We are entering the week of the Craft Brewers Conference, when a huge amount of energy will be devoted to this theoretical netherworld called “craft beer.” It follows a week in which Stone’s Greg Koch announced he’d be dumping $100 million into “real” breweries. Or something. Oh god, I grow weary of all this. Titans are arguing about which purity tests to apply (Greg Koch has A LOT more in common with the Busch family than he does with me.) And all of these titans will be appealing to your emotions to get you to buy the right brand, and it’s starting to feel awfully tawdry.
What should a good drinker do? Six years ago I wrote a post that got very little traction, but which always struck me as the right answer. Consumers want good beer and a system that supports diversity. I think you should ignore all the blather about craft and consider my old manifesto. It looks even better to me now. Below I’ve reprinted an edited version, with a few additions in italics. Since I wrote this post, I’ve traveled the world and learned a bit more about beer, but it all convinces me I was right in the first place.
Back in the 1970s, Charlie Papazian founded the Association of Brewers–and the more well-known American Homebrewers Association–as advocacy groups for fledgling brewers. The mission grew out of the particular circumstances of that time and place, and was, for at least a decade, clear, accurate, and important. There were two categories of beer: insipid, tin-can beer and handcrafted, artisanal beer. The former had eaten its own, stamped out diversity and quality, and was busily consolidating itself into a single, monolithic product where the only distinction could be found in the color on the label. The latter cared about beer, brewing history, and beer styles, not money. The Association of Brewers therefore had an easy task: support the little guy, support good beer, support independence. It was a moral as much as business crusade.
Unfortunately, breweries can’t easily be divided into good beer/bad beer, big/little, and independent/multinational. The brewing industry is a market, and markets grow like amoebas. Trying to contain them in boxes is of no use. And markets are by nature amoral. I have no particular interest in how American breweries organize themselves politically. This manifesto is designed not for brewery owners, but beer drinkers concerned with creating an environment that fosters a healthy market for good beer. It is designed to create the conditions for the production of good beer and a sustainable market. It could also be said to be a blueprint for how Beervana became Beervana, how Bamberg became Bamberg, and how Prague became Prague. These things, rather than a series of ever less explicable categories of being, are what we want to nurture.
Show me a town where the beer drinkers are avid fans of good beer, and I’ll show you a town with local breweries. It makes sense, right? If locals are buying your beer, you’re inclined to make them happy. But it’s not just small breweries that have this effect: look at the great brewing regions, the areas around Portland, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia–have or had large, regional breweries located nearby. Beer is local. If you have a beer city, it means you have beer people. If those beer people buy locally, they’ll have access to good beer. Good beer is fundamentally a product of culture; a dialogue between the people who drink beer and the people who make it. You find good beer where you find good beer culture, and you only find good beer culture in places where beer is made locally by a number of breweries.
The Brewers Association has focused on the independence, but this misses the point. Markets require masses. Towns with breweries have those masses. The problem with consolidation in the 60s and 70s was that local brewing culture died out–vast swaths of the country, lacking any local beer, drank whatever was cheapest, further fueling consolidation and turning beer from a product of local culture into a generic commodity. It’s counterintuitive, but even bigger regional breweries help smaller ones flourish because they make the market even that much bigger. You don’t have to be xenophobic about it, but spare a copper or two for the local guy(s). And of course, when you’re traveling, drink local wherever you happen to be, to..
(Buying local also helps communities, and is a source of local wealth and prosperity.)
Of course, it’s not enough to only buy local–consumers have to demand good beer. Rather than descending into a long philosophical dispute about good, let’s use the Judge Stewart rationale: we know it when we see it. Minimally, it’s a beer brewed with quality ingredients and attention to style. The reason we should support good beer–whether or not it comes from a small brewery–is that this creates the market for good beer. If consumers always eschew the good for the cheap, they’ll get the cheap. If they spend a bit more and buy the good, they’ll make it possible for breweries to continue to brew the good. And round it goes.
Buying good creates the environment for local culture to flourish. The commodification of beer creates a generic blandness. Buying good encourages breweries to offer more enticing offerings. What we’ve seen in the US in the last decade is a race to the top, as breweries use techniques like late-addition hopping to create a new style of hoppy American beer (which is anything but cheap) and embrace techniques like spontaneous fermentation, kettle souring, and barrel-aging. In communities that develop a taste for one of these techniques, local styles may emerge. That has been the history of beer style for 10,000 years.
Drink on Tap
You can buy many of the world’s greatest beers in bottles. You can buy brewery-fresh local beer in bottles. But from time to time, you should go to your neighborhood pub and plunk down a five spot on a pint (an honest pint, naturally). The brewing ecosystem is large and diverse. If we don’t support pubs, we fail to support the incubators of beer culture. Seeing others in a public space, sampling different kinds of beers, talking with your local publican (who may be the brewer)–these things are the fertilizer for healthy markets. When people go to pubs, they support local beer and local business. More importantly, buying on tap means that the communication between the brewer and the drinker is direct and transparent; it’s the basis of that responsiveness that leads to local culture. Markets respond to product trends; publicans respond to people.
Buy local, buy good, drink on tap. Do these things, and good beer will continue to be brewed in your neighborhood. After all, isn’t that’s what we’re really after?