As recently as a couple years ago, it was pretty easy for Americans to distinguish good beer from bad, independent beer from corporate-owned beer, and local beer from nationally- or internationally-owned beer. And in most cases, good, independent and local beer all lined up neatly on one side of the ledger. In the past two years, however, the inevitable visited America’s tidy little brewing world: consolidation. International conglomerates, larger craft breweries and private equity have all begun plucking up the choicest American breweries. The lines have crossed and merged, and it’s no longer always clear which company owns a particular brand or where that beer is brewed. And it is only going to get worse.
For years, we’ve been encouraged to support “craft beer,” defined by the Brewers Association (BA) as “small, independent, and traditional,” but this definition has fatal flaws. Size doesn’t have anything to do with quality; “traditional” has no useful meaning; and independence is a value the BA, a trade organization, uses to determine membership eligibility. It’s not a definition that consumers would have created. What we want is a marketplace where small players can thrive, where many breweries’ products are available at stores and pubs, and where interesting, high-quality beer isn’t swamped by cheaper, blander, mass-market fare. How do we ensure this?
Buy local, buy good, and drink on tap
Show me a town where the beer drinkers are avid fans of good beer, and I’ll show you a town with local breweries. Think of the world’s great beer cities: Munich, Bamberg, Brussels, London, Prague. Not only have they been great incubators for local breweries over the centuries, but they have unique, distinctive local beer. These are the cities where many of the great beer styles in the world came from. Breweries thrive when they have a large base of support at home. Even in very competitive national markets, healthy local markets always win out—people in good beer cities drink local beer, and that in turn keeps local breweries in business.
The problem with consolidation in the 60s and 70s was that local brewing culture died out—vast swaths of the country, lacking any local beer, drank whatever was cheapest, further fueling consolidation and turning beer from a product of local culture into a generic commodity. You don’t have to be xenophobic about it and only drink local beer, but make sure you support the locals if you want them to thrive.
Of course, it’s not enough to only buy local beer—consumers have to demand good beer. Rather than descending into a long philosophical dispute about what qualifies as “good,” let’s use the Judge Stewart rationale: we know it when we see it. Minimally, it’s a beer brewed with quality ingredients and attention to style. It’s beer that’s consistent and not prone to off-flavors. It’s the stuff that, you know, tastes good.
If we reward the breweries that make the best beer with our dollars, other breweries will compete on quality, not just price. When a market favors cheap beer, you end up with generic, bland beer. Conversely, when breweries are competing on quality, you see them engaging in a race to the top—exactly the process we’ve witnessed over the past generation here in the U.S. American breweries now employ bales of (expensive) hops to create their hoppy IPAs and embrace techniques like spontaneous fermentation, kettle souring and barrel-aging (none of them cheap and some very expensive). There are ways to take shortcuts, to use cheaper ingredients, or in other ways cut corners when making beer, but cheap beer is only profitable if drinkers are willing to compromise to save a few bucks. If instead they demand quality, breweries will deliver good and interesting beer.
Drink on Tap
The last element is one I didn’t understand until I started traveling the world and seeing pub culture in places like Düsseldorf, York and České Budějovice. Good beer is fundamentally a product of culture; it arises as a dialogue between the people who drink beer and the people who make it. Pubs are where that dialogue happens. Seeing others in a public space, sampling different kinds of beers, talking with your local publican (who may be the brewer)—this is how we create culture. Buying beer in pubs means that the communication between the brewer and the drinker is direct and transparent; it’s the basis of that responsiveness that allows breweries to respond to local tastes. Markets respond to product trends; publicans respond to people.
It’s not accidental that during the great period of post-war consolidation in the U.S., draft sales of beer collapsed. This is in sharp contrast to Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, where draft sales—and local beer culture—are much stronger. Nor is it surprising that so much of the energy that has fueled the American beer renaissance has happened in pubs, particularly brewpubs. This is how good beer countries become good beer countries.
When you combine all three of these things—good, local, and drinking on draft—you have the ingredients for a healthy market. But even more, you create the conditions for distinctive local beer culture, and this is the most profound part of the equation. Once you have a healthy local beer-drinking culture, it becomes self-sustaining.
Buy local, buy good, drink on tap. Do these things, and good beer will take care of itself.