News Story

Maryland Brewer Tweaks Michigan's Alcohol Regulators

Free speech advocates had a dog in this fight

Maryland-based Flying Dog Brewery is using money it was awarded in a 2015 case against the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to make a point about free expression. The brewer will create an organization called the 1st Amendment Society to promote free speech and civil liberties after the liquor agency tried to ban the sale of one of its beers in the state of Michigan.

A six-year legal battle ended in March 2015 when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the brewery. The court said the commission violated the company's freedom of expression rights in 2009 when it banned the sale of its Belgian ale named "Raging Bitch" due to the beer's name and label graphics. The brewery was awarded $40,000 in damages.

The beer label’s artwork depicts a gnarly female dog and was designed by Ralph Steadman, who illustrated many works for the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, according to a Reason magazine story on the legal fight.

The commission denied Flying Dog the official approval it needed under state law to distribute the beer in Michigan, saying its name contained “language deemed detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the general public.”

Flying Dog’s CEO, James Caruso, said during an appeals hearing in 2010, “The company chose the ‘edgy’ name and label because it reflected the nature of the Belgian yeast used to make the beer, and it promoted the Flying Dog brand.”

The brewery-supported organization will launch on May 31 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. It plans to establish a scholarship at the University of Maryland's journalism school and hold a lecture series, Erin Weston, the brewery’s spokeswoman, said in a press release.

"This case set a precedent for not only craft brewers but distilleries and vineyards to know that governing bodies can't control or regulate their products based on the branding alone,” Weston said, according to Fox 45 (WBFF-TV) in Baltimore.

Beer production is a thriving industry with 206 craft breweries across Michigan, which ranks sixth in the nation for the number of breweries. In 2015, they produced 769,897 barrels of craft beer, making the state tenth in the country, according to the Brewers Association.

As the Mackinac Center has noted, Michigan charges breweries high licensing fees, and more harmful to consumers, it imposes a restrictive distribution regime that enriches a handful of families who have been granted regional distribution monopolies.