Lone Star Riddles
Lone Star Beer vows to remove images of noose from its iconic series of bottle caps.
by Kerri Brown
Beer lovers in Texas will most likely recognize these bottle caps. While Lone Star Beer first featured its iconic bottle caps with rebus puzzles in 2001, they were originally used in 1950 by Pabst Brewing Company. When Pabst bought Lone Star Brewery in 2000, the Lone Star brand inherited the riddles.
They’ve gained a sort of cult following over the years. Perhaps it’s their analog charm, or maybe the seemingly never-ending number of puzzles (there is a total of 413 numbered bottle caps). Whatever it is, they’ve become part of Lone Star’s nostalgic image, presumably meant to be a lighthearted way to build community around the beer.
On January 22, Chicago-based national TV journalist Felicia Bolton posted a picture of bottle cap #71 on her Twitter and Instagram pages. It includes a drawing of a head, a lion, and disturbingly, a noose, a near-universal symbol of racial violence against Black people in the U.S. (The answer to the puzzle, by the way, is “headline news,” a phonetic stretch.)
Bolton stated, “I thought surely a multi-million dollar company would not put a noose on their bottle cap. Clearly, being from Texas and in the South, this multi-million dollar company knows the history of a noose; which is a murder weapon used to publicly kill black people. There is no way they would do that…”
Bolton’s posts almost immediately gained the attention of supporters in the beer world who began to speak out against the company’s decision to use the bottle cap. Yet still, a handful of replies minimized the image’s gravity. The bottle caps, which have gone under the radar of public controversy for 70 years, point to a larger issue within the beer industry around the stories – explicit or not – that a brand’s visual identity tells.
CULTURES OF EXCLUSION
Far from being just the face of a brewery’s identity, the visual identity of a beer’s packaging – the label, the bottle cap, the name, the coaster, the glass – is arguably the most forthright political and cultural statement that a brewery can make. And Lone Star Beer’s political statement is bold. As the self-proclaimed “National Beer of Texas” (a title that it trademarked in 1985), its image relies on a certain nostalgic nationalism, always looking back to “better times.”
In 2018, the brand launched a special edition “Come and Take It” can, an undeniable nod to Texas nationalism and the Texas Revolution that began in 1835. Historical accounts of the Texas Revolution are replete with erasures of the centrality of genocidal violence against Indigenous groups and the desire to maintain slavery to the war. In fact, the cannon that white colonists challenged the Mexican military to “come and take” was specifically used against local Indigenous tribes.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that in recent years, beginning shortly before the release of Lone Star’s special edition can, the most visible resurgence of the phrase’s use has been by far-right gun rights activists. The images of a white man’s head (with his eyes bulged in a seemingly shocked expression), a noose, and a lion from bottle cap #71 also disturbingly parallel symbols most recently used by far-right, white supremacist rioters on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol.
The brand’s bottle caps are part of this nostalgic nationalism, bottle cap #71 being just one of at least seven racially insensitive caps that I counted in the series. The others depict Indigenous individuals saying “How!” or “Ugh!”, common racist Hollywood and literary tropes that are sprinkled throughout American popular culture until today. (For any curious readers out there, these images can be found on bottle caps #8, #89, #91, #198, #286, and #411.)
Lone Star Beer would hardly be the first brand to step into controversy because of its branding. While the craft beer industry’s similarly exclusive cousins, the wine industry and the craft liquor industry, tend to construct their images based on notions of sophistication and heritage, the craft beer industry has relied on wit and irreverence. But with wit and irreverence often comes exclusion. After all, someone has to be the butt of the joke.
The list of craft breweries whose brandings have caused controversy is painfully long. There’s Bellaire, Michigan-based Short’s Brewing Company, whose label for its “Hangin’ Frank” beer, released in 2010, included a seemingly dark-skinned person having hanged themself. The brewery later changed the name of the beer to “ControversiALE” and changed the person’s hand to a “clear Caucasian hand.”
Then there’s Milwaukee-based MobCraft Brewery, which uses fan-submitted recipes to develop its beers. One design, “Date Grape,” appeared on the Brewery’s website as a winning recipe but was never produced due to backlash. However, other beers such as “Arabian Date,” “Señor Bob,” and “Sipping on G&J,” which featured racialized caricatures, did end up being produced. In response to controversy around the “Date Grape” beer, MobCraft’s CEO vowed to donate a portion of the brewery’s sales to a local sexual violence organization.
And the list of sexist, racist, and exclusionary beer labels goes on. The message is clear. What is often seen as “good-natured” or “witty” for an industry that is predominantly white, heterosexual, and male, often ends up trivializing historical violences against marginalized peoples.
CODED MESSAGES AND PERFORMATIVE ACTIVISM
Addressing this culture of exclusion must go beyond performative activism. It is not enough to change a label or release an apology, for instance, because what’s exclusionary about a brand’s visual identity isn’t just the use of caricatures or offensive beer names. It’s the culmination of unquestioned “codes” used to communicate who a beer is for or not for.
This is certainly the case with Lone Star Beer. The brand responded personally to Felicia Bolton, claiming that a “third-party vendor” provides the riddles, and that “Lone Star is a brand focused on representing all Texans.” The brand also promised to remove bottle cap #71 and initiate “a thorough review of all caps to ensure all riddles are consistent with [its] values.”
Lone Star seems to be doing a general overhaul. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lone Star Beer partnered with Texas Humor for its “Keep the Lights on Y’all” campaign to raise money for struggling local Texas bars and restaurants, a potentially helpful gesture towards the survival of minority-owned businesses in the state.
Also in early 2020, the brand announced that it had contracted the San Antonio-based, social justice-oriented, and Latinx-owned creative studio Burnt Nopal to develop the visual identity of its seasonal Rio Jade Mexican lager. Burnt Nopal made an important declaration about the beer on its Instagram: “The design was influenced by the Guadalupe River, Native American and Charro design elements. Creative Director, Cruz Ortiz, explains more, ‘you can’t have Tex without the Mex.’”
However, in a state that in 2019 was 59% nonwhite, that in 2016 had a population that was 17% foreign-born, and that was established on Indigenous land, all of these moves are better described as “late” rather than “celebratory.” It is much easier to apologize, donate funds, and contract artists to portray inclusion than to do a “thorough review” of the fundamental racialized and/or gendered codes that a brand employs. Lone Star’s Rio Jade beer is, after all, limited edition, and the pandemic will pass.
Angela Davis reminds us that “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Breweries can take more meaningful stances by being firm and consistent with their brands’ messaging, as well as by making it clear who their network of allies are. It is what breweries such as Texas-based Weathered Souls Brewing Co., which started the collaborative Black is Beautiful campaign, know: Brands do not exist in bubbles and must pay attention to the histories that have created and continue to shape them.