Last month marked one full year that I had been working within the beer industry, and since I have now left the industry, I felt it was a good time to look back over my experiences, and ruminate a little about the industry. This post is really just a contemplation for me, but hopefully it will shed light on parts of the industry for those curious.
For starters, I can’t begin to thank the amazing people that I have met and interacted with in the industry. I know it is practically a well-worn cliché to talk about how awesome the people in the beer industry are, but they really are superb, and it really is a tight-knit society that welcomes everyone in. Part of that is what makes me love the industry so much. I love the community that it inspires. I love that I can wander into any taproom, brewpub, or bar in America (if not the world), mention my affiliation to the industry, and then just geek out for hours on end over similar acquaintances, good beer, good food, and everything else.
I also love the comradery of the industry. I know it’s often mentioned, but I don’t think it’s mentioned enough; in what other industry can you find companies that should be competing, instead making products together? You’d never see Pepsi and Coke get together and make a soda the way breweries get together and make beer. (Feel free to prove me wrong on that internet, just recognize the point I’m trying to make…) Working for a brewery, I constantly found people telling me they were sorry to bring up other ‘rival breweries,’ and I constantly found myself telling these folk that X & Y brewery is not, in fact, viewed as a competitor, but more as a collaborator. The whole beer industry’s approach to companies within the industry, by-and-large, tends to be: “Hey! You make good beer. We make good beer. Let’s get together and make good beer together! Also you should bring some of your beer over so we can drink it! We’ll bring you some of ours!” Sure, having an industry that is saturated in alcohol definitely helps everyone to get along, but I still find that the comradery found in beer (and general alcoholic beverages if you include cider, mead, etc…) to be quite special.
At the end of the day though, the beer industry is becoming about far more than just beer. Much like it was in the beginnings of history, the beer industry is becoming a central piece of community building. Across America we see communities holding Beer Weeks, gathering together in their local breweries, and collaborating in ways that had for so long been forgotten. In my experience with beer, the successful business is not only the one that makes damn fine beer, but also concentrates on building up a community in their area, and which adds something more than just an alcoholic beverage to the community-at-large. Look at the massive charitable efforts breweries have begun, look at the number of beers being brewed for charitable causes, look at the local businesses collaborating with breweries, look at the races that breweries are sponsoring, and look at Movember! Beer has become more than beer, it has become the community around the business, and I find that to be an incredible and valuable asset for any industry to experience.
With all that positivity being said, working in the beer industry has also worn the shiny paint off of beer for me. For all the amazing activism and community-building that breweries can do, it’s important to not lose track of the fact that they are a business, and at the end of the day, a brewery has to be profitable like any other business and suffers the same pitfalls as any business. Sure, it would be great if every brewery could hold charitable events every weekend, and offer up their beer for free in their tasting rooms, but at the end of the day, such practices are not sustainable. This new wave of beer has birthed a lot of young breweries that are bucking the old traditions and doing fabulous things, but there are some traditions that came about for reasons, and there are some understandings that every business needs to have. We all want our local breweries to succeed, but at some point they’re going to have to start buckling down on the beer they give away, and they are all going to have to start out-right competing with one another.
In fact, in many ways breweries already are competing with each other. They have to. A brewery is a business, and a business needs to make money which requires them to outsell, or at least sell on par with other options in the market place. As Lagunitas’ Tony Magee has pointed out, in every collaboration between breweries some new market is opened up to at least the concept of a new brewery, which can potentially then send in their regular offerings and compete with the brewery they collaborated with. In fact, some of the smaller breweries are using collaborations with the big names to establish themselves in the beer industry, and some of the bigger breweries are more than happy to help establish them.
The idea of all the breweries getting along is not entirely dead. Plenty of breweries are competing and collaborating in the same breathe, which could be seen as sneaky, but could also just be seen as a new way to run an industry. Wouldn’t it be nice if every business competed in an honest and upfront manor, while also acknowledging the skills of their competitors and praising innovation in the industry? Sure it’s a utopian concept, but that doesn’t make it unachievable.
The other issue that I find needs to be addressed within the industry is a little more looming. As Miles Liebtag pointed out on Beer Graphs back in February, alcoholism is a bit of a problem. This is not the alcoholism of our forefathers, however, this is a substance abuse issue that is rolled up and hidden within the connoisseurship and community-building aspects of the industry. No one is drinking too much in dark alley by themselves. Instead, there are people in the industry (and outside of it as well, I suppose), that consume large amounts of beer at work daily, and they do it in the correct glassware, or just to sample the latest offering from the taps, or just to check to make sure the keg is not bad, etc… Which draws the question, who is it hurting?
The approach that I have observed across the several different sectors I’ve been involved with, seems to be: “As long as you can function at your job and aren’t driving out drunk, who is to judge how many pints (within reason) you drink in a work day?” I have no easy answers for such a problem, and even find myself agreeing with some of the reasons you need to drink while working in the industry, but I do feel like it is something that is not talked about enough. Should the beer industry stop letting their employees drink? Hell no. Is there a better way to encourage everyone to manage their lives and not over drink? Yes, and I see it as the leaders of the industry’s duty to start paving the way towards that equilibrium.
Beer is an alcoholic beverage at the end of the day. It has its pluses, and it has its minuses. It has its health risks, and it has its positive effects on health. This new and hyper-localized industry for it, however, has not quite found a happy medium to monitoring itself, while still promoting the wonders of their crafted products. I, as a consumer and a participator, am fascinated to see how the industry matures and solidifies itself over the next few years. I’m excited to see these companies stabilize and establish themselves, and I am excited to see them in thirty years when they have become an integral part of their local communities. Still, I worry that not all of them will survive. The world of ‘craft beer’ is young, but the business models that they are laying out might give the world hope for better business practices in every industry, and they might just bring us all a little closer together. Sure that’s a wishy-washy thing to say, but I honestly believe it. It’s hard to hate someone while sharing a pint of beer (though it isn’t so easy after a few more pints…). Beer is small, though, and the world is big. I hope that it keeps on expanding, and I hope that I return to that inner-world someday, if only to reminisce on how it’s grown.
Cheers and Beers to all those who have helped me on my journey so far, and to all those yet to come.