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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Indie Brewers

In 17 days, this here blog will celebrate it's tenth birthday. That naturally puts an old geezer like me in a nostalgic mood: ah, youth!, remember those salad days, back when I was a mere pup of 38!? It got me thinking that, in the 40-year scope of the modern American brewing revival, we really only came into modernity in the past decade. But it also gets me thinking about the future. If the past decade was the pivotal moment when American brewing came into focus both in terms of size and tradition, what then of the next decade?

I suspect it will all be about independence.

A recent blog post by Charlie Papazian brought things into focus for me. In it, he musters a hearty defense for the organization he founded and nurtured, arguing for the two, unrelated prongs that have long formed the confused mission of the Brewers Association (independence and "authenticity"). It's that second one that has never been very defensible. His post was inspired by the threat buy-outs pose to small breweries, and in restating the Brewers Association's mission, he inadvertently explains why these buyouts have been damaging. He writes of craft brewing: "It is a framework that defines a cultural view of the spirit of what it means to be craft brewer. In spirit it defines the cultural view of what a small and independent American brewer(y) is." All this business about craft and spirit and authenticity turns out to be dangerous business. It's vague and imprecise and ripe for plucking by large breweries.

An Indie brewery

But Charlie also describes something far more essential in this battle for the future. Independence is a status worth protecting. We have seen how things degrade in other countries with too much consolidation (or "rationalization," as the Brits say). Here Charlie's right on the money:

Without an organization that represents the interests of small and independent brewers their voice in the economic, technical, supply chain, distribution dynamic, retail dynamic would be totally dwarfed and overwhelmed.
This is the battleground of the next decade. The waters are already hopelessly muddled with regard to what "craft beer" is or what a "craft brewery" looks like. But an independent brewery? There's no ambiguity there. In the next decade, the vague, abstract talk of authenticity and craft will inevitably give way to the more concrete, pressing issue of independence and consolidation. Everyone will clamber to claim abstract virtues, but the marketplace will be defined by the degree of consolidation and variety. There are very good reasons to want a robust network of independent breweries competing with large, powerful interests--they're the ones Charlie listed. It's why we're seeing breweries like Yuengling and Schell now (rightly) placed on team "craft," and why the Brewers Association will focus more narrowly on independence in the future.

We have recently begun seeing this phrase "indie brewery" come into vogue. It's a good, clear term that dispenses with abstraction. Indie breweries may be big or small, and they may make good beer or bad, but you know who owns them. I anticipate using the term more often myself, and expect it to slowly creep into our regular lexicon. "Craft brewery" is meaningless. "Indie brewery?"--that's a very useful term.


  1. Heineken is proud to be one of the world's leading independent brewers says the plaque as you enter their museum. "Independent" is less of a guarantee of (or protection against) anything relating to how our beer tastes than "craft".

    "Indie brewery" can be filed with "impy stout", "Westy 12" and "Notty yeast" as infantilising terms that make my skin crawl. Grown-ups shouldn't talk like that if they want to be taken seriously.

  2. No, I'm sure none of this is your fault.

  3. This may be cultural (I'm alluding, of course, to the Harrison Ford character beloved by all Americans).

    I'm cool with independent. Though, based on the reactions I'm getting to this post on social media, the longer version's not going to work for them, either.

  4. I first encountered "independent brewery" in The World Atlas of Beer by Webb and Beaumont. Seemed like a useful term then and still does.

  5. You say the definition of 'indie' doesn't involve size. But I can see relative size quickly entering that discussion. Sierra Nevada ain't indie: it's a big boy. Boston Beer ain't indie: it's stock-holder owned. The emperor has no clothes.

    'Indie' brewery seems to be another label in search of a category, more formalism where democracy is needed. Just as the BA twists like a pretzel to define small and independent, 'indie' seems to infer an attempt to define quality with a quantitative metric. Will indie be 100% independently owned or 50% or 33% or 25%? Would independent be one owner, two, or one-hundred? Would independent have sales success or not too much? Would Untappd users vote on indie-ness? If indie were locally determined, what would be the mileage radius?

    Why not dump the whole Sisyphean exercise and simply celebrate American-owned? Re-brand the BA as the United States Brewers Association and define its membership by the percentage of American ownership. (I'd go for 50% or greater.)

    If sales size of a brewery absolutely must be the determinant factor, then create the 50k Barrel Association, the Nano-Brewery Association, the Brewpub Guild, etc., and allow the indies to dissolve their current brewing union, and sink or swim INDIE-pendently.

  6. The other half and I have used it without necessarily thinking to hard about it; and we used a similar phrase, 'alterno-beer', in the blog post that kicked off our book-writing project back in (yikes!) 2012. All of these terms have their uses but the problem arises when they become used to pigeonhole or prohibit.

    And, I guess, when people start talking about using them, and why they're using them, or why they're not using them, rather than just using them, or not using them.

    (PS. agree with the Beer Nut about impy stout and Westy 12 -- highly irritating.)

  7. "Indie brewery" just says "Run by or appeals to millennial degenerates" to me

  8. "Indie brewery" -- probably has brewed a lavander-hibiscus Gose with acai berries and dragonfruit and served through peanut butter kale in a Randal

  9. "Indie Brewery" can also be my local brewer Forgotten Boardwalk, which makes simple, delicious beer and happily serves its community and state at large.

    But I guess handwaving that all away with yet another lazy "millennial" generalization makes the gentleman above me seem more intelligent.