We just don’t do that.
You used the settlement money to start the First Amendment Society. What is your hope for that project?
Battles like ours are always fought at the margins. By the time you’re fighting soldiers coming up the street to shut you up, it’s a little too late to be defending freedom of speech. I wanted to make sure the conversation kept going, but using the interesting platform of a brewery to make it more accessible to people. This wasn’t just lawyers arguing about free speech. This case was about average citizens. We started sponsoring speaker evenings here at the brewery— with beer served— to have people come and listen to cases like Kathy Griffin holding up Donald Trump’s severed head. We also started a scholarship for investigative journalism at the University of Maryland because it’s dying out.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal this week cited a Brookings Institution survey of 1500 college students that found “half agreed that it’s okay to shout down a speaker whose views they don’t agree with..nearly one in five believe it is acceptable for a student group opposed to a speaker to use violence to keep him from speaking.” The Journal concluded that “American college students have no clue what the First Amendment means.”
Many college students now see free-speech as a tool of the oppressor. The problem is that they are not taught what a constitutional republic is. It’s called civics, the principles behind our government. It used to be required in school. So they don’t understand that without freedom of speech it’s hard to imagine having any other kind of freedom, like religious or economic freedom. It’s that basic. I spoke at a college not long ago and asked a show of hands to this question: How many of you would be willing to sell your right to expression, your First Amendment rights, and let the government decide what you’ll believe in. A number of hands went up. One kid in the audience was willing to sell his for a hundred bucks. I used to think administrations were entirely responsible— and there is overall a failure of the educational system— but now I believe it’s more peer pressure kids have among themselves to be politically correct. They think equal opportunity is fine as long as the outcomes are equal. Ninety-nine percent of these students have no idea what they’re opposing. The good news is that at least it’s not too late to teach them.
You’ve had confrontations with government officialdom not only in Michigan and Colorado, but in Texas, Alabama, Washington DC and elsewhere. Some might say that you’re a provocateur, deliberately poking the bear. Or are you just testing the system?
Neither. Had someone told me beforehand that Michigan rejects anything with the word “bitch” in it, I never would have gone there. I’ve also been accused of doing all this to publicize our brewery. This has nothing to do with publicity, nothing to do with marketing. There are about 6,000 craft breweries in the country right now— 200 in the Denver area alone. We rank number 32 out of the 6,000 nationwide. We don’t need the press. The only reason I would have pulled the beer is if it didn’t sell. But Raging Bitch was our number one beer, and still is. Only the customer was going to make that decision.
Does the craft beer industry select for a certain kind of individualist?
I don’t know. I only know that at Flying Dog it starts with doing stuff that makes us laugh. And as we say here: our job is to be the best part of your day.