Is Craft Beer Punk? Part 2


A warning about this part of the post: If idealism & naivette make you roll your eyes, you might want to check out now.  I’m going to touch on some basic, sincere concepts in a way that’s not cool to do in our age of irony & post-everything, & I might get a little naked here.  I might also be more black-&-white than usual, but here goes...

The answer to the question about why people are upset by the blurring of craft beer’s boundaries is obvious to anyone who’s been a teenager, or who’s ever believed in something.  People believe in craft beer.  I’m going to speak for myself here, but I truly feel that a lot of people hold the same fundamental values about the beer & the community that they love.  As much as I’ve held the Brewers’ Association’s criteria under scrutiny elsewhere in my opinions, the core facets - small, independent, traditional - mean something to me, & are important.  The BA’s had the unenviable job of trying to operationalize those concepts, which is how we end up with with something like “small<6,000,000 bbls”, but those vague adjectives are there for a reason.  They represent an idealistic schema of how things should work, & protect those who aim to operate under that perfect world premise.  There are thousands of small companies, making a great product by their own standards, who are limited only by their imaginations & physical possibilities, & who are, to quote Comrade Calagione, “99.9% asshole-free”.  

If I’m coming across as a pollyanna here, it’s because that’s the way that the craft community has presented itself for decades.  We live in a compromised world - those chastising the anti-big-biz mentality of the hippie-punks like me who balk at corporate mergers are quick to point out how many times our lives intersect with big biz on a daily basis (I’m typing this into Google Docs, for instance).  But that’s the thing about the breweries we love - they seem to aspire to more ethical, beneficent, & just plain bullshit-free standard of operation than most of us are accustomed to.  To me, they show that it can be done the way it should be done, the way that I feel is the right way to run a business & be an entrepreneur.  This says to me that it’s possible to be successful & to grow without compromising, without selling out.  Or to NOT grow, & still be successful, if that’s how you want to do things - some of the most successful breweries are incredibly small, intimate operations who want to stay that way.  There’s a purity in the craft, in the product, that I feel is a big part of its draw.  It’s not just the beer, but who made it, how it was made, where it came from, what it means.  Deep down, that’s important & special to me, & many of us seem to be of the same sentiment.  

Put into the context of beer in the US, historically, craft emerged in no small part as an anti-establishment movement.  The pioneers of craft beer in the US took the steps they did because they wanted something better; reflexively, you can surmise that they saw big beer as the enemy.  It may have become passe now to dis BMC, & again, I’ve made some judicious concessions toward acknowledging the strengths they have in past writing.  But let’s not forget the strong “us vs. them” current flowing through all of craft’s past - the appeal has always been the flavor & quality foremost, but there’s also the satisfaction of knowing that you’re supporting the little guy & telling the big guy where to stick it.  “No crap on tap” was a call to arms for many good bars, priding themselves on keeping the bad guys out.  

Yep, I’ve gone there - “good guys & bad guys”.  A naive, youthful, rebellious part of me still feels that way.  The part of me that cares enough to take a stand, at least until the pragmatic part of me convinces it to peacefully sit back down.  The big corporations gave American beer a bad name, & part of me still pains to see them shaking hands with any of the players who’ve done their part to reverse that reputation.  That’s some of what gets me a little twisted, & you know what?  Craft breweries have capitalized on that perception.  Craft breweries have grown successful in some part because, not in spite, of their anti-establishment, us-vs-them, stick-it-to-the-man mentality.  And it’s hard to ignore the inherent contradiction in that transformation.

I realize that a lot of this might be my own baggage, but I maintain that a lot of others feel the same way.  Maybe becoming a parent has made me get in touch with some of my youthful values, & long for a scene that’s pure & free from the taint of corporate greed.  Maybe I want something like that to exist for my own son - not that I plan on handing him a pristine craft beer any time soon, but to know that it’s possible to do things “The Right Way” & be successful, sustainable.  Maybe I’m also an old fart who likes things better the old way, before there were these kinds of conundrums.  I came of drinking age after the 90’s bubble popped, after that decade’s wave of IPOs & corporate grabs came & went, but still came into good beer seeing an unspoilt landscape of possibilities.  

To that point, I can’t help but notice a little generation gap in how people perceive this kind of sea change.  In debating folks on-line, it felt like I came to personify the idealistic old hippie pining for the days when people cared & got angry, vs. the younger whip or two I butted heads with, who seemed unfazed.  Perhaps the millenials, who’ve barely grown up in a world without a multinationally-owned Goose Island, see it all as a level playing field.  “If the beer’s good, who cares who produces it?” is a common refrain, & one that I’ve rattled off from time to time.  But yeah, a part of me cares.  This point also brings to mind an episode of Craft Beer Radio, in which the hosts were joined by hosts of several other beer podcasts to discuss that infamous Budweiser Super Bowl ad.  The majority seemed to find it amusing & well-executed in a detached, critical kind of way, or maybe only slightly offensive but ultimately giving credit where it was due for an effective ad.  The only one to really raise some indignation was James Spencer of Basic Brewing Radio, the senior of this little roundtable.  His reaction was, to paraphrase, that he’s met too many small brewers who’ve given their lives, poured their hearts & souls, into their endeavors to have it belittled by a snarky ad.  

A light went off for me in hearing James’ response.  Of course it’s shitty for Bud to takes jabs at craft brewers - they’re real people who’ve sacrificed & busted their asses for something they believe in.  That emotion, that connection, is part of what has made craft beer as successful as it’s become, & I think what will continue to carry it forward.  People use the word “passion” in conjunction with craft beer all the time: “I’m passionate about craft beer.  Craft beer is a passion of mine.”.  On some level, talking about passion, community, & other emotionally-charged concepts can become marketing, but on some level it’s real.  I want to see people reconnect with that passion, that emotion, & to stop being so cynical & detached about something that they admit to loving.  That’s real, it’s deep, & it’s worth fighting for.  I hope we can get in touch with that deep-down-ness, look at it honestly, & take a little part of it with us every time we think about that next beer.  That, to me, is the spirit of this thing that we all love so much.  

Thanks to all who’ve stuck this post out & bore me getting a tad preachy.  I encourage all of us to think about our passion & what it means, where it comes from on a gut level.  And bottom line - do what feels good & what feels right.  That’s really what it’s all about.

Note: The above image is full of all kinds of semiotic significance - Elysian is a former craft brewery that was bought by ABInBev. Prior to that acquisition, they brewed 'Loser' in collaboration with SubPop Records, a formerly indie record label that formed a commercial partnership with Warner Bros. - the same band that signed Hüsker Dü back in the 80's.  So yeah, layers of stuff there.  

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