DuClaw Brewing's 'Sweet Baby Jesus!' porter pulled from Ohio grocer's shelves

Outdoor dining area at DuClaw Brewing Co. in Bel Air. (Brian Krista, Patuxent Publishing)

June 15, 2015

The name of the most popular beer produced by DuClaw Brewing Co. -- Sweet Baby Jesus! -- is edgy, the brewery's founder acknowledges, even for a company with brews called Devil's Milk and Hellrazer.

But in Ohio, where the Rosedale-based brewery began expanding distribution just over a month ago, the Sweet Baby moniker offended enough consumers that a Cleveland-based grocery chain has pulled the brew from its shelves.

DuClaw President Dave Benfield said Monday he understands the decision of the family-owned Heinen's Grocery Store to stop selling the chocolate peanut butter porter. He said the brew pub and brewery company never intended to offend anyone. Rather, he said, each new recipe is named for the emotion it evokes.

"For us, the name 'Sweet Baby Jesus!' is a phrase meaning awe or astonishment," Benfield said Monday. "It's not meant to be offensive by any means. ...

"Any time you push the envelope, you get a lot of people who love it and people who don't, and that will create the controversy," he said.

A spokeswoman for Heinen's did not return calls Monday. The business, which started in 1929 with a butcher shop in Cleveland, now operates 19 stores in northeast Ohio and the Chicago area, according to its website.

Jeremy Diamond, a food retailing consultant, said businesses respond when they hear the same complaint from enough customers.

"They really can't afford to lose customers based on one product out of 30,000 to 40,000 [items] they carry," he said. "If one of them is offending a large group of customers, it's the right business decision to listen to your clientele."

Benfield said the porter, created by two Baltimore County men, won DuClaw's annual home brew contest in 2011.

When it came time to launch and name the beer, the company's brew master said "'When I drink this, I think, 'Sweet baby Jesus, this tastes just like chocolate and peanut butter.'"

Craft beers have become known for attention-grabbing names, some more controversial than others. Utah-based Wasatch Brewery sells Polygamy Porter brown ale with the tagline, "Why have just one?" The Ohio-based Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. sells Old Leghumper porter.

Such names may be appropriate for the niche market that DuClaw and other craft brewers serve, said Sylvia Long-Tolbert, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School who specializes in consumer research and brand management.

"Satisfying the need for variety and innovation in a very niche market leads them to these types of decisions, to create novelty, grab attention and align with pop culture," she said.

"We may not always think of them as other iconic brands who aim to serve a mass market to generate billions in sales and become national and global entities. These craft beer [companies] are not thinking that way, and that may not be a goal for them."

But a brand with selling power in one part of the country might put off consumers in another region, she said -- and that could hurt a brand's reputation.

"You don't want a brand to generate buzz because it's the butt of a joke," she said. The "Sweet Baby Jesus" name "sets a very high bar," she said, "and that puts a lot of pressure."

Heinen's began selling the porter about five weeks ago.

"From what we understand," Benfield said, "they received some complaints about the name and elected, due to those complaints, to pull that specific brand from their stores."

DuClaw's peanut butter porter has been pulled from military bases, he said, but typically would end up being restocked after a few weeks.

"There's a lot more people who are upset they can't get it," he said.

It's not the first time a DuClaw brew name has stirred controversy. When Benfield opened the first DuClaw brew pub in Bel Air in 1996, the "Bare Ass Blonde" brew, a blond ale drew criticism. But it's still sold today in bottles.

"It does very well for us," Benfield said.

Heinen's is still selling other DuClaw beers, Benfield said, and the expansion into Ohio has otherwise been a success. The brewery, operating out of a Rosedale plant since April 2013, is selling its beer in northeastern Ohio in bars, restaurants, grocers and other chain stores that sell beer and wine.

DuClaw distributes beer in eight states, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic, and runs four brew pubs: in Bel Air, Arundel Mills in Hanover, Bowie Town Center in Bowie and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The company employs more than 250 workers at its brewery and restaurants. By September, Benfield said, DuClaw beer will be sold throughout Ohio and in all of North Carolina. He said he anticipated a 60 percent jump in sales this year, but declined to disclose figures.

The discontinuation of the Sweet Baby brand at Heinen's will have some impact on business, he said. But he still expects strong sales at other Ohio outlets.

"I completely understand Heinen's position, and have no issue with it other than I'd love the beer to still be there," Benfield said.