Craft Beer as Activism: Founded on and Fueled by Passion, Creativity and Deviance
Throughout its history, craft beer has - by necessity and by default - defined itself as an underdog industry, fighting the big beer companies (see Craft Beer in Mexico, as an example) for table scraps and, while the industry has grown globally, it's managed to corner only 7.8% of the total beer market in the U.S. - which still a strikingly high percentage compared to other countries.
Underlying this discussion of Craft Beer as industry, niche markets, capitalism, profit and market share, there lies an important story – a history (and herstory) which, if left unacknowledged, does a great dishonor to the pioneers of the craft beer industry. Let us not forget the passion that the industry was founded on and which continues to fuel the creativity and innovation of Craft Beer today. Those who ignited the Craft Beer movement went against the grain to fill a niche which consumers didn't even know they needed at the time. And consumers voted with their dollars and continue to do so decades later.
Craft beer is a prime example of how capitalism can work in its most ideal sense and, to me, the industry represents a rags-to-riches story of the elusive American Dream. With its integral underdog narrative, it exemplifies that visceral archetype which we can all relate to on some level – the myth and legend of David and Goliath (however you may interpret it). These characteristics – passion, creativity, innovation, and also struggle against more (seemingly) powerful forces – are so deeply engrained in American identity that it makes sense that the United States has led the craft beer movement globally.
To me, Craft Beer is so much more than just an industry or a product. Inherent in its essential character is the deviance and rebellion against Big Beer that it was founded upon, an activist role by necessity.
Craft Beer: A Symbiotic Relationship with Community
If you ask a craft brewer what they believe their obligation to Craft Beer is, their answer is simple: to produce the highest-quality product possible. And god bless them! Unlike us over-analytical writers, most brewers don't waste too much time trying to dissect what Craft Beer represents or what the parameters of its definition should be. Their obligation to Craft Beer is simply to extract and ferment that passion, creativity, and innovation which results in a high-quality product – and if it's done well, we can taste that passion: pure Love in a glass! Craft brewers are craftsman and craftswomen, and this is a primary, undeniable character that sets craft beer apart from Big Beer.
In addition to the above characteristics which many people would agree define Craft Beer, there are other characteristics associated which are, perhaps, more debatable.
At a craft beer writing symposium in Lexington a few months ago, speaker, writer and co-owner of The New Albanian Brewing Company, Roger Baylor argued that craft beer, among other things, should maintain the ideals of sustainability, community and local production. Meanwhile, the key note speaker, beer writer and brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver elaborated, arguing that while small, local production and consumption of craft beer is certainly one important ideal to strive for, one cannot deny the importance of global influence on craft beer. It may very well be acceptable, he argued, for a craft brewer to celebrate the influence of beer-producing regions such as Belgium, Germany or the UK while at the same time adapting these influences into a local style made with local ingredients and sold to local consumers.
While both global influence and local production may be a tenuous balance to maintain, many craft breweries embrace not only these qualities but that of increased sustainability – which makes sense environmentally and often has a long-term economic payoff. Sustainability can also be viewed as a responsibility to one's community – another important character that, to me, is essential to the identity of Craft Beer.
If you're involved in the craft beer industry or are a serious home brewer or craft beer enthusiast, you know that the craft beer community is a vibrant social network consisting of a diverse group of people united by passion and willingness to share knowledge and resources. I would even argue that there is a global craft beer community, influencing and being influenced by others to create a better product.
The individuals within the global craft beer community are one important component of why craft beer is so important to me. In each of the towns I've spent time in recently – Portland, Seattle, Austin, Lexington, Syracuse and Cleveland – there was a craft beer community willing to embrace me, a total stranger – to show me their brewery or to share a beer from their cellar with me. Good people; passionate people; proud people, willing to share the best their communities had to offer – which was most often, despite the small size or small number of breweries in any given town, of exceptional quality.
Could you imagine Craft Beer existing without community, collaboration, or shared knowledge, passion, or resources? I can't. And I'll go out on a limb and argue that without community, Craft Beer would not exist. Craft Beer relies on relationships and community as much as the community relies on it. It is this symbiotic relationship which Craft Beer has with its community that makes me believe that not only is Craft Beer obligated to the consumer, but that the consumer is obligated to advocate for Craft Beer.
The Craft Beer Enthusiast as Conscious Consumer
Ultimately, how Craft Beer is defined and how that definition inevitably changes over time as the industry evolves, is up to us – the craft beer community: the brewers, the beer writers, the servers, and the reverent enthusiasts. The craft brewer's job is to make the best beer possible. The beer writer's job is to lead a discussion. The beer server's job is to store, pour and present the beer the way it was intended. But what is the job of the craft beer enthusiast? Are we – the enthusiasts – solely consumers, voting with our dollars to support the industry? Is this enough for ourselves and our communities, or do we want more of a role in shaping the future of Craft Beer? And do we have a responsibility to do so?
Those consumers who often choose Craft Beer over Big Beer are consciously choosing to spend more money for a quality product (a privileged position to be in, no doubt), even if they are not specifically, morally or politically, dedicated to Craft Beer per se. These consumers may not have a problem supporting Big Beer if they can get their hands on the latest Bourbon County (Goose Island/AB-Inbev), but they are still a conscious consumer and a big part of why Craft Beer continues to have so much success as an industry today.
While I don't judge these consumers harshly for their choices, I believe that my role – not just as a writer and journalist, but as a craft beer enthusiast – aligns more with the advocate and activist role that Craft Beer was founded on. Maybe it's simply that I've always been an activist, but I believe that my choices as a consumer and the dollars that cast my vote, should reflect the fact that I care about the future of craft beer. I like Bourbon County as much as the next guy, but I also don't feel that AB-Inbev should be encouraged to buy more craft breweries, because ultimately, this will affect the choices we have as consumers in the future, and the ability for other, smaller craft breweries to compete. So – for me – a Deschutes Abyss or Black Butte XXIV will do just fine.
I don't expect everyone to agree with me. On the contrary, I know that most people don't when it comes to the obligations of a craft beer consumer (particularly the sticky “Goose Island issue” which, admittedly, always gets me a little heated).
What I challenge you to do, though – today, if you haven't already – is to ask yourself what Craft Beer means to you. How do you define it? What are the characteristics of Craft Beer that you can personally relate to, that emulate your own moral and political beliefs, your sense of community, your dedication to the environment and to small business, to the American Dream and to opportunity, to your own identity? Do you see yourself as an advocate for craft beer? An activist? Or, simply, a consumer? There is no right answer. It is purely subjective. But let it be conscious, whatever your answer is.
An important part of conscious consumerism is empowering oneself to hold the craft beer community and craft breweries accountable to your high standards of quality, to what you believe Craft Beer should stand for, what you want it to stand for, what's important to you. Ultimately, it all comes down to a better product, more consumer choice, and Love in your glass.