Devil in a Red Label
BY STRATTON LAWRENCE
They say the devil is in the details. But if the details are at a Piggly Wiggly in Mt. Pleasant, you won't find him there.
Among the multitude of microbrew beers that appeared in Charleston after the ban on high-gravity brew was lifted last year is a finely crafted Belgian ale with a slightly conspicuous brand name: Satan. The bottle features a devilish fellow with horns, grinning and winking as he holds his pint in his long-nailed fingers. Imported from Merchtem-Peizegem, Belgium, its makers, Brewery De Block, also craft several other beers, including Dendermonde, an authentic "abbey ale" brewed by monks. While Satan itself is not brewed in the abbey, it is an abbey-style ale created with a recipe taken from the monastery's brewing traditions.
"It's probably been blessed more times than every other beer we carry, combined," says Michael De Jong of Cask Distributers, who sells Satan to several Piggly Wigglys, Earth Fare, Whole Foods, and a handful of bars around town.
Despite that holy connection, the name and devilish look of the logo has cost De Jong a client in two Mt. Pleasant Piggly Wiggly stores. Almost immediately after it hit the shelves last spring, a customer complaint prompted the store manager at the Seaside Farms and Hwy. 17 N. locations to remove the beer from the shelves.
"We're not in the business of offending anybody. If I make one sale on that six-pack and then it offends 10 other people, it definitely was not worth my investment," says Bill Trull, general manager at the stores. He says they've also had complaints about products called the Best Damn Chili Ever and wines with names like Fat Bastard, Old Fart, and Bitch.
"We're in the Deep South. We have to be careful of what we put in front of families," Trull says. Fat Bastard was a major seller when complaints arose, so the store redesigned their floor display focusing on the vineyard's name instead. And if anyone wants a bottle of Bitch or Satan, he says they're more than happy to special order it.
Nick Long, Piggly Wiggly's regional wine and beer specialist, says that labels like Satan's are effective in pushing the product. Because the beers are new to the state, shoppers aren't familiar with the breweries and are ultimately shopping labels when they make a first-time purchase. Among the beers he has on display at the Harborview Road location on James Island are Satan, Arrogant Bastard, and a French farmhouse ale with a naked woman on it.
"It's a marketing gimmick. If you look at the Satan label, it's a joking looking devil," says Long. "I've got it in stores on James Island, West Ashley, and Johns Island, and it's selling like hotcakes. But where there were complaints, we pulled it. We strive to make every customer feel welcome."
Charleston is not alone in receiving complaints about Satan. In Houston, a church group gathered in front of the display at a grocery store and refused to leave until the manager removed it, threatening a church-wide boycott of the store. And Satan's importer, Texas-based Noble Union Trading, is currently unable to sell the brand anywhere in the state of Florida, after the state's alcohol authority sent an undercover, underage person to purchase beer, and he chose Satan. While the investigation is underway (three months thus far), the importer has been banned from the state.
"There is a Bible-thumping crusader behind every tree," says Charlotte Rowell, the owner of Noble Union. "We feel very strongly about enforcement of underage consumption laws and responsible drinking. But what I do have a hard time tolerating is the intolerance of religion. Were this to be taken to a legal battle, we would certainly win the right to keep our beers in the market."
So why would a brewery connected to a monastic abbey choose Satan as their brand name in the first place?
"The names of these beers have nothing to do with any religious statement or message, but they simply refer to the old brewing traditions, and the hard work near the fire of the cooking vessels," stated a Brewery De Block representative via e-mail. "As a matter of fact, the Belgian football players are called the Red Devils, and a lot of beers from Belgium and other countries have brand names like Biere du Demon, Delirium Tremens, Luciver, Duvel, etc. I have never met anybody here who said that they were upset about these old traditions."
In the minds of many in the land of lingering blue laws, however, the devil is in the bottle. And they damn sure don't want him on it as well.
Here's City Paper's advertising slogans for stores displaying Satan Beer:
• The Faust Name in Hi-Gravity Beers
• Beastly Yeasts
• Inferno Brewed
• It's so good, it'll have you speaking in forked tongues
• Heaven Can't Taste Nearly This Good
• Hell has bubbled over
• You're going straight to ale ... Satan's ale that is
• Only those who love bad beer end up in the Third Circle of Hell
• Hellfire Water
• Dante Approved
• Devil Horn of Plenty
• Libations in Limbo