Is Craft Beer Punk? Part 1


I love preparing for a blog post by reading about punk rock.  The hardcore scene in the early 80’s was miles away from the grips of the mainstream music industry.  A few indie record labels flew the flag, showing that artistic satisfaction was possible through a DIY aesthetic & ethos (& working very, very hard).  This underground formed, in large part, as a reaction to the establishment that it saw as creatively desolate, valuing style over substance & hits over humanity.   Bands like Black Flag, the Minutemen, & Minor Threat built a scene with their bare bands, & those drawn to it were fiercely protective of the community that was theirs.  Commercial success in the conventional sense was a foregone preclusion – even if it wasn’t actively resisted, it just seemed inconceivable.

In 1986, a band by the name of Hüsker Dü crossed the gap, leaving stalwart SST Records & signing to Warner Brothers.  WB had courted the band for its “hip” status & grass roots fanbase, & part of the deal was that  Hüsker Dü would keep complete creative control – a promise on which, by all accounts, the company made good.  There was backlash from the fanbase, cries of “sellout” from those who saw bedding down with a corporation as anathema.  The band never quite achieved the creative heights they had at SST, though it’s debatable whether that had anything to do with their new home.  But the landscape had changed, & other bands followed suit.  Hardcore was built on the tenet of not selling out, & was now facing an identity crisis.
Anyone who’s followed this blog knows that the identity of craft beer comes up as a frequent topic.  They would also know that I’m a big fan of Lagunitas, who’s thrown their “craft brewer” identity into question by selling half of their company to Heineken.  Mergers & acquisitions in the beer world are nothing new – documents various forms of “selling out” at the rate of more than one per month lately, though some are more benign than others.  They still seem to cause a stir.  In my adult life, Goose Island’s sale to the Evil Empire of the beer industry was a huge upset; the Hüsker Dü analogy seemed obvious then.  And again, other breweries have followed suit, & the landscape has changed to one where the interests of “big” & “small” businesses become ever more mingled.

The craft beer community at large, on both the supply & demand sides, did not receive the news of Goose Island’s new ownership favorably.  I can think of more than one hardcore craft supporter who vowed that no Bourbon County would cross their lips again; I haven’t observed them longitudinally, but I’m going to give those individuals the benefit of the doubt & presume they’ve stuck to their guns.  Others were cautiously, um, non-pessimistic.  “Wait & see”, they said.  “Maybe it’ll be okay,” they said.  And for the most part, they were right.  The beer didn’t really take a hit, & now more people could get their hands on something they’d only heard of before.  I’ve defended post-sale Goose Island here, & folks seem to have come to accept that a big corporate brewery can avoid completely corrupting a brand.

So by now we’ve grown accustomed to brewers of all sizes getting more financially enmeshed with one another.  And the public’s reaction?  It’s mixed.  There are those who defend the moves, who cite that they mean more opportunity & resources for brewers.  There’s the argument that selling may be the only way to keep the brand viable long-term, & what owner nearing retirement age wouldn’t want to cash in on a company they’ve busted their ass to grow into something strong?  There’s the utilitarian angle that selling will deliver good beer to more people, maybe people in other parts of the world.  And just like the Hüskers, guys like Tony Magee promise to retain creative control, so nobody has to worry about their beloved beer taking a quality nosedive.

But even if fans manage to rationalize their way into accepting & even supporting acquisition, is anyone really happy about it?  Accepting at best, maybe apathetic, but happy?  I have a hard time believing that, given their druthers, fans of Lagunitas (of which there are many) want to see half the company sold off to the likes of Heineken.  And the non-apologists are either fed up or pissed off.  I have to admit that this one hit me a little harder than the previous sales, as Lagunitas has become one of my personal favorites.  Their split has given me some pause to reflect on my own values regarding art & business (which is always good fodder for blogging).

So, predictably, there are plenty who are unhappy about this trend - but why?  I think it’s a given that some people are going to react negatively to change, but it’s become ridicule-worthy for people to express indignation over what’s become a reality.  Outrage is now automatically met with a reflexive dismissal.   I’ve discussed objections over the Lagunitas move with the usual parties, in the usual venues, & have been called naïve.  I’m willing to bear that label, but I want to explain my position.  True, there’s probably little effect that said outrage will actually have, but that’s not to say that people can’t own their opinions, & that the reaction has some validity.  I think we need to listen to why we’re bent out of shape, & maybe learn something from it.

Once again, I find myself biting off a little more than I can chew.  I think I’m gonna grab a beer & continue this line of thought later.

*The graphic above is from Baltimore-based homebrew organization Brew Not Bombs, who definitely take the DIY approach to beer seriously.
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