You know that sketch from the second season of “I Think You Should Leave”? The one where creator and lead Tim Robinson causes commotion at a gathering because the baby he tried to hold doesn’t seem to like him? “I used to be a piece of shit,” he tells the infant’s mother, getting more distressed by the minute. “I’m worried that the baby thinks people can’t change. ‘Cause I’ve worked really, really hard to change.”
It’s the first bit of pop-culture flotsam that floated to the surface of my travel-addled brain this past weekend as I read a Great American Beer Festival dispatch about Jim Koch’s reflections on the industry he’s helped build for the past 38 years at the helm of Boston Beer Company. “Like it or not, we’re not the new kids on the block; we’re not revolutionaries, like we were in the beginning,” said the segment’s elder statesman. All right, it’s not a one-for-one parallel. A six-figure management consultant-turned-entrepreneur and brewer does not a piece of shit make, and Koch has always been downright pleasant in our interviews over the years. But his broader point, lightly editorialized by Brewbound’s Justin Kendall and Jessica Infante (no relation) tracks with the concept of maturation. “Craft brewing has grown up and that’s OK.”
Koch is right on, in the commercial sense. Craft beer’s place in the marketplace has changed aplenty since the heady mid-’80s when he co-founded BBC. Back then, the segment was a scrappy, streaky underdog; then there was a boom, then a bust that roughly coincided with the dot-com bubble. On the heels of the Great Recession, craft beer’s second boom began in earnest, with broad mainstream acceptance and the macrobrewer agita to go with it. As I’ve argued before in these pages, those salad days are over, gobbled up by hard seltzer and canned cocktails and generational taste-shifting and God knows what else. Koch seems to think there’s still magic to be made, which is why BBC retooled its iconic-but-erstwhile Boston Lager in hopes that the old warhorse can gallop off the shelves like it hasn’t for a decade. Your mileage may vary, especially when you recall that the BBC head honcho is a 73 year-old billionaire with well-hedged bets named Twisted Tea and Truly. But the fight against the bigs for shelf space, tap handles, and legitimacy is definitely a done deal. The fact that full-flavored beer is unremarkable these days is a testament to the lasting victory of Koch and his contemporaries.
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Whether craft brewing has grown up in the cultural sense is trickier to tease out. There’s been progress, I’m certain of that. Despite its rosy self-mythology, the craft beer landscape used to be full of pieces of shit. It had exploitative owners, power-mad managers, cruel and entitled customers. The days of “Buxom Blonde Ale” and “Panty-Dropper Porter” and other overt displays of chuddish, raunchy, and otherwise juvenile behavior have mostly passed, and good riddance to them. But beneath all those pieces of shit skimmed off the surface, the craft beer business and the customers who comprise its public face remain a mixed bag at breweries big and small. Advocates’ calls to increase diversity in the workforce and interrogate the lily-whiteness of the drinking public were met with shrugs and half-measures (if not outright derision) for years before George Floyd’s murder in 2020 forced those discussions to the fore. Stories about workplace harassment and sexual assault swirled around the industry for years before Brienne Allan and others broke that dam in 2021. Worst Beer Blog, which was once a low-stakes clearinghouse for corny craft brewing infotainment, shut down a year and a half ago as an overwhelming social-media showcase of brewery and bar owners and their customers behaving badly during the pandemic. Even today, hardly a month goes by that I don’t come across a video of an owner saying vile stuff about unhoused people or a drinker showing off glassware with lecherous caricatures of women.
All this — the banal cruelties, the brutal violence, the leering, hog-headed horniness — always sucked, but at least when the “revolution” was on, there was some plausible deniability that this rot was going deliberately unaddressed. No time for purity tests, there are macrobrewers at the gates! Lately, not so much. Big Beer has fixed its Sauron stare on spirits-based canned cocktails. Craft brewing is no longer the hottest show in town. The business remains competitive and the past two and a half years of economic uncertainty/insanity have pushed many breweries to the brink. But no honest dealer with industry connections — whether owner, worker, or decently engaged drinker — can reasonably claim they’re not aware of craft beer’s puerile and putrid tendencies.
Are similar industries like this? Natural wine, small-batch whiskey, third-wave coffee? Sure, probably. But we don’t do whataboutism here at Hop Take; we do beer criticism. And, on occasion, silver linings, one of which is that people within the craft beer business are working “really, really hard” to flush its turds. Brave Noise, Women of the Bevolution, Crafted for All, The Pink Boots Society, and a handful of other firms and organizations are developing programs and resources to hasten craft brewing through this prolonged cultural adolescence. Some individual brewery owners have stepped up too, because they want an industry that reflects their own values, or because they’re worried workers will unionize if they don’t. Frankly, I’m skeptical of meaningful change ever coming on this front unless workers get organized to strategically withhold their labor until their demands are met for better conditions, better customers, and a grown-up industry. But we’ll see.
To anticipate the rejoinder that will probably turn up in my inbox a few minutes after this column goes live: What about me? Do I believe people can change? What am I doing to help this industry out of its “sloppy steak” phase and into the baby-cradling beyond? These are fair questions, I think, even if they’re usually leveled at me in a manner more blue-faced, red-assed, and otherwise colorful. I think media coverage of the American craft beer industry has been entirely too friendly to it, to the detriment of its participants and the debasement of the people pressing publish. Fawning fluff gives pieces of shit room to fester; puff pieces underwrite the status quo. I try to avoid carrying water for that reason. I hope you’ll hold me to it. As for the craft brewing industry: Sure, I think it can change for the better by shedding its shibboleths and brutes, getting less clubby and corny, becoming more fair and financially viable to its workers. By growing up, culturally speaking. If that vision of progress makes some people Think They Should Leave, they probably weren’t revolutionaries in the first place.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
Reyes Beer Division, already the biggest wholesaler in these United States, just made itself even harder to catch last week, picking up wholesalers in Hawaii and Texas, with more to (maybe) come before year’s end. The acquisitions have the case-race king set to deliver 300 million cases, according to Beer Business Daily. For context, Brewers Association-defined craft brewers in the U.S. produced about 340 million cases’ worth of beer combined last year. In other words: friendship over with Rotation Nation, now Consolidation Nation is my best friend. (We love to oversimplify complex market trends with memes and rhymes, don’t we folks?)
Congrats to all the winners from this year’s Great American Beer Fest… Scandal-ridden Mikkeller will compensate former workers for alleged harassment… Brace for White Claw vodka soda, total shocker… Heineken will spend $100M to launch low-cal light lager Silver stateside…
📉 …and downs
Reyes sues PepsiCo, Boston Beer over Hard Mtn. Dew’s distro rights in Virginia… Rail strike still possible as 3rd-biggest union votes down contract… Bad news for those who sell brews, as summer blues give way to winter snooze… Dang, Bang goes Chapter 11 as legal headwinds, fees mount…