The Story Behind The First "Transgender Beer"

On Wednesday, Scottish craft brewery BrewDog announced the launch of “No Label" beer, a product being marketed at “the world’s first non-binary, transgender beer.” This announcement arrives on the heels of a recent controversy in which BrewDog was accused of mocking transgender and homeless people in a fundraising ad; in September, over 25,000 people signed a petition demanding the ad’s removal. The beer makers say that No Label is intended to promote inclusivity and that profits from sales will go to LGBT charities. However, responses to the beer have been decidedly mixed, and many have been skeptical of — if not downright offended by — both the marketing of the beer and the concept of “transgender beer" itself.

You may be asking, “But what does ‘transgender beer’ even mean?” BrewDog explains in a press release:

This 4.6% ABV Kölsch has been brewed with hops that have changed sex from female to male flowers prior to harvest…. We have … 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 worked with the fantastic team at Charles Faram to source 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.

The brewery also claims that No Label is also “non-binary”:

[W]e 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.

BrewDog worked with Queerest of the Queer, a UK organization promoting LGBT performance, in developing No Label. Dr. J, co-founder of the organization, had this to say:

When we met the BrewDog team recently, we discussed what it means to live beyond the L and G in LGBTQI+, and delved deeper into the areas where labels don’t really translate anymore. BrewDog was super responsive and respectful and we could see their approach to diversity and inclusivity in brewing is pretty close to what it means to Queerest of the Queer.

Although the intentions behind No Label may be good, many people have argued that the concept behind the beer, as well as the language being used to promote it, is clueless at best and offensive at worst. Twitter users have argued that BrewDog oversimplifies the trans experience and is using the label “transgender” as a marketing gimmick.

BrewDog's marketing has also struck some people as tone-deaf. Jessica Lachenal at The Mary Sue, for example, has pointed out that the company’s tweet claiming that No Label is proof of a “postgender world” is highly problematic.

She writes,

Do I have to say it? Apparently I do. We don’t live in a postgender world. Holy crap. Gender and our relationship to it is still being discussed and fought over — with some transgender people paying for the struggle with their lives. Don’t belittle that by appropriating our identities to sell your beer.

BrewDog may mean well, but I agree that the company's rosy depiction of a non-binary, postgender world where beer can be free to be itself belittles the lived experiences of real transgender people. In its press release, the company boasts that they used “hops that have changed sex from female to male flowers” in No Label “to emphasise that, just like humans, beer can be whatever the hell it wants to be, and proud of it.” The claim that “beer can be whatever the hell it wants to be” may be tongue-in-cheek, but by comparing the struggles of trans people to — what exactly? The harrowing trials and tribulations of sexually fluid hops? — BrewDog trivializes the very real, very serious instances of discrimination and violence that trans people face every day.

BrewDog founders James Watt and Martin Dickie have defended No Label despite the criticism it’s received. Watt told Business Insider,

People have got to look at what we've done here. We've worked with the charity Queerest of the Queer to put this together. They co-designed the packaging, they worked with us on the project, we're donating all the proceeds of sales of this beer to charity.

Image: Brewdog, $2.94