H ave you heard the legend of the Sea Hag?
In 1783, the self-knighted swindler, Sir Robert Henway, arrived in New Haven and married a young barmaid named Molly. Henway made money in the real estate business, selling land in “South Haven.” But when his investors discovered that South Haven was really the middle of the Long Island Sound, they formed a mob. Henway escaped aboard a vessel headed for India, and his wife, Molly, stowed away in tow.
Here the story becomes fuzzy. For one reason or another, Molly never made it to India. Some accounts say she flung herself into the New Haven Harbor. Others say she was thrown in, murdered by Henway. Either way, the legend goes, her spirit haunts New Haven’s waters to this day.
It’s a grim tale, but actually, it never happened. It was concocted by local craft beermaker New England Brewing Company, headquartered just inches over the Woodbridge line, to build a mythos around the brewery’s Sea Hag IPA, which rolled out in 2006. Owner Rob Leonard invented Molly’s story with the help of a marketing agency, as the center of a campaign that included a fake Wikipedia page, a blog—hosting, among other items, a handwritten, historical-looking eyewitness account—and advice for warding off the Sea Hag. They even set up a hotline for Sea Hag sightings. The beer itself was a hit—probably more for its slightly sweet start and hoppy, citrus-rind finish than the reverse-engineered folklore, though the latter surely helped.
Today, the Sea Hag hotline is down, and the Wikipedia page also seems to have disappeared, but as NEBC rolls out 10th-anniversary cans of the Hag, which is a mainstay of bars and liquor shops around the city, Leonard still meets people who think the backstory is based in truth. Sometimes he doesn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise.
After Matt Westfall, NEBC’s head brewer, joined the company in 2008, humor and storytelling continued to be essential ingredients. When they came up with a subtly fruity, complex double IPA with an “earthy darkness,” as Westfall describes it, Craig Gilbert, an employee at the time, quickly pulled a ludicrous name from his subconscious: Gandhi-Bot.
Asked where he got the name, Gilbert traced back his associations. IPA (India Pale Ale): Gandhi. Beer cans (metal bodies): robots. Thus: Gandhi-Bot.
The brewery added an image of a robotic Gandhi to go with the spirited title, and the beer took off. It was catchy, delicious and all in good fun—or so it seemed to the brewers. Then, two years ago, an article came out in a large Indian newspaper about the craft brewery’s depiction of a robotic Gandhi.
Imagine a beer can exploding. Now multiply that by India.
Messages of protest poured in. News crews, too. Conan O’Brien even mentioned it on his talk show.
The saying goes that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but Leonard, for one, wasn’t enjoying the fuss. When the brewery started receiving death threats, he says, it was the last straw. The beer’s name was changed to G-bot, and the label art changed, too. It now shows a robotic hand, rising out of metallic rubble, two fingers fixed in the sign for peace.
That wasn’t the only time NEBC got heat for having fun. A few years back, the brewery received a letter from George Lucas’s lawyers regarding the can art for its seasonal December beer Imperial Stout Trooper. Instead of embroiling themselves in a legal battle with an Empire-sized behemoth, the brewers made their stout trooper go undercover with Groucho Marx glasses—complete with protruding nose, bushy eyebrows and mustache. (So far, Star Wars’s masters seem satisfied.)
Over the course of a year, the brewery produces some 30 different beers, many of them with similarly playful names. A popular one is 668: The Neighbor of The Beast—a yeasty, food-friendly, year-round Belgian-style brew. But many of NEBC’s concoctions can only be bought seasonally, or during special limited releases, and often only at the brewery itself.
Coriolis, an aromatic, peachy, double IPA that uses a difficult-to-get New Zealand hop, is one of those special-issue beers, and it can only be got in-house. The label, as usual, is provocative. It shows a T-Rex holding a dead—or at least unconscious—hobbit in its teeth. The surreal mashup comes from the idea that both Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings were filmed in New Zealand. And dinosaurs, after all, need to eat.
Ignoring the fact that Jurassic Park was actually filmed in Hawaii, let’s hope Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, for their part, can appreciate the brewery’s sense of humor.
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Image #1 depicts, from left, Rob Leonard and Matt Westfall.