Craft Beer is Not a Concept
Recently, I got a Facebook message from Joe, one of my numerous post-college roommates. Turns out, he and his partners own a bar in Downtown San Diego, where they are in the process of renovating the upstairs space to include a new beer bar concept.
While Joe’s interest in opening a beer bar was not earth-shattering (lots of people are throwing open the doors to them these days), what caught me off guard was that they had originally settled on another idea for the space before deciding it was going to be too expensive and risky for their investment. Now that they had shifted gears and were focused on this new model, he was hoping to bounce some ideas my way.
He and his partners were looking to “use” craft beer as a draw. In this way, they were hoping to create a beer-centric place with a great tap list and set of beers. For many publicans, this has been the classic playbook for success in a “if you build it they will come” sort of way. This tavern ownership group seemed a bit out of left field to chase a project like this because—while they are currently successful tavern operators—this notion of opening a craft beer destination bar in a beer-savvy town like San Diego without a well-defined concept seemed fraught with peril.
Our initial face-to-face meeting started a bit slowly as Joe spoke at length about the notions and thoughts for the space. He and his partners didn’t have a concept for the area beyond serving great beer and small plates of food. Craft beer was going to be the hook. But as he spoke, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were going to use for bait.
I thought back to my earliest memories of fishing with my dad, who instilled in me that no matter how great the fishing is, hooks without bait attract fewer fish. And that’s when it hit me. Craft beer on its own is not a concept. Maybe it can be in some incredibly small and freakish ways (places where the owner has made it his life’s mission to eat, sleep and drink nothing but these beers). Given how many successfully operate and build amazing establishments in this way, I know this to be possible.
I’ve also been in the business long enough to see craft beer has come a tremendous distance. Many of us trace our formative industry roots to those times with little to no craft. Outliers, all of us: the brewers, publicans and distributors who embraced a decision to make, pour or sell something different. That was our hook, and our craft was the bait of choice.
I suppose, had we been fishermen, one could argue that we were the purists casting dry flies.We practiced catch and release in so much as we knew there was a limited amount of fish in that river, and it was our job to ensure their livelihood. Everything we did went against the mainstream, Suddenly craft beer is everywhere, and these new anglers are finding great fishing in our once-isolated tributaries.
To many outsiders (and even long-time proprietors), craft now sits squarely as a concept on entrepreneurial drawing boards. It’s how they plan to overcome this sluggish economy and jump-start their restaurant sales. They use terms like “Point of Differentiation.” And every time they do, I struggle to think of craft beer being a concept. I don’t think concept, I think community.
At some point, our craftsmen became a community. Craft beer found a core and a collective idealism. In that way, it resisted ever being a concept—a fad relegated to revolving-door status like Asian fusion. The collectivity of craft re-established the tidal line at the watered-down edge of our domestic beer shoreline and moved it many feet from the lowest line it had reached. In 30 short years, craft beer resolutely moved a receding baseline from blasé to bold and in doing so baited the very hook of consumption needed to catch drinkers who may never have turned to beer.
Right now, the fishing is so great the fish are proverbially jumping into boats. Skippers everywhere are turning to craft and trolling the waters with new concepts aimed squarely at the very water we have protected all these years. We appreciate their enthusiasm, and we cautiously embrace our new captains as long as they too navigate the waters with the same overreaching ubiquity of expression rather than a lack of it.
But here we are in a place where suddenly craft beer has evolved. And I’m feeling like it’s our duty to ensure they don’t Gilligan the crap out of this “concept.” We have to ensure that everyone is still working together in a catch-and-release sort of way. I left my meeting with Joe with thoughts of how to help steer their ship and project. In an email, I played the history card, retelling the stories associated with the mighty kings and queens of the sea who helped chart the very fertile grounds we continue to fish.
In its infancy, craft beer was a choice. They needed to know how crazy it was when Fritz Maytag made a seemingly idiotic choice to buy an ailing Anchor Brewing. Of course, there was Ken Grossman eschewing convention by adding “zesty” Cascade hops to an ale-based beer before anyone knew how great those hops tasted (let alone what a pale ale was).
It was Dave Keene opening his now-legendary Toronado beer bar in the Lower Haight of San Francisco and offering Chimay Red when few had a clue about the monks of Abbey de Notre Dame. I asked Joe to imagine how different our craft beer community would look if Larry Bell and Sam Calagione had decided to be less eccentric and more on center. Growing their respective breweries from 1-barrel systems to nearly 200,000 barrels per year is an amazing pair of success stories. Each charted his own course, and each continues to be an exceptional captain.
I hoped Joe and his partners would understand that none of these people who went first and found success treated beer as a concept. It’s true they found craft beer as an incredibly opportunistic way to explore brewing in methods and expressions of flavors others were not. And while it wasn’t solely a noble pursuit of flavor they sought, many of them have become the kings and queens of craft beer royalty that we celebrate and have feted for their collective success in angling when the seas and streams of craft beer were far less plentiful.
Fishing is not a concept. Hunting and gathering fish for survival, now that’s a concept. Without food, one becomes hungry. But fishing? It’s a pursuit. It’s a lot like craft beer. There are many rivers, streams and oceans teeming with fish. It remains up to us to practice sustainability if we’re going to ensure the legacy these kings and queens have created.
Ultimately, my advice to Joe was simple. Welcome to the amazing community of craft beer. Join us at the river’s edge where many craft beer lovers continue to cast their lines. Be appreciative and respectful of the grounds you’re on. And if nothing else, remember, the fishing is WAY better if you refrain from calling craft beer a concept. Doing so just causes the other fishermen to become upset.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.