Thursday, November 5, 2015

Ew, Dog: Brewdog's "No Label" Beer and Transgender Erasure

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...

2. Language

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.

3. Erasure

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...

4. Exploitation

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.
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.

Monday, August 31, 2015

So. It's Been A While.

I'm not sure anybody follows this blog anymore, but I figured I'd throw up a quick update just in case people still poke at it once in a while!

The last time I posted, I'd just begun work at Goose Island's main plant on Fulton Street in Chicago, Illinois. I ended up spending two action-packed years as a brewer there: I learned to operate the brewhouse and cellar, poured beer at festivals, and filled and emptied Gawd only knows how many barrels for the Bourbon County Stout beers and the sours. Better yet, I got to participate in the Fulton & Wood innovation beer program, and helped develop three beers through it: Casimir, a Polish-inspired smoked beer with caraway seed and rye malt; Dark Traveler, a Munich dunkel with some fun touches like flaked oats; and Devon Avenue Pale Ale, a beer brewed with Indian chai and spices. Goose Island is where I really earned my bones as a brewer, and learned more about the brewing process and industry that anywhere else I've ever worked.

But if there's one constant in life, it's change. And Lagunitas was opening up a new brewery in Chicago, which offered even greater opportunities...

I became part of the very first wave of brewers for the Chicago branch of Lagunitas, beginning work in November 2013 and, after a stint of training at the original Petaluma brewery, becoming one of the first brewhouse operators for the 250BBL Rolec system. I worked alongside Rolec's designers and builders, and trained several people in operating the system before cross-training in the filtration and centrifuge department, which is where I work now. Opening up a brewery is a huge challenge, and helping to develop SOPs and best practices while troubleshooting a system in its infancy was an amazing experience that helped me learn even more than I had before.

But even that hasn't been the biggest development in my life.

Meet Julia Astrid Davis, everybody. About a year ago, after a lifetime of questioning and occasional struggle, I came to terms with being transgender and started the process of transition. It's been both the hardest thing I've ever done for myself, but the best as well, and I feel so happy to have embarked on this new phase of my voyage in the brewing industry. All of my coworkers at Lagunitas, and all of my associates in the brewing industry, have been respectful and accepting of my transition, and I feel fortunate to be part of such a kickass profession and community.

Things have all changed so much since the last time I updated this that it's nearly impossible to encompass it all. But I'll try to update this blog from time to time still. In the meantime, you can check out a more recent blog I started on Tumblr at

Thanks for reading, whoever you are!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Don't Call It A Comeback

Following my departure from Søgaards Bryghus, I faced a major dilemma: Would I stay within Denmark and find work there, or move back to the U.S. and resume the search at home?

I spent a month looking for work within Denmark, where my most promising lead became Midtfyns Bryghus, an award-winning microbrewery on the island of Fyn that's growing rapidly. They've become famous for beers such as their Chili Tripel and Imperial Stout, along with the fact that they're one of the only breweries in the world to put Braille text on their labels. They also made waves in the Danish beer community by winning awards for Rough Snuff, a dark beer brewed with snuff tobacco which was later banned for sale. The owner, a U.S. expat named Eddie Szweda, proved an incredibly friendly and generous host. He showed me the current brewery - a tiny building in a village 30 kilometers south of the city of Odense - and the potential site of its new home, a larger and more modern building nearby. He also treated me to lunch, where we discussed everything from brewing to living as expats in Denmark. He sent me on my way with an armful of assorted Midtfyns beers, and promised to keep in touch for the future.

Ultimately, however, a job at Midtfyns depended entirely on whether Eddie got the new building, and he could not give me an answer before my flight back to Chicago. So I bade farewell to my friends in Denmark and saw what I could of Aalborg and the region before returning to the United States. I spent Thanksgiving with Ryan Witter and his family at Fanø Bryghus, where I met Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergø of Evil Twin Brewing. There I enjoyed a fun brewday making a 32 Plato (!) imperial stout, followed by a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. I packed up my possessions, had one last rowdy night at the Wharf, and flew home just in time for Christmas.

Vi ses, Danmark: One last look at my favorite park in Aalborg.
Upon returning to Chicago, my mother offered me a place to stay while I looked for work, and I accepted. I returned to the job search with a vengeance, and was pleasantly surprised by the response - I scored half a dozen job interviews within my first week of searching! I spoke with several breweries over the phone and via Skype, and took a trip to the east coast to interview with breweries such as Duck-Rabbit in North Carolina, and Allentown Brew Works in Pennsylvania. I felt confident in how the interviews went, and was excited to see who would respond.

Duck-Rabbit Brewery in Farmville, NC.
It turns out that I didn't have to go far to reenter the brewing industry: Goose Island, Chicago's largest microbrewer, hired me to work in their Fulton Street production facility just before the end of January. Between their commercial beers and the brewpub on Clybourn Avenue, Goose Island has been a favorite of mine for some time, and I'm honored and excited to work with them. I began work on Monday, and once again hit the ground running, training heavily on the brewhouse and working hard. Over the course of the week, I helped to brew batches of Goose Island IPA, Matilda, Green Line and even their famous Bourbon County Brand Stout. With two mashes to collect wort for one huge five-hour boil, it wreaks havoc on the brew system but is a blast to brew.

Taking a wort sample of Bourbon Country Brand Stout, at Goose Island.
What does that mean for this blog? It will continue in some form, but it may change format or style at some point. But as long as I brew beer, you guys will hear about it.

Funny how things work out sometimes: I traveled halfway around the world and lived abroad, just so I could get a job in my hometown. While the job in Denmark may not have worked out, it set me up for a successful career in brewing and gave me a once-in-a-lifetime experience to boot. I intend to return to Denmark for a long visit sometime in the next few years; in the meantime, I'll continue to put my all into continuing Goose Island's history of excellent beer.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fasten Your Seatbelts.

I'll cut right to the chase: I lost my job at Søgaards Bryghus as of Friday. My boss apparently wasn't happy with my performance and decided to stick with the new German hire as his head brewer. So now I'm back on the hunt for work.

My first reaction was, to be sure, one of rage and betrayal. I sacrificed my entire life in the US, including chewing up a significant chunk of my savings and giving up my dog, to take this opportunity. In return, I worked for 16-hour days with very little recognition or respect within the company, and effectively got tossed out like a used tissue. Now I'm back where I was a year ago, in an even more uncertain situation, far away from home.

There's definitely a silver lining, though: I have many friends here in Denmark who are helping me out in every way they can, and I now have a solid chunk of brewing experience I can put on my resume. Moreover, I can search for a job with a better company, as my time at Søgaards became extremely stressful and exhausting in a hurry.

I don't know exactly where I will go next. I would like to stay in Denmark for the time being, so I intend to search for work here, but I will also be searching for work in the US and elsewhere in the world. Like I said when I started on this path, I'll go where the work takes me. I will be compensated by Søgaards for a short while, I should be able to apply for unemployment here, and my work visa is valid until mid-2012 – I can stay here relatively comfortably for a while. Meanwhile, I'm going to bust my ass looking for brewery work everywhere I can, and have my contract with Søgaards checked out to ensure that everything is on the level.

I want to say thanks to everybody who's stood behind me in this endeavor, and to all the friends I've made in Denmark who've enjoyed my beer and supported me. This isn't the end of the adventure – it's only the beginning.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Born to be Wild

After several weeks of working with Markus Ott and Bjarne Olsen, I can safely say that we have a solid team of brewers at Søgaards Bryghus. Our production schedule is tighter and more effective than ever, and quality has improved as well. We work well as a team, and can handle just about anything that the brewery throws at us. Moreover, Markus and Bjarne are easygoing, intelligent people, and enjoyable to work with. After some of the struggles of the previous months, I appreciate working with them and look forward to some great brews in the future. We already have some interesting brainstorms in the pipe!

Markus Ott (left) and Bjarne Olsen  chatting over a beer.
Speaking of which, Aleburgh Wild Hop Ale will soon be ready to serve. "Aleburgh" is one of the original names for the city of Aalborg from several hundred years ago, presumed to mean "city by the stream" due to its proximity to the fjord. While Denmark does not cultivate hops, many plants grow wild throughout the country, and my friend Rasmus (from the local homebrewing society) and I picked hops from several of the large plants in Aalborg to brew something unique. Aleburgh Wild Hop Ale is a 5% pale ale, light in color and body with moderate bitterness and a unique flavor from the wild hops. These hops impart a flavor similar to German noble hops, but with more robust grassy and earthy notes. Also on the agenda are beers for the Christmas season. Batches of Søgaards Julebuk and Beer Here Jule IPA bubble away happily in their tanks right now.

Rasmus clipping a nice bunch of hops near the stadium.
With the brewery properly staffed and functioning well, I've been able to relax more and even take some holiday time. My mother came to visit recently, and really enjoyed her time in Aalborg. After her visit here, she and I took a short trip through Berlin and Munich, including a stop at Oktoberfest for a Maß of Augustiner Edelstoff and a delicious snack of Steckerlnfisch. My dad and his wife came to visit a week later, and I of course introduced my dad to some of the excellent cask beer at the Wharf. It was great to see some of my family again, and I look forward to spending more time with them when I visit Chicago for Christmas.

Ein Prosit! My mom and I at Oktoberfest.
I'm really starting to feel at home here, both at the brewery and here in Denmark in general. Now that work is more relaxed, I can see more of the country and work on creating more great beers. Until next time!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Sorry for the long time between updates, everybody. August proved to be a major challenge, as our bottling facility encountered hardware difficulties and our original choice for second brewer decided that Søgaards wasn't the right place for him.

However, two new brewers have now joined me at Søgaards: Bjarne Olsen, formerly of Thisted Bryghus, and Markus Ott, who brings a significant amount of brewing experience from Germany. Bjarne will manage packaging operations once he's gained some additional training, and Markus will help me run the brewery and cellar. Both have already proven themselves skilled and extremely helpful, and have already boosted our production capacity and quality. With brewing work spread across a larger number of experienced staff, I should be able to breathe a bit easier.

Brewing Beer Here Hopfix and drinking
Executioner IPA: A good Saturday night, all in all!
Not that I haven't taken time to work on interesting projects, of course! I recently collaborated with Christian Skovdal Andersen of Beer Here on a new creation: Executioner IPA, brewed for one of his favorite bars in Rome, Mastro Titta. It's styled after the "West Coast" style of IPA in the US, making it very dry and bitter while maintaining a huge hop flavor and aroma. We used all pale malts with a smattering of light crystal malt for the grain base, then combined that with a large dose of Amarillo, Centennial and Citra hops. The result: A 7% IPA, pale as a pilsner and just as dry, but with a huge hop aroma and lots of fruity, floral flavor. We celebrated the release of this beer with a small party at Søgaards Bryghus, featuring the band Christian sponsors, Morten Skou Andersen. Executioner IPA proved dangerously easy to drink, after a few of my friends started nodding off towards the end of the night! We're already on our way to brew a second batch, since the first is in high demand - this one will feature Galena hops in the dry-hopping, which should give it an interesting addition of pineapple and lime notes.

A good likeness of me, albeit a tad heavy on the back hair.
Another project in the works: A wet-hopped beer, using fresh hops gathered from hop plants growing wild around the Aalborg area! My friend Rassmus and I will be gathering some hops from some of the larger plants growing here in Vejgaard this weekend, so I'll be posting about the expedition in the near future. It should prove an interesting experiment, and a valuable exploration into the possibilities of brewing in Denmark.

Brewing hasn't occupied 100% of my time in Denmark, of course. I've become involved with Platform 4 and Hal9K, two hacker/makerspace groups working in buildings in the old industrial harbor. Both groups are heavily invested in artistic and technical projects, and regularly hold excellent concerts and performances. Recent highlights include a 10th-anniversary concert for European electronic label Ad Noiseam, and a concert featuring Europe's largest Tesla coil for the "Aalborg i Rødt" cultural festival.

Some of my friends who work with these groups are interested in starting a homebrewing operation, so I will be helping them build a setup in one of the buildings. And I may just get to tinker with some more experimental recipes as well! In the meantime, I'd like to build a theremin just for the heck of it - music is still one of my passions, after all.

For those of you in Aalborg who want to try some beer fresh off the fermenters, we have new batches of Utzon Blonde and US Pale Ale on draft right now. Utzon Blonde is an easy-drinking light beer featuring honey and a touch of Cascade hops, while the US Pale Ale displays a robust floral character from Centennial hops. Until next time - vi ses!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Barrels of Fun

After a few months as head brewer of Søgaards Bryghus, things have largely calmed down and I've developed a tighter schedule and routine. My job continues to be a learning experience but, despite a stumble here and there, quality and production continue to improve. My friend Thure Harrington, who's been assisting me in the brewery for the last few weeks, finished his tenure at Søgaards on Friday so that he can resume his regular teaching job. I hate to see him go, as he's been fun to work with and enormously helpful, but our second brewer arrives in one week. This should enable us to smooth things out even more and allow me a bit more breathing room.

Thure filling a barrel with Høstmand.
After tackling a large order of Beer Here bottles going to Sweden, we now have enough room to start filling our South African Pinot Noir barrels. Earlier this week, Thure and I filled our first four barrels with Beer Here's Høstmand, a light-colored Belgian beer that will be inoculated with Brettanomyces for a nice, funky dryness. We hit a few bumps here and there, but soon had the whole batch sitting snugly in its new home. This coming week, I plan to transfer my Castlewood Old Ale to barrels as well, after which it will sit for a few months to mellow and take on some of the barrel flavors. I'm excited to see how it turns out!

Proud father of some newly-filled barrels.
The bottling line originally posed the greatest hurdle to my control of the brewery, but I now feel quite comfortable with operating it and have packaged several batches with it. Among them are Beer Here's Høst Stout (their coffee milk stout repackaged for the Swedish market) and White Cat (an American wheat beer with Nelson Sauvin hops and orange peel), Black Rooster's Hoptimizer IPA (dry-hopped with loads of Chinook and Cascade), and our own Søgaards Jomfruhumle pilsner. Coming soon is a video tour of the bottling line in action!

A day in the park with a book and a fresh bottle of Black Rooster Hoptimizer.
I won't lie: It's been a difficult journey so far, and I've been busting my hump harder than I ever have in my life. But I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, and I'm looking forward to making better beer than ever.