In Part I, I broke down some of the ways in which Hunter S. Thompson has gone from being a counter-cultural icon to a pop cultural icon, and I ended the post by making the claim that one of the products that best captures this transition was, of all things a beer.
There is a place in Frederick, Maryland, unlike any other place in the world. It’s a place where mad men with even madder ideas roam the halls, and worse yet, they give them access to alcohol. Vile images of disturbing dogs adorn the walls, and they dare open their doors to the unsuspecting public, though you’ll often get more than you bargained for. Your guide into their weird and twisted world could be anyone from a rabid fan that took the tour a mere week before you, all the way up to the CEO of the company, bored between aptly named board meetings. A place where the spirit of outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson can be felt in every nook and cranny, ceiling to foundation. “Gonzo” is the name of their business strategy, and I’ve gotta tell you folks, business is good.
The Flying Dog Brewery, which is among the top 30 craft brewers in the U.S. according to the Brewer’s Association, is a microbrewery that began with both humble beginnings and aspirations. A side-project for a bored millionaire with an understandable taste for good beer and whiskey, the brewery almost immediately outgrew their market exponentially, becoming the second largest in the state of Colorado, and then expanding ever-onward, is now the largest in Maryland, and one of the Mid-Atlantic states best-sellers. And all of this from a company that has not only embraced the Tao of Thompson, it uses the author’s persona as the face of their product.
“What legitimate business could be run by such madmen?” you may ask yourself. But I assure you, the weird legacy of the Guru of Gonzo and the brewery’s history are intertwined far more than just your average marketing scheme.
There’s the case of the Flying Dog Brewery‘s founder, a fellow by the name of George Stranahan, and his story is nearly as strange as the good doctor’s. Heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune, this eccentric millionaire had no interest in living the life of a trust fund kid, instead engaging in thrill-seeking adventures such as climbing K-2 in 1983, and as legend has it, that’s where the odd name for the brewery came about. Upon descending the mountain, out of alcohol and desperate for more, Stranahan and his party stumbled upon a beautiful oil painting of a what could only be described as a “flying dog” in a nearby hotel. Well, the image must have struck them as some divine apparition, because when it came time to found the brewery in 1990 – the first new brewery in Aspen, Colorado in 100 years – there was only one choice in mind for the name.
Now, it must be taken into account that Stranahan obviously didn’t need the money from this venture. This man is an unsung legend of our time, whose rather remarkable resume includes: cattle rancher, publisher of the Mountain Gazette, founder of the Woody Creek Tavern, photographer, author, philanthropist, education activist, founder of three schools, an astrophysicist with a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University, and founder of the the world-renowned Aspen Center for Physics. And that’s just the highlight reel. I’m quite sure that, even at the advanced age of 86, he’ll have the cure for cancer and a solution for that pesky world hunger situation hammered out any day now.
But Stranahan’s connection to Thompson came about in an even stranger fashion. He was, for lack of a better term, the squirrelly author’s landlord. George just so happens to be the one who gave Thompson the land on which his legendary Owl Farm “compound” was built in 1969, and the two became fast friends. And with his thrill-seeking nature and rebellious (but very well funded) tendencies, he made for a perfect fit with Thompson’s love of all things firearms and explosives related. And their shared intellectual pursuits, anti-establishment ideals, and love of football didn’t hurt either. Or the drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.
That’s where our second contributor comes into play, the man whose illustrations serve as the visual representations of Thompson’s body of work, the delightfully demented Ralph Steadman. Steadman began his long and illustrious career in the 1960s doing freelance art for titles such as Private Eye, Punch, Rolling Stone, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times, and Scanlan’s Monthly. What made him quickly in demand and set his artwork apart at the time was his bold and borderline-offensive approach, using warped and hideous characters, ink and paint splatters, and psychotic scenes to convey the angry and explosive underbelly of the 60s. But it wasn’t until 1970, when the aforementioned Scanlan’s sent the still-green Steadman to cover the Kentucky Derby, where he met Thompson, and an artistic match made in Hell came to be.
The result of that fateful meeting with Thompson was a life-long professional partnership, and a very turbulent friendship. I firmly believe that Steadman’s sadistic art style being paired with Thompson’s psychotic prose is a huge part of what has led to their many works together not only standing the test of time, but searing themselves into the hearts and minds of those who’ve chosen to embrace them. So naturally, when Thompson introduced Steadman to like-minded mate George Stranahan in the mid-90s , they decided that the artist’s signature style was a perfect fit for the already-flourishing Flying Dog brand. The first label that he designed was for Road Dog Porter, the launch of which prompted Thompson to write an essay and accompanying toast, “Ale According To Hunter,” from which the company’s initial slogan was derived. “Good people drink good beer.” This supposed “ancient Celtic axiom” (but who knows with Thompson) still adorns their products and advertisements to this day.
Now, the brewery saw a bit of scandal when Steadman decided to tweak Thompson’s toast a bit, to the matter-of-fact “Good Beer, No Shit,” and then proceeded to incorporate this into the Road Dog Porter’s art. A bold move, as is his nature, that almost immediately saw the product ripped from the shelves for being “too profane.” Not taking the matter lying down, the slogan was replaced for a time by the zinger “Good Beer, No Censorship,” as Stranahan and the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union) fought through the court system for four long years, before finally successfully having the ruling overturned in 2001. Yes, the gonzo spirit was indeed alive and well at Flying Dog even in those days.
Then there’s the strangest case of Jim Caruso, the CEO of Flying Dog, and current “significant other” of Thompson’s widow, Anita. I say “the strangest“ because Caruso admittedly may not be the kind of man that would immediately come to mind when throwing around a term such as “Gonzo.” He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Missouri and a brewery degree from the World Brewing Academy at the Seibel Institute of Technology. He was also named 2012’s Entrepreneur of the Year by the Entrepreneur Council of Frederick County in Maryland, which is the current home of Flying Dog’s base of operations. But underneath all his degrees, accolades, and corporate titles you’ll find that “pure Horatio Alger stuff,” as Thompson would’ve said, and see that he’s a visionary worthy of a place at the gonzo family table.
Like Thompson, Stranahan, and Steadman before him, he’s an ardent defender of First Amendment rights, and personally challenged the Michigan state liquor board over their attempt to ban Raging Bitch, a belgian IPA commemorating the brewery’s 20th anniversary, and the company’s best-seller. The ban was overturned, but Caruso pursued them anyway, citing it as a matter of principle, in an attempt to dissuade them from banning other products such as theirs. He’s also been absolutely fearless with some of the bizarre, suggestive, and potentially offensively named beers (coupled with Steadman’s disturbing artwork) with which they flood the market. Names such as the aforementioned Raging Bitch, Angry Bitch, In-Heat Wheat, Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, Horn Dog, Lucky SOB Irish Red Ale, Ale Mary’s Heavenly Pale Ale, Bitch Gone Wild, and their signature Doggie Style Pale Ale. It’s worthy of note that they’ve also released several special edition beers honoring Thompson and Steadman themselves; the Gonzo Imperial Porter, ST. EADman Belgian Dark ale, and The Fear, respectively.
In spite of relocating the brewery from its Colorado roots both to expand operations and increase profit margins, he’s not only fully embraced the company’s ties to Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy, but has also utilized it as a brilliant marketing scheme. Aside from Steadman’s iconic art adorning everything from the logo to the beer labels, every year the company hosts its annual GonzoFest, a celebration of everything Thompson, with live music and exotic beer tastings. He’s a chief supporter of the Gonzo Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization founded by Anita Thompson whose primary function is to promote literacy, journalism, and political activism in Hunter’s name. Steadman and Stranahan are among the board members, and other notable members of the “Gonzo Family” include celebrities the likes of Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted fame, and documentary filmmaker Wayne Ewing.
So there you have it: in two parts, the briefest of glimpses at a true icon, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a man who arguably became the voice of his disgruntled generation, and who has become more than a man in death. He’s become an idea. And a brief glimpse at three men, Thompson’s friends, neighbors, partners, students, and fans, who took that idea, that Spirit of Gonzo, and crafted it not only into a multi-million dollar industry, but as a standing testament to his legacy. It may not have been what you thought it was Dr. Thompson, but it looks as though you may have found the American dream after all.
“Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives… and to the ‘good life,’ whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.”
― Hunter S. Thompson