We Need to Dial It Back a Notch
Yesterday, Tony Magee announced that he had sold off half the brewery he founded—Lagunitas—to Heineken. There have been too many of these kinds of announcements recently for beer fans to be genuinely surprised by this. It’s true that Lagunitas’ brand has been as anti-corporate as any American brewery—but as we saw earlier this year, cultivating an anti-corporate brand doesn’t preclude absorption by the corporate borg. I might have let the whole thing go by, but then I read Magee’s personal announcement, and had a brief epiphany. In a very long, rambling Tumblr post, he characterized the sale of half of his beer company as something profound and important.
About the same time we launched Lagunitas in Ireland and I met people there who were big fans of U.S. Craft flavors, some of whom were themselves newly minted brewers, and I realized that the whole damn world of humans may well want to enjoy these same flavors. When I got back home I thought long and hard about how to aim at that truth, how can we get there, to the whole world?
…This is not the end of anything at all at Lagunitas, except maybe it is the end of the beginning, meaning that we are now standing at the threshold of an historic opportunity to export the excitement and vibe of American-born Craft Brewing and meet beer-lovers all over the Planet Earth, our true homeland. This could one day even be seen as a crucial victory for American Craft Brewing.
Wait, what? When did craft brewing become Craft Brewing? When did the manufacture and sale of a fermented malt beverage become some kind of sacred crusade? When did the poor, benighted Irish ask to be rescued from their sorry state by American breweries? As Magee continues his tale, he invokes, stoned-undergrad-style, a—what else—protracted Nietzsche analogy, and that’s when things truly go over the top:
There’s a pertinent Friedrich Nietzsche parable about a ‘madman’ who comes into a town square holding a lighted lantern declaring to the town that he has important news. He tells his story and the people laugh and berate him in disbelief, throwing stones to drive him off. Finally he gives up saying, ‘I have come too soon’’. He drops the lantern, the light goes out, and he departs….
When we, the Madman in the Parable, came into the square with our lantern, holding up the light of our ideas, we was stunned to see that that one particular brewer understood what we were talking about. They welcomed a dialogue about these crazy ideas of order. They saw what we saw- a global beer business in a state of change, and they wanted to work together to explore this brave new world. We had indeed NOT come too soon.
Look, it’s just beer. Magee may believe European beer drinkers need him, but I have a hunch they’re doing all right on their own. I’ve traveled around Europe and I can confirm that they have a few decent breweries there—even if they don’t call themselves Craft Brewing. (And Sally, my astute wife, pointed out that American beer companies have sought to saturate foreign markets in the past. “How’d that work out,” she asked?)
I am 100 percent with those who characterize beer as something ineffable—it’s one of the few truly international human practices that unites us through time and space. Sitting with friends drinking beer made by a local family in the next room is as ancient as civilization itself. I used to write about politics, and as I shifted over to beer, I realized how the two worlds had inverse goals. Politics is adversarial by design; it divides people. Beer, on the other hand, brings them together. Since the Sumerians sat in the shade sipping the world’s first ale through straws, it has been a social lubricant, a thing that brings people together in a social space.
But beer companies? They are organs of commerce, however wonderful the brewers and publicans they employ may be. We feel good about beer, so we place that good feeling on the institution of private businesses. And in many cases, that feeling is well-placed. Breweries are collections of humans, after all. When they make good beer and create a wonderful space to enjoy it, they rightly earn our loyalty. But they’re also businesses, and sometimes their owners decide to sell to different owners—and then we have to make new judgments all over again.
The world of American brewing is so hot right now that it’s hard to announce anything without lapsing into hyperbole. Everything’s the best thing ever, always. And, when a brewery sells itself to a larger brewery, it is the worst thing ever. Magee’s announcement is a spectacular Trump-like masterpiece of overstatement, and for me it was the moment Craft jumped the shark into over-seriousness. Going forward, I’m planning to focus less on the specific products and breweries of the commercial sphere—they will come and go, inevitably—and more on the act of sharing a beer with someone I enjoy. And I definitely won’t be thinking of any brewery as so important that it can change the trajectory of history. It’s time to dial everything back a notch.