A friend of mine brought it to my attention that Scottish brewery and notorious marketing provocateurs Brewdog were making No Label, “the world’s first non-binary and transgender beer”. Naturally, since this nicely intersects two of the most important subjects to me right now, I had to drive right in.
Boy, was I disappointed, on a vast number of fronts. Let me rock out the list for you.
1. The Basic Concept
The entire concept of the beer is misguided and technically incorrect, primarily because inanimate objects do not have gender. Beer doesn’t have a biological sex. Beer doesn’t have a mind or consciousness, and therefore cannot have an internal concept of gender that can differ from its assignment at birth, which means it’s completely impossible for beer to be transgender.
That being said, Brewdog tries to justify their definition in two ways: Their choice in yeast and their choice in hops. In their words:
“As befits the Kölsch style, we have brewed No Label with ale yeast and then cold-conditioned to give characteristics of a lager — a beer that blurs boundaries between the binary worlds of lager and ale. The beer draws parallels with individuals who identify themselves in a similar ‘non-binary’ way, as neither exclusively male nor female — a community of people that is still largely under-acknowledged by society.
“We have also looked at the traditions of brewing — where female hop plants are used and male hop bines discarded (as the flowers don’t grow into full cones). For No Label, we have sourced Jester hops — a varietal naturally prone to altering sex whilst growing — and brewed No Label with 20kg that have undergone this change and grown male flowers; to add diversity, rather than restrict it.”
So we have problems with biology, language and basic concepts here. First off, neither plants nor yeast have gender in the same way humans do. Again, neither are sentient, and therefore do not have an internal mental and emotional concept and experience of gender that can differ from their assignment at birth, so they cannot be defined as transgender.
But we can get deeper into biology here, too. Yeast — Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces pastorianus — is a fungus that can reproduce either sexually or asexually, based on external conditions and stresses. Haploid budding — the asexual mode — is yeast’s primary mode of reproduction during beer fermentation, but diploid mating can occur as well. But in neither form does yeast have what we call “sex” or “gender”, and it simply doesn’t function in the same way. Moreover, the parallel between kölsch production — fermenting a hybrid ale yeast at lager temperatures — and non-binary identities is extremely weak, enough so to call it a huge stretch of the imagination.
As for the hops involved, the phenomenon involved with the hops is not any form of transgender identity, but is a form of plant hermaphroditism that is well documented in many species of plants, including hops and their closest relative marijuana. Many plants have been known to develop both male and female flowers under certain stresses. I should not even need to say that being transgender and transitioning are not at all similar to plant hermaphroditism, and that being described as hermaphrodities is generally offensive to transgender people. Which leads me to our next point…
There are tons of missteps and red flags in the copy for this whole beer, and indeed in the basic concept itself.
For one, Brewdog continually conflates and confuses non-binary and transgender identities. While non-binary identities fall within the larger transgender umbrella — as non-binary identities differ from one’s assignment at birth — Brewdog uses the term “transgender” in a very binarist sense, while continuing to describe the beer as both “non-binary” and “transgender” at the same time.
Brewdog also associates transgender identity not with self-determination or internal identity, but with purely physical attributes, describing both hops and yeast as “transgender” because of the aforementioned misinterpreted biological traits. Transgender people are not defined by their bodies, but by how they define themselves and their existence. To say otherwise, and then assign those same misconceptions to other species to justify your labeling, is a grotesque disservice to the transgender community.
In their tweets, Brewdog also describes their beer as “a postgender beer for a postgender world”. Given the amount of discrimination against transgender and non-binary people, in terms of housing, employment, medical treatment, public facilities and violence, the idea of a “postgender world” couldn’t be further from the truth. To describe the world as “postgender” or “without gender” is also a tool generally used to erase and invalidate transgender identities, and the misconceptions and bad logic used to describe this beer as “transgender” will only do more of the same.
As Brewdog touts the terms “postgender” and misuses transgender and non-binary identities, they also damage the community by reducing transgender people to their bodies and taking control of the language away from them. Rather than describing the vast myriad of people that makes up the transgender community, Brewdog reduces transgender identities to beer attributes and thereby invalidates and erases them. Rather than making the project about actual transgender people, Brewdog instead swiped the language and identities of transgender people to describe the characteristics of a beer and its ingredients. We are being conflated with plants and fungus.
Plus, look at the project itself. What do you notice about the language and the people involved? It seems that no actual transgender or non-binary people were included in the planning or production of this beer. Transgender people exist across a broad intersection of identities… including within the brewing industry! I mean, I’m right here! But Brewdog made no effort to include actual transgender people in this project. Brewdog ignored the motto of “nothing about us without us” and marched merrily on. Instead, we were objects to be monetized and exploited. Which brings us to…
If I may snark for a moment: Leave it to a bunch of cisgender people to lay claim to “the first transgender, non-binary beer”.
To use transgender and non-binary identities to describe a beer without including any actual members of the transgender community is appropriation, plain and simple. As our community is marginalized and discriminated against, Brewdog uses our language and identities in order to produce and sell beer. Brewdog is taking advantage of our struggles as transgender people to hock their product without our input or permission, and colonizing our identities.
“But Brewdog is giving all the profits to charity!”, I hear you say. I was just getting to that.
5. A Monetized Non-Apology
So within the article, Brewdog mentions that the profits from this beer are actually going to charity:
“No Label has been created in partnership with LGBTQI+ events organisers Queerest of the Queer; an organisation that celebrates the diversity and talent of the LGBTQI+ community. We are donating all profits from the sale of No Label to Queerest of the Queer to in turn support charities aiding transgender youth communities. “We see a huge number of parallels between BrewDog and Queerest of the Queer — we’re cut from the same cloth and believe in much the same things,” explains Dr J, the organisation’s co-founder.“
Okay, so that’s not bad. Let’s dig deeper with what Queerest of the Queer themselves have to say:
“Money is going to the Albert Kennedy Trust, Micro Rainbow who support LGBT asylum seekers, and we are working with Mosaic Youth and other youth charities to run a LGBTQ+ youth ball in the new year.”
Note that the organizations involved are LGBTQ+ umbrella groups, and that none of them are transgender-specific. Which means that the money may be going to transgender people, but that a lot of it may not be. Which means that, as has been happening since the Stonewall Riots, cisgender GLB people will likely be benefiting from the exploitation and erasure of transgender and non-binary people.
But there’s something else going on here: Not too long ago, Brewdog was called out for an ad they put up for their “Equity for Punks” campaign, which just happens to be grotesquely transphobic.
The ad is still on YouTube, and Brewdog has responded that the ad was made “in the spirit of fun and sending ourselves up — it’s a shame that some people have taken offence where none was intended.” No apology was ever given, and Brewdog instead deflects blame onto the transgender community for “tak[ing] offence”.
It’s all well and good for you to say you’re sending yourselves up, but what you’ve done is the same thing transgender people have gone through time and time again: being turned into a joke to make money for cisgender people, with dire repercussions for our community up to and including violence.
So what is this beer really about? It’s about continuing to exploit the transgender community for profit and positive PR. If Brewdog really wanted to reach out to the transgender community, they could have included us in this endeavor. They could have at least consulted us on the language involved. They could have made sure to give to trans-specific charities. But instead, they continue to contribute to our erasure and exploitation.
I am a transgender woman. I am a professional brewer. And in both aspects, I reject Brewdog’s supposed advocacy and support.