What is the Craft Beer Revolution?

Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company (makers of Sam Adams), claims the revolution is slowing down. His New York Times op-ed explains his perspective, with the main reasons being pressure in various forms from multinational brewers, some “slack government antitrust oversight”, and distribution control. He has his points, and his article has its critics. A Men’s Journal article asked Greg Doroski, head brewer at  Threes Brewing, to respond to Mr. Koch’s opinion. His take is that while he agrees with Mr. Koch that such external threats exist, some threats internal to craft beer are just as real. After all, Boston Beer is larger and its influence stronger relative to almost all craft breweries. It seems Mr. Doroski feels that infighting for shelf and tap space threatens the industry. And then, of course, a very big brewery responds.

We can discuss endlessly about who is right and who is wrong, but I want to venture to question part of the premise; what is the “craft beer revolution”?  On the surface, the answer seems obvious; the increased number of craft breweries in the U.S., currently hovering somewhere around 5,000. And we can discuss the Brewers Association definition of “craft brewing”. But that gets us away from the “revolution” to qualifiers and into the weeds. The above opinions and articles concentrate on one area of the beer industry: external sales. Indicators used to gauge craft brewing focus on the normal channels of consumerism, like retail, bars and restaurants. But it seems to me that the “revolution” is not about shelf space, tap handles or percentage of market.

It’s the brewery tap room. Sure, not every brewery has, or is allowed to have, a tap room, depending on various state laws. But it’s the reintroduction of the old-school beer/brewery model that sparked the revolution. It’s these public yet intimate places that brings strangers together from all walks of life. Before these, restaurants and bars attracted clientele with a dedicated theme or image. The sports bar, the honkytonk, the Jimmy Buffett bar, etc. all served the same drinks, perhaps in varying formats. Each venue had their own homogenous clientele.  Bikers go to biker bars, for example. The introduction libations unique to a locale broke the homogeneity and started the craft beer revolution, which continues to attract consumers.

freestateMy first experience of the revolution was at Free State Brewing in Lawrence, KS back in the 1990s. Little did I know that my first step into that brewery signaled the end of my Budweiser days. I ordered the Copperhead Ale and never looked back. But I remember thinking that while the beer was so different than Bud, and quite delicious, there was something more. Free State was, and still is, a brewpub; a restaurant and brewery. And I saw KU students, “town folk”, businessmen, government employees, attorneys, musicians, and tourists all enjoying the same place. In many cases, they were interacting…civilly…and willingly!  I mean, KU and Lawrence are quite liberal and smack dab in the middle of “red-state country”. It was quite rare to see the Left and Right sharing something in common, talking and laughing together. But, there it was right before my eyes.

Differences didn’t matter once you walked into Free State, and while I haven’t been there in over a year, they probably still don’t. (If you ever go there, get the black been quesadilla and an Ad Astra ale). I live in Denver (well, Lakewood) now, and I’ve seen that Free State experience come out this way. Now, before you jump on me I know Free State didn’t start this revolution, I’m just using it as illustration. In Denver, Strange Craft Beer Company is where “strangers meet friends”; Comrade Brewing invites you to “join the party”; you can drink Bierstadt’s and Hogshead’s session beers all day with much impairment, thereby extending time you spend with strangers and friends. Plenty of breweries in Colorado exemplify this revolution; as well as breweries in Oregon, California, Massachusetts, etc.

The effects of the craft beer revolution started with a trickle into retail, restaurants and bars. Now it is a torrent, influencing breweries to take a dip into the promising, and I contend perilous, current.  The heart of the revolution is the small, local business providing their neighbors with the “social lubricant” called beer. The soul of the revolution is the common ground within their walls, where we all can have a good time and make new friends.

Is this revolution slowing down? I don’t think so. But if breweries get caught up in the fight for shelf space and tap handles, then they risk losing the momentum and ignoring epicenter of the revolution. Do you disagree? Well, let’s hit the nearest brewery and discuss!