“Get some craft brewers together, and they’ll tell you that if we continue down this path, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the American craft beer revolution.”
That’s the closing quote from Jim Koch’s Friday, April 7, 2017 Op-ed in The New York Times. I’m noting the date so we can mark another spot on the calendars of history where the future of all that is good and holy and right in this world (beer) was given the end is nigh treatment. The beer industry is as accurate about predicting the end of the world as Harold Camping at this point.
While the piece leans a little heavily on the gloom for my taste, Koch isn’t completely wrong. A duopoly running free in the wholesale wilds because of a toothless DOJ generally isn’t good. The buyouts and mergers and three tier dealings will likely affect consumers and choice. All that “big beer corporations will ruin craft beer!” talk is legitimate.
It’s a little ironic that Koch (the billionaire founder of a publicly traded company) would decry the evils of corporate warcraft. From my perspective as a drinker, he’s the same bottle, just wrapped in different packaging.
This is true about the whole upper echelon of the BA’s top 50 breweries club. Despite how we may feel about them, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Bell’s, etc., are large companies, far removed from that “friendly neighborhood brewer” trope that has permeated the thinking of beer aficionados nationwide.
And even though we’re willing to drink Starbucks, eat McDonalds, and turn our faces into dogs on our iPhones (all those companies started as small, “craft” startups, for what it’s worth), beer fans somehow fault breweries for their success, and hate that “beer has gotten so corporate.”
My question is: what the hell did everyone expect?
Nowhere in the shuffling definitions of “craft” is there any promise of altruism. Nowhere on the Brewer’s Association website is the part about new beer’s dedication to ethical purity and anti-establishment ideals.
I’ll say it plainly, because apparently it needs to be said again: brewing and selling beer is, was, and will always be, a business. Any business, even the most community and quality minded, exists to make money. The logical extension of making enough money to stay in the black is making profit, which has become the de facto metric of success for any modern American company.
You can choose not to like that, but it’s a fact, evidenced daily by Panera Breads replacing family bakeries, and Lowes popping up where that mom and pop hardware store used to hold sway. Americans as a whole have fully embraced the retail/franchise chain, even if a small subset still tries to buy only homegrown and handmade.
For some reason, in a dazzling display of cognitive dissonance, beer was supposed to be an exception. Consumers created an expectation – that “craft” beer was somehow immune to and therefore above the governing rules of American capitalism – because they really, really wanted “craft” beer to be better, both literally and philosophically.
The prior happened; hooray! The latter, though, is a feel-good fabrication that breweries and marketing teams were all too happy to co-opt once they realized people were investing more into their beer than just dollars.
To say: there is a bubble in craft beer, but it’s not economic. It’s spiritual.
I think we can all agree that the main driver behind this movement was taste. To those not gustatorily inclined to light domestic lager, an aggressively hopped IPA was a white daisy in a field of dandelions.
And that’s great. But new access to new flavors only tells part of the success story. It’s not mere coincidence that this new beer movement started firing on all cylinders around 2008. The American economy was rotting. Job prospects sucked. Wages were low and debt was high. Hope for the future balanced precariously on a wilting “if.”
The traditional things that young people associated with success, based on the lessons from previous generations, suddenly seemed impossibly distant. “A mortgage? Shit. I can barely afford a pizza,” they thought. Since they couldn’t wrap their identities around the historical white picket fence American dream, they invented their own, with whatever they had lying around.
Like a burgeoning, counterculture beer scene.
Tidy little dry-hopped dominoes: craft beer was perfectly setup to fall in line with what people needed. Close knit culture where you felt important? Check. Pseudo-scientific jargon that made you sound like an expert? Check. Lots of public spaces to show off your new, slightly buzzed, you? Check. It doesn’t hurt that it also got people really drunk.
For those who couldn’t find much stability in the rest of the world, craft beer was a haven. It was cool, but not too cool. It had the allure of a cottage industry, and just enough hipster cred to make one feel unique. The proverbial, now almost comical beards and plaid were neon lighthouses for those seeking harbor. When you drank your local IPA with your friends, you had some control.
I know, by now, some of the people reading this are saying, “Bullshit! I drink good beer because it’s good! None of this applies to me.” And sure, maybe. But tell me you didn’t take a little joy in being that person who knew about the latest collaboration brew. Tell me you didn’t take a little, selfish glee in snagging a couple extra bottles of those rare releases. Tell me, entirely, that you weren’t emotionally involved with beer at any point, and I’ll free you from the burden of this narrative.
I’m willing to bet you can’t. I couldn’t. I’m just as guilty as everyone I’m describing here. I stood, in the eyes of many of my friends, family, and peers, as “the beer guy.” It felt good. I was an authority on something, with no lingering feelings of impostor syndrome.
Until I realized that some people only saw me as the beer guy. When you let the roots of a hobby grow deep into your soul, it becomes difficult to free yourself from them. They start to be a part of what defines you as an individual, and if anyone questions that, especially fundamentally, it shakes your entire core.
For many of us younglings, this is the first time we’re seeing the transformation of an entire industry, live. The first time our preconceptions about what’s right and just in the world are being challenged by the concept of who can pay the most. The first time youthful idealism meets cold, calculating gotta-make-ends meet reality.
It’s scary. Because if it happened to those guys, who at one point, were the little, local shop, it can happen to your guys too. And if it happens to your guys, suddenly, everything you thought you knew about a large portion of your life no longer makes sense. When your favorite brewery could be snatched up by the evils you’ve been long decrying, that “if” your whole life balanced on starts to look dangerously like a “when.”
So here we sit, craft beer still growing even with the slowing, with people discussing the minutiae of shelf space and tap line ups. Despite Koch’s sandwich board doomsaying, there’s still a lot of positive in those breweries serving truly local markets. But we can’t forget that we’ve got a group of zealots who must be getting tired by now. A group of people who when, forced to by the vicissitudes of modern life, look back upon themselves, might not like what they see.
We can argue corporate ethics all we want. But our problem isn’t at the wholesale level, or the retail level, it’s the consumers themselves. When those drinkers find they can’t reconcile what they thought beer was versus what it really is, the problem Americans will face with beer will be one of faith, not finances.
There is a lot of idealistic twaddle around craft beer, as if the revolutionary rhetoric is somehow about capitalism rather than beer.