There’s a famous clip from the TV show Portlandia where Fred Armisen’s character is quizzing a waitress at a hip restaurant about whether the free-range “heritage-breed, woodland -raised” chicken he’s about to eat is local. After the waitress explains that the chicken, whose name is Colin by the way, is local and is fed a diet of local sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts, Armisen asks, “And it’s local?” Later he asks if the hazelnuts fed to Colin are local.
What struck me about this funny clip is that it almost isn’t even satire, especially in Portland.
This reminds me of a story. Last summer I was in Paris for work and was sitting at the bar in the Hotel Le Meurice unsuccessfully trying to make the bartender understand that I wanted a bourbon and soda. I texted my French friend asking her how to order a bourbon and soda in French and she texted back, “Jack and Perrier.”
These two anecdotes point toward two seemingly mutually exclusive mega-trends shaping the consumer landscape: localization and globalization. Consumers—yes, especially young consumers who are members of that quirky tribe called Millennials—want their locally raised chicken fed locally grown hazelnuts, but they also want to Instagram a picture of Colin after he’s been roasted over a flame of locally grown sustainable bamboo, from their Samsung Galaxy S phone, a global product from an almost faceless corporation if there ever was one. The incongruity would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so sad. (After all, Colin would likely be happier to be sacrificed to feed a Millennial if he were kept cooped up in an industrial poultry farm rather than dying after happily running around a woodland field.)
Certain consumer products lend themselves to being sourced locally—like chickens, vegetables and absurd local news stories (recent headline in my local paper, the San Antonio Express-News: “Spider monkey named W.C. Fields terrorizes elderly residents”)—while others are more suitable to be global products—like smart phones, cars and absurd global news stories (recent headline in Britain’s Mirror tabloid: “The more people eat cheese the more people are killed by their bedsheets”).
In the world of alcoholic beverages, we also have the dual trend of local versus global. But here the opposing trends are drawn from several characteristics inherent in the beverages themselves: things like terroir, perishability, shipability, traditional country of origin and branding. For wine, terroir is important. So unless you live in the Sonoma or Loire valleys, the best wines typically aren’t local, and brands aren’t as important as vintages. In spirits, it’s more about branding and traditional country of origin. Tequila is from Mexico and scotch is from Scotland and bourbon is from Kentucky. And the spirits companies have been masterful at branding, so an idiot like myself will go into a bar in Paris and instead of ordering a Pernod will order a Tennessee whiskey and soda water. Wine and spirits also travel well and aren’t perishable if given a modicum of care.
But beer, well, beer is different, or should be. Longtime readers of this column will no doubt remember my first rule about beer: Beer is like a baby. It’s heavy relative to its price. And it’s perishable. And it’s delicate. It doesn’t like heat or light. And it turns sour if not properly cared for. It doesn’t travel well. For those reasons and more, beer is the perfect beverage to lend itself to locality.
And in fact, before Prohibition and for about 20 years after its repeal, beer was largely a local affair. Growlers abounded. Before the failed curious experiment that gave us nothing but jazz and organized crime, there were more than 2,000 breweries. After Prohibition’s repeal, there were more than 700, still enough so that almost every town had a brewery. That number slowly dwindled to a low of 89 breweries in 1979. What happened?
Louis Pasteur happened. And artificial refrigeration happened. And railroads and national TV advertising and the crimped bottle crown happened. And don’t forget post-war industrialization. With pasteurization and cold rail cars and tight crown tops allowing for the long transport of beer, coupled with televised commercials touting glamorous, sophisticated beer brands, the advent of homogenous national pilsners became de rigueur for the modern company man and his Stepford housewife.
It wasn’t just in beer. The homogenization of products across geographical markets, which, while ensuring consistency, removed the identities inherent to individual cities or towns—the kind of identities that drew people to those places in the first place.
With a resurgence in tastes leaning toward locally sourced goods (like locally made beer), what’s old is new again—mass-marketed, consistently predictable goods have lost their charm. Young people are looking now for the kind of variety that comes with a more organic, local experience, not to mention the smaller carbon footprint that locally produced goods provide. The popularity of the slow food movement is an indicator, as is the practice of listing the sources of ingredients on menus in restaurants. The local beer scene fits perfectly into this trend, and it is a big reason why we now have 2,550 breweries in operation, with the number growing rapidly. Most of those are selling beer only in their brewpub and/or with limited draft distribution in the area.
Even the largest beer marketers recognize this. Rob Sands, the CEO of Constellation Brands, the importer of Corona Extra, told CNN Money recently, “Although the craft beer industry is growing very rapidly, it’s a very local business. It’s not clear that these brands can be extended beyond their locale.” Nor, perhaps, would they want to.
We still have our global beer brands. Heineken, Budweiser and Stella Artois are known the world over. You can walk into almost any bar in the world and order a Heineken. But with so many local alternatives available, it’s becoming less obvious that you would.
One of the most commonly asked questions within the beer industry today is: How many new breweries can the market support? Are we becoming saturated with too many breweries opening up? The answer is: not yet, not even close. There are over 2,000 wineries in California alone. If this local thing keeps going, every community will play host to its own brewery, and that’s not such a bad thing.
This column appears in the September 2014 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here for a free trial of our next issue.