Toward the end of my hop water-fueled Dry-ish January, something occurred to me: Breweries aren’t enough.
“Breweries aren’t enough,” I told my wife at lunch one day late last month, with neither forewarning nor follow-up context to catch her up on my train of thought. In the patient, slightly wary manner of writers’ spouses everywhere, she asked me to explain what the hell I was talking about. Perhaps you’d like to know, too, reader. After all, this is a column about the beer industry, and while I’m often quite critical of the breweries that comprise it, they’ve proven “enough” to sustain our weekly efforts for over a year, haven’t they? Haven’t they?!
Yes. Jeez, calm down. Allow me to elaborate.
The second American craft brewing boom really hit its stride last decade. If you’re reading Hop Take, you probably already know the basics: The number of breweries nationwide skyrocketed as the American drinking public became enamored with their full-flavored beers and tidy David-versus-Goliath mythology. As the wave surged, mainstream media outlets like The Atlantic touted craft brewing as “the strangest, happiest economic story in America.” The Lumineers and other millennial stomp-clap troubadour types furnished a soundtrack for the era that romanticized many of the aesthetics and tropes craft brewers were already doing so well, like anti-corporate pastoralism, warehouse-district revitalization, and drinking things out of Mason jars. The sum total of these potent cultural forces is that people — including your younger and less jaded humble Hop Take columnist — started to enjoy hanging out at craft breweries.
This is de rigueur in 2024 — or even passé; more on that in a moment — but it’s important to remember that it wasn’t a preordained outcome. Before “brewery” became synonymous with “brewery taproom,” breweries were mostly places of light-industrial manufacture and niche interest, not destinations unto themselves. (From here on out I’ll use those terms interchangeably, because that’s the way most people talk nowadays, and I know you’re smart enough to keep up.) Mainstream normies worked, discoursed, and hung out in coffee shops, bars, even Barnes & Nobles. But breweries, not so much.
Now they do, and so do I. And why not? Breweries, as they have come to exist across the country, are about as good as it gets for “third places,” Ray Oldenburg’s famous formulation of “gathering places near enough to people’s homes to afford the easy access and familiar faces to a vital informal public life.” Plenty has changed since Oldenburg published “The Great Good Place,” the book that entered the term into the lexicon, in 1989. Still, in the intervening 35 years, the need for such places has only increased. Americans have reported a steadily rising rate of loneliness since the ‘70s. We are more polarized than ever by almost every measure, from class, to political affiliation, to… I mean, we’re not more polarized than ever by race, given, y’know, the thing, but these days, the United States isn’t looking too united on that front, either. Third places can’t solve these many-layered problems, but they can help by organic, equalizing, and enjoyable settings where low-stakes neighborly intimacy has a chance to thrive.
Oldenburg never mentions “microbreweries” in his book, but he does a whole chapter on German-American lager beer gardens, where “striking signs of inclusiveness” included “[t]he mixing of nationalities, presence of women, comingling of the rich and poor, and frequent instances in which three generations had fun together at the same time and in the same place.” Setting aside the intractable and deeply boring argument over whether kids belong at breweries (the correct answer is “sure, if their parents aren’t shitheels about it,” no further questions), breweries have lots of overlap with the Oldenburgian vision of great, good places. Some of them are exactly that.
And yet. After a dozen years spent hanging out in craft breweries, I’ve realized that most of them still aren’t doing enough to meet the many needs of the communities they rely on. I’ve argued before that the industry writ large has been slow — recalcitrant, even — to expand its alcoholic offerings to meet changing consumer tastes, to its own detriment. This Dry January, I extended that argument to non-alcoholic offerings. Where the hell are all the hop waters, man? Where is the coffee, tea, and artisanal soda?
I’m sympathetic to the social-media kvetching each year as brewers lament the dearth of business during this month of opt-in abstinence, I really am. But having spent this past Saturday afternoon working on some reporting while drinking Phony Negronis at a coffee shop because nary a brewery in my fairly large, fairly brewery-dense city put together an NA menu to speak of for Dry January, I feel like I’m going insane. Craft breweries have the wherewithal, the equipment, and the physical space to deliver unto their communities the private sector’s superlative third-place experience. Coffee shops and bars are great, but tend to be too small. Ditto independent bookstores. Barnes & Nobles barely exist anymore; ditto malls. Breweries have the best thing going when it comes to serendipitous, accessible civic exchange. With a broader selection of wares to match the evolving community thirst, they can be even better.
There’s an obvious economic argument to be made there, but I’ve hammered on about that plenty in columns past. Instead, I want to put forth a more challenging idea. The Platonic ideal of a craft brewery, where the hop water flows like actual water and children flock like the salmon of Capistrano (but not in an annoying way), is still not a good enough third place. We deserve better! We deserve public spaces where buying shit is an option, not an obligation; where alcohol and NA drinks (and other recreational drugs) can be enjoyed safely and socially; where the magic of the public commons, not logic of the market, dictates the terms of engagement.
As an American raised in the suburbs, I sometimes struggle to conceptualize what such a non-commercial, non-private social space would even look like. I’m not the only one. “Maybe we wouldn’t love [dive bars] as much if there were more community centers or more public spaces,” Brandon Hinke, the creator of the popular pandemic Twitter handle Pictures of Dives, told me in 2021, “but every aspect of our lives has just been absolutely atomized, and we’re all kind of stuck in our own places.”
Libraries could be a model. (They’re already beloved, society-affirming gathering places, but depending on the branch’s rules, food and drink may be prohibited, and I don’t know of one that allows alcohol.) Public parks are another, but weather is a limiting factor, particularly as the climate crisis ushers more extreme versions of it to the fore. James Wilt, author of the provocative 2022 book “Drinking Up The Revolution: How To Smash Big Alcohol and Reclaim Working-Class Joy,” highlights models for publicly funded, drinking-optional spaces along a spectrum that runs from explicitly socialistic projects to more capitalistic public-private partnerships, like 19th-century Sweden’s historic Gothenburg system, which featured “community-owned hotels with ‘disinterested’ management” whose profits were capped “to sever the link between alcohol use and revenue generation.”
In an interview in late 2022, I pressed him on how the examples in “Drinking Up The Revolution” could be introduced to the contemporary landscape. “Community-owned and -controlled alternatives” to bars and breweries that, he argued, “would include non-alcohol-centric public spaces, like public parks, and all-age venues and late-night places for people to go where alcohol is present but not necessarily the only thing that you have to use.” Just as libraries compare to bookstores, such booze-optional public venues could be far more inclusive than breweries thanks to lower or nonexistent costs at visitors’ point-of-use. And just as public parks complement private gyms, the third places Wilt envisioned don’t have to compete with privately owned craft breweries. (Hell, they could be partially funded by leasing concessions to those very breweries!)
I’m not so foolish as to think securing taxpayer funding for “libraries, but for hanging out” is an easy task in this American moment. Nor do I mean to kick America’s beleaguered craft breweries to the curb: many if not most of them are vibrant, vital swatches of their respective civic fabrics, even if they still don’t make hop water for some reason. But in an age of stratification and isolation, the American drinking public deserves a richer, more textured, and more cohering civic fabric than the craft brewing industry, or industry in general, can weave on its own. As third places, breweries aren’t enough — but I can see a future where they’re just part of plenty.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
Man becomes conservative pundit, launches slapdash “anti-woke” beer brand to grift outrage dollars off the country’s transphobic, Bud Light-addled rubes. Tale as old as time, right? Yes, and: Right-wing haircut Seth Weathers is facing mounting criticism from over 100 of said rubes, who say Ultra Right Beer LLC never shipped the cartoonishly expensive, contract-brewed 6-packs they ordered months ago. The reactionary marks’ customer-service complaints have netted the company an F rating from the Better Business Bureau. Nice to see the cosmic scales of justice rebalance in real time, ain’t it?
CANarchy Craft Brewing Collective is dead, long live Monster Brewing Company… Two Roads Brewing’s new Guy Fieri-themed flavored malt beverage line is expanding into hard tea and punch, sure why not… The Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) named its inaugural North American course providers for Level 1 and 2 beer awards… Sounds like Anheuser-Busch InBev’s crucially important annual distributor conference actually went well… Fresh off its Octopi Brewing acquisition, Asahi Group Holdings took a stake in non-alcoholic retailer/importer Zero Proof…
📉 …and downs
After a $24 million Series B fundraise in 2021, one-time hard kombucha darling JuneShine just raised a “seven-figure” Series C… Nobody freak out, but cannabis did see some statewide sales upticks and a big consumer-interest boost during Dry January… Lease woes contributed to recent closures of Forbidden Boardwalk Brewing in New Jersey and Buffalo Bayou Brewing in Houston…