‘Twas just before Christmas, and all through the Internet, Barry Allen was going viral. But in his house, he was stirring — and worried that the cops might be on their way.
“I stayed up until 5 [a.m.] just to hear the knock-knock-knock” of the police,” Allen remembers.
In late December, Allen was trying to buy a tallboy can of Twisted Tea at a Circle-K convenience store in his hometown of Elyria, Ohio, when an agitated, maskless, apparently intoxicated white dude started provoking him. He repeatedly called Allen, a Black man, the n-word, and said gnarly stuff about his deceased mother. Allen stayed calm, but when he fumbled his Twisted Tea tallboy, his antagonist kicked at it. Allen snapped, cracking his gas-station tormentor across the face with the 22-ounce can with a satisfying thwock. Flavored malt beverage sprayed forth as the white dude staggered backward. Then, Allen took him to the ground.
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It might have been just another sordid footnote in the big book of American racial violence, but thanks to an onlooker filming the incident on her smartphone, it became an immediate social media hit instead. “I called my wife as soon as I got in the car, and I told her I hit a guy in the face with a can, and she’s like, ‘I know, I’m watching it,’” Allen told “Mark One Sports,” a local podcast. “The lady [who filmed the video] had 5,000 views by the time I drove two blocks home.”
Fortunately for Allen, a married father of five, the cops did not come looking for him. His would-be assailant didn’t press charges, and hasn’t been heard from since. And in the meantime, Allen has been everywhere — or at least the memes of him have. The video has clocked nearly 6 million views on YouTube, and aggregated versions on social media platforms around the world have done countless millions more. The typically sleepy #TwistedTea hashtag lit up with thousands of image macros, auto-tuned remixes, and original video riffs from the original event.
After a year fraught with deadly racial injustices and more mainstream examinations of modern American white supremacy, Allen’s FMB smackdown — quickly dubbed the “TeaKO”— was a moment of pure, aluminum-abetted catharsis. “He just got what he had coming,” Allen said sheepishly in a recent phone interview with VinePair, referring to his c-store foe.
But what does Allen have coming? If the short answer is “not the police,” the longer answer is a good deal trickier. His gas-station heroics sparked the sort of organic virality that Twisted Tea — a Boston Beer Company workhorse that does strong sales but lacks cultural luster next to the White Claws of the world — could never hope to create on its own.
That’s worth big dough, and it’s hardly unprecedented for brands to acknowledge, and even reward, the social media figures who deliver viral attention. Just months prior, the internet watched with something like joy as Ocean Spray showered TikTok favorite @doggface208 (real name Nathan Apodaca) with a new cranberry-red pickup truck and cash for a honeymoon to thank him for making its juice a viral sensation on the popular video-sharing platform. Memes quickly linked Apodaca’s and Allen’s stories, depicting Ocean Spray and Twisted Tea bottles as a sort of cosmic, beverage-based yin and yang. But Apodaca’s virality came from skating around listening to Fleetwood Mac, while Allen’s was the result of braining a guy with a tallboy in a gas station. How would Twisted Tea respond?
For everyone who is asking about the Boston’s beer response! Here it is! I wasn’t gonna post it but I feel it’s valid to do so! Throwing everything dime into racism does nothing until you understand the fight for it! This is all I’m saying on this matter . pic.twitter.com/CwPhrF0XY2
— MrsTeaKo OFFICIAL (@OfficalMrsteako) January 10, 2021
Through the first week of January, the brand made no acknowledgement of the TeaKO. On Jan. 6, Allen’s wife posted to Twitter that Boston Beer Co. had informed Allen that “they stand against racism, but since it was something that didn’t purposely happen, they won’t be moving forward with teako [sic].” I was supposed to speak with Allen that afternoon, and planned to ask him what went down, and how he felt about the brand’s response. But by midday, there was a full-blown insurrection underway at the U.S. Capitol. So, uh… we rescheduled.
Later that week, Allen and I got on the phone to talk about the TeaKO’s aftermath. We covered a lot of ground, from the disorienting nature of viral fame, to his frustrations at Twisted Tea’s response to the holiday incident in Elyria, to the cravenness of politicians who promise change to Black voters to win office, then uphold the status quo in office. Like I said, we covered a lot of ground.
As for the question on every viral marketer’s mind — or at least the ones who watched Natty Seltzer lure YouTuber Trevor Wallace from Team White Claw in 2019 — of whether Mr. TeaKO would ever trade Twisted Tea for a different brand, he left things open-ended. “It depends,” Allen told VinePair. “Are they going to let me get a freakin’ commercial?!”
This interview has been edited and condensed. Jessica Paar, a spokesperson for Boston Beer Company, confirmed the veracity of the screenshotted emails in the tweet above, but declined to comment further to VinePair for this story.
So we’re a few weeks out from the TeaKO incident. Has the energy of the moment subsided for you? Where’s your head at today?
For the most part, it’s still pretty much the same. I’m still a little overwhelmed because I wasn’t expecting all this. At the same time, I’m just happy that at least people are understanding versus calling me a violent person and stuff like that. [Now] people are pretty much telling me that, you know, they accept what I did and they are glad that I did it.
Are the negative DMs mostly racist in nature?
No, more calling me a criminal, a violent, angry person, [arguing] that he was just drunk and I shouldn’t have done it, and I should have handled myself better by just walking away. Bullcrap like that.
So you obviously drink Twisted Tea. Is that your drink of choice?
Yeah, it’s the only thing I can drink, honestly. I have epilepsy, so I can’t drink hard liquor, and I don’t care for beer or fruity stuff, so I stick with what’s left.
Have you dabbled in hard seltzer at all?
Nah. Seltzer? [Scoffs] To me, it’s weird to have pop-like alcohol.
Fair enough. After the initial incident went down, at what point did you and your wife realize there was enough energy here that people would potentially want to give you money for this?
We didn’t talk about it. It was kind of a joke — a lot of people told me they would donate to a GoFundMe if I had one. But I wasn’t really looking to get anyone’s money out of it. If I were to receive money, I wanted it to be from Twisted Tea. Not from normal people, not [me] taking [money] from them. People did get a hold of my son’s GoFundMe. [Allen’s son, Silas, has a genetic mutation that has left him in a wheelchair.] A lot of people donated to that. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for anything else. Like, if I did get in trouble, at least I got something great out of it. They really helped my son out.
What about Venmo and Cash App? How much money were people sending in through those platforms?
I mean it wasn’t anything crazy, just a couple hundred dollars, people wanting to buy me teas and stuff like that. I also had a lot of people donate money through Facebook Messenger — $5, $10, to buy me teas. But that was nowhere near the GoFundMe. That’s where I knew … God, he’s something crazy. You see his true plan come out … I can’t even put it in words. He blessed my family.
Based on your wife’s tweets, it sounds like it hasn’t been easy for you to focus the conversation on the racism and harassment that preceded the TeaKO. Why do you think that is?
When you first [hear] it, it’s hard to listen to because of the words that [the white antagonist] uses. But then it’s like, you get such a relief, such satisfaction because of the way the tea exploded. He just got what he had coming. That relief … you just can’t ignore it. You gotta listen to the hard part, the first 40 seconds, before the last 15 to 20 seconds, which is like, Thank God, he finally got it. I think people would rather focus on the positive [outcome] than the negative [cause]. But, in my view, I think you’ve gotta focus on the negative part to get an actual understanding of why it happened.
Why do you think it happened? I don’t expect you to explain American white supremacy in a single interview answer, but when you talk to people who don’t necessarily understand the context … like your kids, for example. How do you explain the “why” to your kids?
Well, first off, I don’t believe the guy’s a racist. After talking to people who know him, I don’t feel like he’s a racist. I feel like he was just a drunk idiot who had friends who let him slide using the [n-]word, and he took it too far.
I’ve showed my kids the video, just so they’re not surprised. It’s all over TikTok, and that’s what my kids love watching. I wanted them to know that it wasn’t about me fighting him; it was about [not letting] people say things like that to you. It’s about standing up for yourself, because in a lot of cases, if you don’t, people will take full advantage of that and bully you throughout your entire life. It wasn’t even about the arguing and all that. I would have let him go if he would have just stopped, and didn’t try to put his hands on me. Somebody on Facebook … said, “He really didn’t try to kick you, he tried to kick the can away from you.” But why did he have to kick at all? If I dropped the can, why can’t I just pick up the can? Like I wasn’t trying to hit [him] until [he] did that kick.
That sounds like a bad-faith reading of the video, frankly. Expecting you to not react after all the provocation.
It’s like they skip past the entire beginning [of the incident], where he’s actually yelling that racial slur over and over … that right there just got me. I don’t understand how you guys can ignore all of the beginning [of the video.] Like in the beginning they’re like, “Oh wow, I can’t believe he’s doing that,” but then it’s like, “Aw man, [Allen] didn’t have to do it to ‘em.” I just don’t get it.
Just to press on this: Do you think you were on the receiving end of that sort of criticism because you’re Black, or was it just stupid people being stupid on the internet?
I think it’s more people who feel like that word isn’t bad because we say it. [They argue that] because Black people use the n-word freely amongst themselves, we should feel like, “Well, why is it such a bad thing when someone else of [another] race calls us that?”
I feel like they’re trying to defend that point. Say he was calling me a “bitch” or a “motherfucker” or an “asshole,” and then I hit him. [Viewers of the video] would’ve been like, “Well yeah, he was cussing and getting in your face.” But the fact that he was saying the n-word, they felt like that word isn’t [as] threatening because Black people use it.
Did you feel threatened at the time?
I didn’t really feel threatened, but I felt like at some point, the argument was gonna lead to it because of the way he was getting louder … and he had that liquid courage in him. So maybe he felt like, Man he ain’t about to do nothing, if he’s still going to let me go this far, he ain’t about to do nothing. He’s probably soft anyways. Maybe [he] felt like at some point he could have made a move, and I would’ve just let it happen, not knowing who he was talking to.
On the video, you looked like a guy who could handle yourself physically, but if you weren’t that sort of person, this could have had a much worse outcome.
Or like, what if he would’ve hit me? What if the shoe was on the other foot, and I was calling him names and racial slurs, and he was the one who had hit me. Then what? Would it be justified at that point?
It’s a good question. Tell me a little bit about your conversation with Twisted Tea. They’re getting a ton of attention online because of this. All of a sudden—
A lot of people didn’t even drink it!
It’s a lucrative product, and it does well for the parent company, but it doesn’t have much cultural cachet. The brand can’t organically generate that type of attention online, right? But the flip side is that the context of the video is explicitly racial and violent. What did you expect from Twisted Tea, if anything?
When it first happened … I mean honestly, I didn’t even think it was going to go viral, so I didn’t think they would even care to reach out for something like this. But then it got big, to the point that I knew they saw it. I know they know what it is, I know they’re seeing all the memes and videos and remixes of it. I know they see other people tagging them in every single thing that came out.
I didn’t think they would want to sponsor me, because that’s not what I’m really looking for, but I figured they’d at least make some kind of statement about racism being an unfortunate part of our country. So I figured they would at least make some kind of statement on it … or at least give me a freakin’ commercial!
Like, make a statement being like, “Yeah, we’ve seen the video, we apologize for the violence in the video, but at the same time, we don’t condone the racism in the country, and as a promise to that, we’ll donate [some amount of money] to any Black charity or business of some sort.”
[Since our interview, Twisted Tea has made a donation to the local NAACP chapter, BBC’s Paar confirmed. Via Paar, BBC declined to share the amount of the donation.]
But they didn’t want to reach out. Then when they [eventually] call me, they tell me that they don’t want to support me because of the violence and the words that were thrown in the video. And tell me they can possibly put [my face] on a can. To me that’s like saying, “Yeah, we appreciate you getting us revenue, but we’re not gonna promote. We’ll put your face on a can so we can make more money off it, though!” That’s what it sounds like to me.
That doesn’t seem like a great deal for you.
And then I wouldn’t get any of the profit from that. I mean, I don’t even want the money! Give the money to charity or something like that. Like … I don’t know. [Scoffs] That, to me, is an iffy thing they pulled off.
So when did Twisted Tea eventually reach out to you?
I want to say, not yesterday but the day before, like early in the morning [of Jan. 6.] Yeah. It was a representative or something like that. Just one phone call. They called my wife, they didn’t call me. I want to say it was like a two-minute phone call. It was pretty much like, “Look guys, we get the video, we’re not doing the video, we’ll talk about maybe putting you on a can, all right, bye.”
What’s your take on the brand’s response?
I didn’t think it was gonna go anywhere. Yeah, I knew it was gonna happen, but at the same time I knew, like the people who disagreed with the video, and the people who [liked] the video … that’s an iffy line [Twisted Tea doesn’t] want to cross. They could potentially lose either way, so that if they ignore it, then they’ll just let people keep doing what they’re doing, which seems to be making them money regardless.
During the George Floyd protests, Twisted Tea posted a message a lot of brands posted about inequality and systemic racism.
A crappy Black Lives Matter slogan, or something like that?
We don’t know the exact path forward, but we know it starts with acknowledging our role. We support our Black coworkers and will build and foster a community of equality where all feel safe and valued. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/VcclgAikOV
— Twisted Tea (@TwistedTea) June 2, 2020
So you knew they did that?
Yeah, I had people comment on it, and tag me in all their comments pretty much saying, “They want change but they don’t want to mention the guy who actually helped making [change.]” Like, the violence part was a little excessive, I get that, but at the same time, it was more about a Black person finally standing up to being called something that’s not OK.
What did that feel like? A little bit of ‘insult to injury’?
It’s more like, you’ve already got the wound, they’re just not going to give you a Band-Aid. They’re gonna pretend that they didn’t see it.
The timing was lucky for the brand, too, right? The TeaKO happens right before the holidays, when people are drinking a bunch. Then the news cycle moves on to the Senate runoffs in Georgia, and more recently, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol —
Which really gets me! I mean, think about that! A group of white guys stormed the Capitol Building, but a Black guy hit the guy with a Twisted Tea for calling him the n-word …
I know! It’s obviously not the same thing, but I see what you mean. What’s your take on that whole situation? There’s a racist subtext to that, too.
I feel like politicians … I mean, no offense to white people, but when you’ve got old white people who have power, whose families have been in power, and all they ever cared about was not liking Black people, they just … they want the Black vote. So they come up with bullcrap, lies to get people to do [vote for them.] Like Joe Biden. I feel like, until you get a younger generation of people in there, nothing will ever change. I mean, no matter what they say, or what you say, or how you feel, until there’s actually a different set of views in the White House, it’ll never change.
— Sakurai @ Platinum Nuzlocke Hell (@SakuraiPlease) January 7, 2021
You mentioned Biden. Were you a Biden guy?
Biden, to me, was the lesser of two evils. I liked some of the things Donald Trump did while in office, but at the same time, somebody who doesn’t have any problem with racist terrorist groups and stuff like that, I just couldn’t have him as president again. Another four years? No telling what he could have done. So I took Biden over [Trump], but I don’t care for Biden either. I didn’t even like him when Barack Obama [chose] him.
Who was your preferred candidate?
I probably would’ve chosen the old guy. Bernie Sanders.
Yeah … I felt like the person who actually believes in getting rid of all the college debt to actually help people out. Free college? Come on! That right there is the one way to make America better! Actually allowing you to go to school to become better. So I was for him, but I knew he wouldn’t win.
Bring it back to Twisted Tea. What’s your plan now that you’ve heard back from Twisted Tea and that’s not going to go anywhere? Like, do you want to be Mr. TeaKO for the long-term? Or are you trying to just return to normal life now?
I’m not sure. If someone called me with a great offer to do something that might lead to other stuff, sure, I’d give it a shot. But at the same time, my regular life was good enough. I love hanging out with my kids and my family. I could take that over being famous any day. Everyone asks me what I like to do, and that’s always my answer.
Are you still going to drink Twisted Tea after everything that’s gone down?
I mean, it’s still my drink, so if I do drink, that’s probably what it’s going to be. But after getting that phone call from [the brand], that just goes to show me like the type of people who run it. True colors came out.
If another hard tea company came to you and offered to pay you to switch brands from Twisted Tea, would you?
It depends. I mean are they going to let me get a freakin’ commercial? Then yeah! I’d switch. But until then, I’ll probably drink Twisted Tea a lot less than I normally do. I’ll probably stick to water.
Well, it’s healthier, at least.
And I ain’t gotta worry about nobody trying to sponsor water. Can’t go wrong with that.