Devils Backbone responds to concerns around Congo beer’s branding

devils backbone brewing logo(Roseland, VA) – A blog post came across the BeerPulse Twitter timeline this morning written by a professor at The University of Virginia. John Edwin Mason argues against the branding of a beer from Devils Backbone Brewing Company [a BeerPulse sponsor] called Belgian Congo Pale Ale. It reads

I’ve been alternating between anger and despair every since I found this ad on the back page of C-ville, my home town’s “alternative” weekly. As absurd — as impossible — as it sounds, the Devils Backbone Brewing Company, of Lexington, Virginia, is marketing an ale that celebrates a colonial regime that was responsible for the deaths of 10 million people, a crime that some argue constituted genocide.

BeerPulse reached out for comment from Devils Backbone. DBBC COO, Hayes Humphreys, sent this reply earlier today.

We have heard a similar concern from another customer and obviously we take this feedback very seriously. Below is a written response from our brewmaster, Jason Oliver, to the first concern expressed. We stand behind this reasonable and thoughtful response 100% as a company.

Humphreys doesn’t say whether anything will change with the beer’s branding though Oliver’s email below makes mention of the fact that the issue has been discussed by brewery members. Below is Oliver’s email in full.

Dear [Redacted],

I am the head brewer at Devils Backbone Brewing Company. I named the beer in question. I am writing not to debate the validity of your concern nor the historical and cultural impact of the Belgians in the Congo. I am merely writing to provide a little insight into why the name was chosen. The beer was originally named “Congo Pale Ale”; only recently a decision was made to add “Belgian” to it to be more stylistically descriptive (beer wise), not to create controversy or offense. You are absolutely correct in seeing the analogy between India Pale Ale (IPA) and our Belgian Congo Pale Ale.

You are probably aware that India Pale Ales evolved out of the desire to send beer from England to it’s colony on the Sub-Continent. Ordinary beer could not survive the long tropical journey. Hops were found empirically to inhibit spoiling bacteria, mostly strains of lactobacillus and pediococcus. Beers with more hops had a longer shelf life. With new advances with in-direct malt kilning technology in the 19th century, paler beers were able to be brewed. The combination of paler malts and more hops led to a pale beer that could survive the long journey, as well as one that was fiercely bitter and extremely aromatic; IPA was born. The style all but died out in Great Britain in the 20th century only to be resurrected with the craft beer movement in the U.S.. India Pale Ales are the single most popular style of craft beer brewed in the U.S. and have since inspired some hybrids.

One of those are what we sometimes call Belgian-style IPA’s, which blend the hop character of an IPA with complex fruity characteristics of Belgian ale yeast strains. There are even breweries now brewing this style of beer in Belgium as well as countless others in the U.S.. Flying Dog Brewing Company’s “Raging Bitch” and New Belgium Brewing Company’s “Belgo” are two examples readily found in our market.

Years before Belgian-style IPA’s became popular and long before I came to help open Devils Backbone I had the idea of the “Congo Pale Ale” on a hypothetical technical level. Consider it a bit of revisionist beer history but I was interested in the “what if” the Belgians made a hoppy ale for their colony & “how” would it have been made. When we brewed it for the first time at the brewpub, we made it with traditional European malts, hops, and yeast in a manner that may have been approached by the Belgians in the later 19th century. It has since evolved into a more contemporary “Belgian-style IPA” using a variety of malts & hops both continental and domestic. I say this to highlight these two points:

1) I named it because I was interested in the hypothetical “what if” premise of a pale hoppy beer the Belgians would have brewed (right or wrong for their “infamous” colony) that could have survived a tropical journey. It was born of historical (revisionist) curiosity that has since morphed into a more contemporary Belgian-style IPA. Even though I was aware of the terrible legacy of the colony, I was first and foremost interested in the technical aspect and not the cultural weight of Belgians involvement in the Congo.

2) “Belgian” added to the name was meant to help identify what vein of beer it is, for example : “Belgian IPA” or “Belgian Witbier”. Belgian beers are complex and varied but often share the thread of being somewhat fruity in nature (from the unique yeast strains used). “Belgian” being added to “Congo Pale Ale” was not meant to make light of the brutal colonial horror but to help describe some of the beers flavor to the consumer.

While the nature of Great Britain’s domination over India and it’s neighbors does not come close to the level of infamy of the Belgians in the Congo, the fact is the most popular craft beer beer brewed in the United States is a direct reference to colonialism. And while most IPA drinkers do not revel in the colonial past I was not trying to celebrate the terrible occurrences in colonial Congo, the foreign corporate interest supported mercenaries of the early 1960’s , the iron handed regime of Mobutu Sese Seko which pilfered one of the most resource laden countries in Africa for personal enrichment, and the subsequent wars that killed millions since his ousting.

I lived in South Africa for 6 months when I was ten years old and I was luckily enough to have had the opportunity to go back post-apartheid. I say this because I have been to Africa (RSA & Kenya) I am fascinated with Africa and it’s history. While I do not know multitudes about the history of all the African nations & peoples, I am fascinated by the history of South Africa and that of the Congo region in particular.

I can see your points on everything you wrote. I am not trying to offer an argument, just an explanation on where I was coming from. Believe me when I say I see your concern and we at DBBC are discussing the matter. The eyes peering out on our packaging was meant to represent the mysterious nature of the jungle and not that of white mans burden. I apologize for offending your sensibilities with the naming of the beer and can only say it was not out of malice nor a nostalgic view of the past. It’s sad that it’s often the most violent and conflict ridden regions that make the most interesting history. Perhaps the more innocuous “Congo Pale Ale” would have been a more suitable name with less negative connotation than by adding it’s colonial moniker. I can just say that the name was born out of the technical query of “what if” the Belgians made such a beer, not one of reveling in their brutal colonial excesses.

I appreciate you contacting us and letting us know your displeasure. We take the concerns of our patrons and those of the community very seriously.

Jason Oliver

Head Brewer
Devils Backbone Brewing Company


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16 thoughts on “Devils Backbone responds to concerns around Congo beer’s branding

  1. This is really petty. The professor needs to spend a little more time actively improving peoples’ lives and less time whining about references to historical entities which may or may not be offensive to those actually affected by the events.

  2. America was a colonized country four centuries ago, and its founding (and expansion) were studies in invasion, displacement – and yes, slaughter – of indigenous people. I wonder if the professor has the same visceral reaction to the term “Made in the USA?”

  3. This nonsense about the magnanimous invention of IPA has to stop.

  4. Typical response from one of America’s “elitist ” universitiy professors! Let’s see he is employed by a university that was founded by a man whom arguably was brilliant in nature yet lived in a manner that held human’ s hostage not to mention owning them. Going a against most things he penned in the decralation of Independence! How absurd!

    UVA – Jefferson’s biggest mistake

  5. Really? You guys don’t see this at all? Even the brewmaster gets it. And, Indios, take it down a notch, will you? Not every event is an excuse for you to hate liberals.

  6. I would gladly accept the defense offered of the brewer’s pale ale if the advertisement for it didn’t include the tagline, “the horror, the horror.” That line directly references Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, a tale set during the worst of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo (an estimated 10,000,000 people perished), and is uttered in the novel by Colonel Kurtz, whose compound is decorated with the heads of his victims.

    In light of the marketing involved, Mr. Oliver’s defense seems disingenuous at best and an outright lie at worst.

  7. So, based on the majority opinion in these comments, I should anticipate full support of my forthcoming 9/11 Bin Laden Jihad Porter?

  8. Next are you going to make a beer where the advertisements show nazis drinking it while leading jews into cattle cars?

    It’s just the beer I imagine nazis drank during WWII, nothing offensive about that.

  9. Question: Would the name “Congo Pale Ale” have been less offensive?

  10. How could someone really plead ignorance to how this title would be seen and interpreted? “Belgian Congo Pale Ale – The Horror, The Horror.” Really? While I can easily accommodate the Belgian style label, its not exactly innocuous. Try Belgian Tropical Pale or even Pale African Ale – Belgian style, but ‘Belgian Congo’ will always be taken to reference the atrocities of the historical state. It seems as though one or two of the poor taste references could be a mistake or simply poor choice, but when you stack them all together its just insensitive and bad form! And what is with the new style of titling beer anyway? ‘Raging Bitch’? Classy. Definitely worth emulating.

  11. @Jason Oliver , yes, absolutely it would be less offensive. The Belgium Congo refers to a particular time of colonial rule headed by King Leopold II where things on the ground were so bad that severed human hands were used as currency. It might as well be called the Holocaust Hefeweizen.


  13. Pingback: “The Horror” of Allusions in Advertising | A COMPAIGNYE OF SONDRY FOLK

  14. In a bar now and it’s in front of me, renamed The Congo. Better I think. Nothing wrong with debate folks. But the change is warranted. Calm it down nutballs who think the Prof was out of line. It’s not too PC, you’re just speaking without comprehension.

  15. Passive aggressive at best. If anyone here drinking this beer has any derogatory comments towards the “intellectual bisexual”, then stop being so equally intellectual with your beverage choices- nothing controversial about Miller Lite.

    The advert is the issue, it is, as any grade 9 C- English student can confirm, a direct allusion to, if not plagiarism of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – subject matter; the evil within, greed, imperialism, barbarism, and yes, genocide. For all the not-so-grade 9- C minus analogies to American expansionism, they are poor at best (hence you not receiving a C-). If an American brewery put out a “Wounded Knee Red Amber Lager”, people would lose their shit-

    If someone had actually read the work…
    “I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him—himself—his own exalted and incredible degradation” “We must have made a glorious slaughter of them in the bush” “Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him” “He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him (Congolese) was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs” –
    I think this is more than simply a question of hypersensitive politically correctness.

    … really, the horror, the horror.

  16. I would like to know, Jason Oliver, if the Belgian Congo Pale Ale is similar to the beer used for TB treatment in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the century as depicted in the Academy Award winning film “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch, c.1959. Not joking. Excellent film, and if you are an Audrey Hepburn admirer, you will be amazed. She claims it was her favorite film to do. There is a segment where she, as Sister Luke, contracts TB, but Dr. Fortunati concocts a diet of raw eggs and Belgian beer. Based on a true story. She survives and regains her health. I want to throw an Audrey party and serve this beer, but I can’t find it around here.

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