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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My "Craft Brewing" Manifesto

Buy local, buy good, drink on tap.

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, the Brewers Association (as it it now styled) still holds to these values, and they no longer have clear, obvious referents. 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 not particular interest in how American breweries organize themselves politically. Presumably, those that are small and local have more in common with each other than they have with Anheuser-Busch. But does Hair of the Dog have more in common with Widmer/Redhook than it does with Maine's Gritty McDuff's? Probably.

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We are midway through Craft Beer Week, a promotional event of the Brewers Association. The Charlie Papazian multiverse dominates everything in American craft brewing, and so we must dutifully turn toward Denver this week. But while we do so, I'd like to offer my counter-manifesto to his outdated one. His has become a political organization. The following manifesto 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. These things, rather than a series of ever less explicable categories of being, are what we want to nurture.

Buy Local
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.

Charlie 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. 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).

Buy Good
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.

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. By creating an additional market for beer, they allow non-bottling breweries to flourish--all of which makes the brewing ecosystem as a whole more sustainable.

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 Charlie Papazian is really after?


  1. "Drink on tap": Amen! The conviviality is important, and also the quality can be much better (favorite example being Bridgeport IPA -- lame and puckery from a bottle, but beautiful and inspiring on tap).

  2. Jeff,

    Very well said. I might use a different order: buy local, drink on tap, buy good beer. In fact, if you do the first two, you are almost bound to get the third. At a certain level, even the worst of the beers available that fit the first two conditions are drinkable at least and probably are sitting right next to a tap of something also good. This is a particularly valuable post given the confluence of the Papazian "Best Beer City" tripe, Craft Brew Week, the loopy "I am a craft brewer" video and our own local efforts to way overtax beer. Thanks.

  3. Drink beer cask-conditioned. Have beer as fresh --and un-mucked with-- as it can be.

  4. Their is a cool featurette by my friend Allison about local and sustainable beer now up on the NAOBF site or here