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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sorry, Charlie, They Are Industrial

At some point, I’ll review Beer is Proof God Loves by Charlie Bamforth. He’s an eminent scholar of brewing, but based on this book may have missed his calling: he’s a born blogger. So, in the spirit of his blogginess, I will milk the book for a couple posts before I get to the formal review. Today’s riff stems from Bamforth’s confusion about how to refer to multinational breweries. Confused because he first argues this way (in both the text and a footnote):
Many of the [brewing students at UC Davis], it must be said, are intent on the craft sector, however mistakenly regarding the big guys as corporate America, and some of them naively buying into the notion of “industrial beer.” [This] reprehensible term [is] sometimes employed by a thoughtless few in the craft sector to describe the products of the largest brewing companies…. The bigger brewing companies adhere to the very highest quality standards and are just as unlikely to use process aids as are smaller companies.
And then one page later, he offers this anecdote cum observation:
I was dismayed to hear a little while back of one chief executive saying that only a tiny proportion of his employees really mattered to him, because they represented the difference between success and failure. It straightaway put me in mind of my old boss, Robin Manners, chief executive of Bass Brewers and grandson of the company’s erstwhile chairman. He said to me one day, “Two things matter to this company, Charlie: One is people, and the other is quality. And if you look after the people, they will ensure the quality.” What a contrast.
And yet one page further:
The simple reality is that business decisions, especially in publicly-owned companies, are made on the basis of the bottom line and no consideration of tradition or status quo, unless it satisfies a marketing strategy.
And finally:
On November 18, 2008, the acquisition of Anheuser-Busch by InBev … created one of the top five consumer products companies in the world and a company producing around 400 million hectoliters of beer annually, with the next biggest competitor, SAB-Miller, standing at 210 million hectoliters.
Teasing apart the differences between, say a 5,000 barrel craft brewery and a 50-million barrel multinational corporate brewing company has been sabotaged by history and Bamforth, a Briton (see p. 177, footnote 17) is caught in the crossfire. There are a few issues, so lets tease them apart:

1. Corporations vs small business
A corporation is a legal entity and as far as I know, the term doesn't have anything to do with size. "Corporate" is shorthand in the US to mean "large company" (either private or public). There is no way, under any definition, for anyone to conclude that Budweiser InBev (or whatever they call the beast), a "top five consumer products company" is not corporate. It just is. I think what trips Bamford up here is the naked hatred many Americans have for corporate beer. This is an artifact of American consolidation, for which there is no analogue in British brewing. We watched as local breweries were gobbled up by bigger breweries--always resulting in less consumer choice (not to mention ripping the hearts out of drinkers who watched their local breweries dismantled). By contrast, as Bamforth documents, as late as 2000, Bass had just 25% of the British market, and number 2 Whitbread 16%. It was possible to see big breweries succeed in Britain and not associate this with violence done to the product.

2. Ingredients
Charlie also objects to this belief Americans hold that industrial beer is tainted with nasty ingredients. Let's leave aside the adjuncts. (Rice, Bamforth argues, is chosen for "certain quality attributes" and is actually "more complicated to use" than barley. I personally agree--rice is a natural grain and no less worthy an ingredient than any other. The "attributes" it contributes, however, and the reasons these attributes are prized by industrial breweries, are not uniformly admirable.) I don't have any reason to believe that industrial beer is currently adulterated with additives, nor that it was back in the 70s when nearly all products were (emulsifiers and stabilizers and enhancers and so on). But that's what people believe, and they believe it in part because when massive American conglomerates began consolidating in the 70s and 80s, the beer got blander and more tinny tasting. That's what happens when you're focused purely on the bottom line.

3. Industrial v hand-crafted
I have long looked for an adjective to use to distinguish between that 5,000 barrel brewhouse and the 50-million barrel one, ultimately settling on the value-neutral "industrial." Massive brewing companies can and do produce world-class beers and, as we all know, tiny breweries can and do produce drain cleaner. But, when you're brewing beer in vessels large enough to supply a small town with water for a week, you're working on an industrial scale. Every single brewery I have ever toured has done its damnedest to reduce the "hand" part of the crafted. Grain, kegs, and cases are heavy. Hand-bottling and labeling is extremely slow. To the extent they can streamline things, they do. Industrial breweries have just done this on a very large scale. Often, it allows them to hire skilled workers who get union wages. (When Henry's closed, 200 union jobs were lost.) So use "big" and "small" or "industrial" and "craft," or nomenclature of your invention. But at least recognize that brewing is largely an industrial endeavor.


  1. Interesting observations Jeff, but I wanted to point out that almost every brewery "adulterates" their beer with *something* along the way. Whether it's a tiny craft brewery using isinglass in lieu of a centrifuge to clear their beer, or a mega-brewery using any number of head stabilizers, foam reducers, modified skunk-proof hop extract, or preservatives, almost all of them use something.

    I'm blanking on the name right now, but there's a German brewing industry trade magazine that I've seen sitting on several of my brewer friend's coffee tables, and every time I look through it I'm amazed to see that over half the ads are for unpronounceable chemical process aids that somehow fall outside the scope of the Reinheitsgebot because they're supposedly filtered out of the finished beer.

    One last quote with regards to the term "industrial", from one of the "craftiest" brewers in the world, Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the owner of Cantillon.

    “It’s not because a beer is industrial that makes it bad. I’m not against industrial production. I would rather have a well-made industrial beer than an artisanal beer that tastes bad.”

    Just a little something to ponder...

  2. I understand the lure of Brewing Graduates toward the Industrial beer world. Steady income, Benefits, etc. Why not? Taking a job working for some guy with a "Pipe Dream" of owning a small brewery or assisting a "pie in the sky" home brewer who has money to spent from daddies trust fund are all risky prospects for a steady income.

    As I often say, those who truly have the guts, desire and skill to go off and start their own brewery should be given credit for the venture. That said, I see many people get into professional brewing who really have no understanding of business. Brewing beer is one thing; Running a business is a whole other animal. Can't really throw caution into the wind... ;-}

    Example of recipe for success. Look at ol' Gordon Biersch. I've had the pleasure of meeting both these men. Both very intelligent, energetic and loaded with positive personality.

    Dan Gordon was a a graduate from German's Weihenstephan University - Munich. He was the first American to graduate from that University in over 50 years. He teamed up with Dean Biersch who had experience in the restaurant business. Both serious about their craft: One Beer - One Business. Like in legends of modern music; Words and Music. these men took a calculated venture into the brewing world back in a time when opening a brewery was still dicey. They knew they had the best odds to succeed. An intelligent financial colaboration.

    BTW...Dean Biersch opened his new Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastapol, CA. and recently in Sonoma. Reviewing their Tap and bottle list displays a nice selection of Hopmonks own selections( and quite a large DIVERSE selection of American craft and International Beers. A seriously respectful selection of beers from across the country and the world.

  3. Indeed, most if not all breweries are operating on an industrial scale. I did my time on the packaging line and it was almost enough to turn me off from drinking bottled beer altogether. For those of us who fancy themselves thinkers, eight hours spent monotonously watching bottles travel down a conveyor belt provides plenty of opportunity to ponder life's greatest questions. Such as, am I enslaving my fellow man by drinking bottled beer and forcing some to endure this drudgery so that I might kill a few brain cells or mark another notch on my rare beer belt? I'm a homebrewer, now let's all of us homebrewers admit that we'll sacrifice anything short of the beer itself to save a little effort. I won't fault any brewery for industrializing at some scale. Budweiser crafts a remarkable beer. What Budweiser doesn't do is respect the principles of a fair society. It's not enough to offer benefits, etc. Spunky individuals deserve their own fair shot at the game and it's the number one goal of those largest breweries to undermine the craft game. The greater question as concerns the brewing industry is ethics. If I was a graduate of UCDavis I'd follow my heart to the small brewer, whether it was hand-crafted or automated.

  4. How a company treats their employees has to be judged on an individual basis, not on the size of the company. I learned that through years of working in the restaurant industry and other odd jobs, and it is equally applicable to the beer industry.

    Just because a company is a "mom and pop" establishment does not mean that they will treat you well, or even that they will obey basic employment laws. Some of the biggest corporations can have great employment policy that benefits both the company and the workers in the long run. Just like size of a brewery does not dictate whether the beer is bad or good, it also does not determine how they will treat their workers.

  5. I think it's less about how employees are treated than what the primary mission of the brewery is, and that's really what I use to differentiate craft from commercial brewing.

    In what you're calling "Industrial" breweries, the main function of the brewery employees and the individual plants is quality control; they're trying to brew established recipes on enormous scale to very tight specs. In craft breweries, the point is experimentation and creativity. Yes, quality control is important in craft brewing and creativity has a place at ABI, but you're right on point in that Charlie misses a major distinction.