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Cwtch then and now: the contentious teddy bear has been relocated to the back of the packaging

OPINION: The Tiny Rebel bear affair

The Brewery Manual’s Phil Mellows weighs in on the recent Portman Group ruling concerning Tiny Rebel Brewing’s use of a bedraggled teddy bear in its branding for Cwtch

When I first saw it I thought that’s the whole brand up the spout. But The Portman Group’s decision to uphold a complaint against Tiny Rebel Brewing, that its cans of Cwtch Welsh Red Ale appeal to children and encourage immoderate consumption, hasn’t resulted in anything that drastic. 

It turns out all the Newport brewer has to do is switch its logo from the front to the back of the can. I say ‘all’. The whole palaver has, according to its own calculations, cost the company £31,000, including making the same change to two other canned brands that are likely to fall foul of a similar ruling, Clwb Tropicana and Cali APA, solicitor’s fees and trips to London to sort it out.

That’s a hefty bill for a small brewer, even one of the larger small brewers, but the damage is localised, despite the fears expressed by sections of the beer literati that it will set a precedent for an assault on the precious creative imaginations of the craft beer movement.

It’s a shame this has happened to Tiny Rebel, though, which not only brews great beer, in my opinion, but takes its social responsibilities seriously, something The Portman Group takes the trouble to note.

I visited its new brewery earlier this year and was astonished at how quickly the vast bar and restaurant on site has become a hub of warmth and light for the community, beaming out across a bleak post-industrial landscape.

I also like the attitude towards cask beer of Tiny Rebel’s founders, Brad Cummings and Gazz Williams, protecting the quality by working closely with pubs rather than abandoning the style as several of its fellow craft brewers have done.

But the bear has always bothered me. The company logo, I mean. Not because it might entice children to drink beer, but because it’s asking for trouble from those who foolishly think it does. And it was the bear on which Tiny Rebel’s fate hinged.

The full report from The Portman Group’s independent complaints panel is worth reading. It’s very funny. Almost absurdist in its attention to the semiotics of a cartoon bear.

Having rightly dismissed the complainant’s contention that the bright, primary colours on the can may seduce under-18s – that way plain packaging lies – the argument fell on the brewer’s prominent logo.

This was where Tiny Rebel’s defence unravelled. You can see why it didn’t want to concede that it’s a teddy bear, but it obviously is a teddy bear.

As The Portman Group reports, apologetically: “The Panel then discussed whether toy bears had a particular appeal to very young children. The Panel concluded that this point could not be ignored.”

What’s more, despite Tiny Rebel’s protests, the teddy bear is definitely “slumped” in what the panel describes as “a drunken demeanour”. Teddy bears do little other than slump, after all.

Looked at like this, it’s a wonder the logo has survived so long.

Yet there was, I believe, a winning defence available to Tiny Rebel, one that it nearly grasped in finessing the bear as “an abstract reflection of Newport’s urban environment” – but it didn’t go far enough.

A closer reading finds the bear apparently stitched up the middle its whole length. This bear has been through it, ripped apart and repaired. By who? And why?

Then there are those eyes. Both lost. One stitched, cross-wise, in the manner of a cartoon drunk. The other replaced by a button. And in that dull, unseeing light, a human face, its own eyes holes, its mouth a thread stretched in confusion and despair.

This is a scary bear, and its meaning is deeper, more personal, than a casual reflection of urban decay.

In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the grown-up Sebastian Flyte clings onto his childhood teddy bear in a taut, chilling symbol of a man unable to face the ugliness of the real world. The bear is called Aloysius, the patron saint of youth.

Tiny Rebel’s bear is also a childish memory worth holding onto, worth repairing. But it is Aloysius turned inside out – we see not the comforting unchanging bear, but the horror that the bear is no longer protecting us from, but revealing.

This is not a toy. It is an extraordinary adult image. I’m sure Brad and Gazz know that, and they should have pushed that further.

Of course, it’s ridiculous that alcohol regulation has to be determined by semantic frippery. But that seems to be the game we’re in.

This article was first published on Phil Mellow’s Politics of Drinking blog.

23rd January 2018

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