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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Unbearable Whiteness of Craft Brewing

National Public Radio had a nice piece yesterday on how overwhelmingly white craft brewing is (the fame and stature of Garrett Oliver notwithstanding).  They bore to dorky heart of matters:
"Craft brewing is rooted in home-brewing," [Lagunitas brewer Jeremy] Marshall says. "And if you look at home-brewing, you see nerdy white guys playing Dungeons and Dragons and living in their mom's basement, and I know this because I was and am one of them."
They then quote Steinbart's Duke Geren, who admits that few of his customers are black--but this has a lot more to do with the pasty sheen of Southeast Portland than homebrewing.* I've often wondered (uncomfortably) what the story is with this.  Beer is a universal beverage, right?  Everyone on the planet makes it.  Everyone in America enjoys it.  Yet craft beer?  Mostly white.  Maybe this old explanation remains the best:
White people don’t like stuff that’s easy to acquire.  Beer is no exception.  They generally try to avoid beers like Budweiser, Labatt’s, Molson, Coors, and Heineken because if it’s mass produced it is bad.  No exceptions....  Being able to walk into a bar and order a beer that no one has heard of makes white people feel good about their alcohol drinking palate.

A friend of mine once met a white guy who brought a notebook with him to every bar.  He would then keep a record of all the beers he drank and his experience with them.  He called it his ‘beer journal.’
Which takes us right back to that kid playing D&D, doesn't it?

*The states with the most breweries per capita are Vermont, Oregon, Montana, Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and New Hampshire--with black populations of 1.1%, 2.0%, .6%, 3.7%, 4.3%, 1.3%, 1.5%, 3.9%, .8%, and 1.4%.  So there's that. 


  1. A Beer Journal?!?! How Geeky!! (turns on phone, brings up Untappd...)

  2. Well, most white beer drinkers in America drink precisely those mass market brands you refer to. Moreover, in Europe, we have little interest in rare beer. I don't think there's a single "whale" in the UK.

    I'm a little weary of the idea that it's only white people who like things that are sophisticated, high quality, intellectual or whatever, as so strongly promoted by Stuffwhitepeoplelike. I'd imagine that America's social inequality and class divisions play a much bigger role. Black people have more working class tastes because they are more likely to be working class (working class people can't afford whales).

  3. Wow, different people like different things! This is amazing!

  4. I attended the Beer Bloggers Conference in Boston earlier this summer, and noticed the same thing. Check out the crowd in this picture and see if you can find me.

  5. Not everyone on the planet makes beer. Beer is traditionally made in cooler (white) countries, where it can ferment at cool temps--just look at how hard it was to start brewing in CA when steam beer became a thing. Brewing didn't really get started in places like Asia until European brewing technology made it a lot easier.

    There just isn't as long a brewing history in places like the Philippines or Africa as there is in Germany or England. People who look like me don't get to wear dirndls and lederhosen and dance around playing accordions while waving steins. It's pretty alienating and we're a lot less inclined to drop into breweries and brewpubs when we see that the white people are acting deranged again. Which is often.

  6. Yes, it's a predominate white male product but we females are gaining stride in our consumption of beer. My palate has grown since moving to Colorado when before hand I liked just Guinness.

  7. How incredibly Portlandia of you. BMC is consumed by masses of white people that don't know a damned thing about craft beer. Craft beer is a very small percentage of overall beer consumption. Craft beer is descended from European brewing tradition. Most of the very small percentage of people who consume craft beer happen to be (gasp!) descended from Europeans.
    Get back to your self-flagellation.

  8. This is a case in point of the fact that what constitutes dorkiness is often in the eye of the be(er)holder. I love the idea of a beer journal and have been wanting to do that myself, but if someone were to call me out about my dork levels rising, I'd have a hard time arguing.

    On the subject of having esoteric interests often associated with geekiness... way to work in a Kundera reference, Jeff.

  9. I wrote something about this back in 2006; perhaps the theories, echoed in some of the comments, still hold true in 2013....

  10. Sanjay, nice.

    Adrienne, folks have been doing traditional beer in Africa, Asia, and the Americas for millennia (and still do!).

    Fplus, thanks. (Titles are not my best thing, usually.)

  11. Jeff – do you care to elaborate on your use of the word “unbearable” in the title? Perhaps it is just baiting? Subject of race + sweeping generalizations + baiting titles = Fox news here you come, eh?

    Honestly, Jeff, I’m not trying to be a jerk here. I have read this blog for five years mainly because I think it has quality. I truly am lost a little bit on this post. What is the main point? What are you driving at? Are you being serious or flippant?

  12. Jeff - Sorry, I need to add a little bit more here.

    The quote that you say is the best explanation states: that white people “try to avoid beers like Budweiser, Labatt’s, Molson, Coors, and Heineken.” WTF? Are you serious? And “Being able to walk into a bar and order a beer that no one has heard of makes white people feel good”. Man I am seriously offended. Please tell me this is a joke post.

  13. Mr. Murphy, I think you're reading a lot more into this than I am. There are some basic facts here--the demographics of craft brewing. There's no self-flagellation involved in noting it. I have many times noted with similar regret that craft brewing is overwhelmingly masculine, too. Interestingly, no one reacted negatively to that.

    Steve, the post's title is a play on words, taken from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I did include some humor in the post (or tried to), but I don't think the demographics of craft beer are a laughing matter. The second quote comes from "Stuff White People Like," which is supposed to be lighthearted fun.

    The underlying point is a touchy one, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if it did offend people. Craft brewing is overwhelmingly white and male. If the mere act of pointing out those facts offend people, it's worth considering what they're getting offended at--the facts of the pointing out.

  14. When I say "beer culture in Asia", I'm not talking about ancient Sumerian peoples or non-hoppy beers fermented with spit. I'm talking about what you're referring to as modern American "craft beer culture" which is definitely more English, Belgian and German-based. I mean, Hornsey's History of Beer and Brewing doesn't even have a chapter on Asia or cover anything in Asia past the 5th century BC.

  15. Also, totally agree with you there that the fact that people don't seem to think it's a problem that nearly everyone employed in the craft beer industry is overwhelmingly white. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that 84% of entrepreneurs happen to be white and male as well (

  16. Jeff – I am not arguing with the facts. I agree that the demographics points you are making are accurate.

    There are two points that I am taking issue with. One I already mentioned. The quotes I pulled out above are racist. Yeah, sure, it is trying to be humorous but it is still putting down a race by using sweeping generalizations and making an entire people the butt of a joke. Ok, so you are white. Does that make it OK because you are poking fun at yourself? Now make some sweeping generalizations about blacks, Jews or gays. Is the joke now more or less funny? More or less racist?

    Another point and maybe the deepest of all. Do Blacks, Asians, etc. have their own opinions and desires? Are they CHOOSING to go to beer bars and festivals? Yes some are. However, apparently most are not. It is called freedom of choice. So the deep point. Why do you care? If people are free to do as they please and they are NOT choosing to hang out at the places you hang out at does that offend YOU? Maybe a lot of non-white people (and masses of white BMC drinkers) think that the places you think are cool…are boring.

    I don’t want this to come off as personal attack on you. In fact, thank you for the dialog. You just brought up the subject of race so you are getting some comments back.

  17. I agree - can anyone point to a legal barrier that keeps people who aren't white from heading to their local packy and picking a 4 pack of Old Rasputin?

    Where's the outrage about the lower number of white players in the NBA?

    Why is this an issue? Have non-whites mentioned that they're being discriminated against when it comes to access to craft beer? Either as a purchaser or brewer? Sure - you don't see a lot of people of color that own breweries and the knee jerk reaction is to blame it on money or access to it but FYI - there are a lot of white people who don't have money either.

    I guess I just don't see the issue here. There's nothing preventing a non-white person from enjoying craft beer - SHOULD THEY CHOSE TO DO SO. If they're not - why is that worthy of note?

    How about this - some PEOPLE like craft beer and some PEOPLE don't like craft beer. Color of skin is irrelevant to it.

    Want to stop the problem with racism, stop using color as a filter on everything.

  18. Adrienne, on the world brewing thing--and I realize that I'm now descending into pedantry--there are extant traditions that go back millenia. Chicha has been brewed since 150 BCE and still is. Africans have made sorghum beer since 400 BCE and still do. In China, brewing's history is very old--possibly the oldest on earth--and they still make rice beer called huangjiu. In India they make handiya. My point in the post is that there's nothing in history that would suggest that American craft brewing wouldn't appeal to everyone--because beer sure has!

    (I have a dream to get to write a book about traditional brewing that would take me to Lithuania, Finland, Tibet, China, India, Peru, Africa--where there are many styles and traditions--and elsewhere.)

  19. Steve,

    I appreciate the discussion, too, and I'll try to be reasonable here. The first question you ask is the easier: "Does that make it OK because you are poking fun at yourself?"

    Yes it does. Race is not neutral, and we can't pluck it out of context and discuss it as a Platonic ideal. Poking fun at one's own race is, especially in America, a long and honored tradition. Being offended by said poking fun has a tradition dating back to only five seconds shorter than the first.

    As to your other comments, those are much harder and cut to the question of what it means to live in a country with a deep legacy of racism. (This can double as a response to Anon.) We didn't arrive at this moment in American history from nowhere. We have a long and troubled history in which we have regularly stripped people of rights because of their race and gender. It was once not possible for women and nonwhites to ascend to positions like CEOs and elected office. They were literally prevented from those positions of power. It is therefore facile to look at a group like Congress or the ranks of Fortune 500 executives, see mainly white males, and say, "well, I assume women and nonwhites have opted out."

    I don't know if you have the endurance for it, but if you do, watch the first 23 minutes of this video for an excellent discussion of the nature of race and power in America.

    I did not say in this post and am not asserting that there's a culture of racism or sexism in craft brewing--either covert or overt. But because I am aware of our history, when I see imbalances, it does make me pull up short. When I notice that any of my communities are skewed one way or another, I like to at least stop and ask the question: why? Is there something this community is doing that makes it uninviting? I don't think we have to drop into a defensive crouch here. We can be open to the possibility of making this community more welcoming to folks who are not white males. And those of us who are white males have, in my opinion, a special responsibility to throw out the welcome mat.

  20. It's a shame this lighthearted yet interesting observation about the craft beer community had to veer into a minefield of reactive sensitivities.

  21. There's a difference between beer itself, which clearly everyone loves, and America's overwhelmingly white, male, Belgian, German, and English-based craft beer "culture". Just because there are extant ancient brewing traditions in Asian countries doesn't have any particular bearing in the today's brewpub boom. I don't know of any hot new chicha spots that have opened lately, and I don't know any Indian American immigrants that head out for a couple of hearty rounds of medicinal handiya after work.

    If the question really is, "Is the community doing something that makes it seem hostile or uninviting to minorities?" then, as a minority, I am saying yes, the craft beer community does often seem quite hostile and uninviting, and not just because at every beer event that I attend, someone always manages to ask "Do you even drink beer?" I feel just as conspicuous and out of place at an Oktoberfest celebration as white people probably would at a celebration of traditional Filipino stick dancing.

    I think one of the first steps would probably be to break away from a white, Euro-centric model of British gastropubs and German biergartens and start embracing beer as a more inclusive, all-American melting pot type of concept. That also feeds into this stuff that everyone's talking about lately, about what it would mean to develop a really American-style ale. I also really appreciate you saying, Jeff, that white males have a particular responsibility to throw out the welcome mat. I'm not sure if there are many of your cohorts who take the time to think about this stuff.

  22. Is this really a race issue at all? How many poor people drink craft beer?

  23. What Portland needs is a few chicharias!

  24. It's interesting to read your thread here - I got blasted for responding to Rod D's post about the NPR story and his "Who cares" if there aren't significant representations of minorities in craft beer on his American Conservative site. *sigh*

    Thanks for throwing this out there for more discussion. I'm really intrigued by what people have been saying.

    Cheers, Jeff. Always a pleasure to read your blog.


  25. I am truly delighted to read this post regarding Craft brewing, which contains plenty of helpful facts, thanks for providing these data. Great article, exactly what I needed.

  26. I'm sure there are multiple reasons for this, with socioeconomic status being one of the most important. Another factor is probably regional-homebrewing was only legalized in Alabama and Mississippi in the last year, and craft brewing generally lags in the southeast anyway due to blue laws and probably a lack of brewing culture.