Anti-Trump Action Group Eyes Constellation's Craft Brand as a Weak Spot for Boycott Strategy

Michael Kiser
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THE GIST
A pair of Chicago-based activist groups is calling for a boycott of Ballast Point products over its parent company’s lobbying contributions to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
 
In a flyer depicting the San Diego brewery’s logo with the recognizable sextant swapped for a picture of Ryan’s face, the groups say drinking Ballast Point, which is owned by Constellation Brands, “supports the repeal of the Affordable Care Act,” a controversial legislative effort backed by Ryan that would reportedly strip millions of healthcare coverage. Additionally, the groups—The Revolution League and Indivisible Chicago—claim that supporting Ballast Point more broadly props up “Trump’s agenda of hate.”
 
“The end goal is to make Chicago Ballast Point free," says AJ Taylor, co-founder of the Revolution League and former mentor and teaching assistant at Sacremento State University and Blue Engine, an organization that partners with public schools. "We think that the majority of Chicagoans would rather not have their beer money go to Paul Ryan, and so through multiple strategies, we’re working to just make it so it's just impossible to sell that beer. You can carry it, but it's not gonna leave your shelves.”
 
Reached by GBH via email, Kris White, communications manager with Ballast Point, says the company is aware of the matter and “absolutely understand[s] the concern regarding political contributions.” He added, though, bolded emphasis his, that “Ballast Point does not support Paul Ryan, nor the healthcare bill” in question.


WHY IT MATTERS 
Constellation Brands, which owns Ballast Point as well as Corona, Modelo, and others, contributed $23,000 to Team Ryan, a political action committee, and $4,000 to Ryan himself in 2016, according to lobbying database OpenSecrets.org. The company is also listed as a vice chair for an upcoming event in Chicago hosted by the Ryan PAC, a title granted for contributing or raising at least $25,000.
 
But Constellation is a bit of a bipartisan lobbyist (albeit with a Republican bent): according to Open Secrets, it contributed $64,500 to Republican candidates and $49,000 to Democrats in 2016. Despite operating in both aisles, however, Taylor tells GBH that “their strong and continued support of Paul Ryan is plenty of reason to take their newest beer out of our city's bars.”
 
For its part, Ballast Point has “no direct involvement or input” regarding Constellation’s political activity, White says.
 
“While our parent company, Constellation, does have a PAC that contributes to candidates on both sides of the aisle, it does so only in the interest of policy issues directly related to the beverage alcohol industry,” he elaborates. “The PAC's primary goal is to educate lawmakers on the benefits of our industry as a whole—creating jobs and contributing to our economy.”
 
Taylor, though, views it in more stark terms, as Ballast Point brings in money for Constellation. “I’m really sorry they don’t have input to where the money goes," he says. “We see it as a black and white issue.”
 
Constellation's portfolio has dipped its toe in the waters of political discourse outside the beer industry of late. But the most vocal points have been in support of liberal causes and produced by the AB-Inbev side of the brand ownership equation (both entities share brand and marketing responsibilities as part of the anti-trust settlement that kept AB-Inbev from owning brands like Corona in the U.S., which we outline in this interview with a former Pacifico brand manager). Specifically, it recently released two Corona ads condemning Trump’s immigration policies, one leading up to the election, and one following. Which is unsurprising considering the bulk of Constellation sales come from beer made in the country most maligned by Trump: Mexico. Asked about how these ads fit into the boycott, the Revolution League notes, “Obviously, being vaguely anti-Trump is not enough to accomplish anything politically.”
 
The Revolution League says it has nine restaurants on board, all under the Big Onion restaurant group's umbrella (Big Onion did not respond to request for comment). GBH was able to also confirm that Minor Threat Restaurant Group, which operates two pubs with two more on the way, all in the Chicago burbs, is also committed to the boycott.
 
“We’re gonna have to start holding these brands like Ballast Point accountable for the decisions that they make and the people that they align themselves with,” says Dale Lewis, owner of Minor Threat. “It’s one thing to hire a lobbyist and go to Capitol Hill and get in front of senators and make a case for a particular alcoholic beverage bill on the floor, but it’s another thing to take dollars and donate to a senator’s campaign fund or PAC—to actually financially contribute to the campaign of somebody I don’t think is worthy to even be in a position to represent our country. That’s where I personally have a problem.”
 
Of course, Ballast Point isn’t without its supporters in the industry. Michael Roper co-owns Hopleaf, a Chicago beer bar in business since 1992. He says in situations like this, people “should call them out,” but he believes the blanket boycott of Ballast Point belies the fact that many craft breweries—indeed, businesses of all kinds—have investor partners who hold conservative political ideologies that left-leaning people (Roper included) would find reprehensible.
 
“I just think that that we have to be careful calling out a brand like Ballast Point and launching a boycott before you really research the subtleties of it,” he says. “You could probably name 500 breweries that have some connection to somebody that is not very progressive or is even a really terrible person, never seeing gray areas anywhere, that’s the reason we’re in the political mess we’re in today.”
 
Ballast Point, meanwhile, has been in touch with its bar and distributor partners in the city to relay that it has nothing to do with Constellation’s political activity, according to Hilary Cocalis, Ballast Point’s vice president of marketing.
 
“We have to take ownership of how they spend their money, but we definitely do not support anything specifically related to Paul Ryan himself or the healthcare bill,” she tells GBH. “Our goal here is to brew beer and provide for our employees and our customers.”

—Dave Eisenberg