A Lot Of Craft Beer’s “Community” Ethos Is Bullshit. This Time It’s Not.


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Craft Beer For Love

The biggest factor behind craft beer’s explosive growth over the past decade is that the vast majority of it is simply better than the beer that preceded it. This pairing of quality and popularity is not nearly as common as it should be: We have 7-and-counting installments of “The Fast and the Furious” because, I dunno, it’s kind of funny that a guy named Vin Diesel is in a lot of car movies? And we have a couple dozen flavors of Doritos because . . . Vin Diesel backs corn subsidies, maybe? Whereas we have 4,500 craft breweries because, by and large, they make great beer. It’s refreshingly sensible.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not a couple puffs of smoke and maybe a mirror or two involved in craft beer marketing. The industry as a whole has done a great job of exploiting our curious fetishization of small businesses, for one thing. The advantages of small businesses are real and self-evident, but while they are often born of a desire to be truly innovative, there can also be a dose of petulance involved: A lot of people strike out on their own because they just can’t stomach the idea of having a boss. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s also not inherently noble. (To wit, I’m not a freelancer for the sole purpose of keeping an independent voice—it’s also a great way to avoid owning pants or an alarm clock.) Small businessmen can be just as crass and venal as the biggest corporations.

In addition to thumping their small, independent chests about their purity of purpose, a lot of craft brewers also cash in on the “local is always better” hustle, which is a cornerstone of the vaguely hippie-ish veneer this plainly capitalist industry hides behind. Your favorite local brewer sells alcohol for a profit, and if he’s slick enough with the buzzwords, he manages to position himself as a pillar of the community in the process. That’s a pretty neat trick!

I have nothing against, and almost everything for, the craft beer business, but I roll my eyes every time I hear the “beer people are good people!” mantra; in my vast experience (disclosure: I drink a lot), the beer industry has the standard distribution of human archetypes: 10 percent sweethearts, 10 percent assholes, and 80 percent in between, just us regular folk rising and falling day to day.

But that said, a lot of breweries of all sizes commit legitimately charitable acts. Say what you will about Anheuseur-Busch—such as that it’s an aspiring monopoly dedicated to crushing the competition with predatory pricing and shady distribution deals—but last year they donated tens of thousands of cans of water to Houston flood victims.

Moving down a couple weight classes, Harpoon has donated 261,664 beers and 39,109 volunteer hours to charity since the establishment of its Harpoon Helps division in 2001. Beers and hours might seem like soft charity at first glance, but if the organizations getting the free beer sell it for the prevailing rate of $6 a pop, that’s more than $1.5 million; at the current Massachusetts minimum wage, the volunteer hours add up to $391,090 in free labor. I’m not saying Harpoon has given away two million dollars—the above accounting is way too simplistic and doesn’t account for historical price and wage increases since 2001, nor does it factor in whatever goodwill, tax, or other benefits accrue to Harpoon. But that disclaimer aside, it’s hard to interpret giving away a quarter million brewskis as anything other than saintly.

My favorite act of beer charity, however, and the one that prompted me to write this post, was announced yesterday by a brewery you’ve probably never heard of. Aeronaut Brewing in Somerville, Massachusetts, is a couple of years old, and they seem to be doing all right. Their beer is locally respected; the hardcore geeks don’t wait in line for it, but their Year With Dr. Nandu is one of the best IPAs being produced in the state right now. The company’s owned by a trio of young local guys who really play up the community angle, with the majority of their beer being sold on-site at their taproom, which always seems to be throwing some damn event or another—bike repair workshops, brass bands, gingerbread-house decorating parties, video game contests, all that sort of thing.

To the naked eye, Aeronaut really is trying to be what so many other breweries only pretend to, and they seem to be succeeding. But remember, I’m sort of cynical about this stuff: hosting Sunday morning beer yoga does not a good corporate citizen make. Until yesterday, I had no reason to suspect the Aeronaut owners were any more charitable than the next guys—I didn’t hold that against them, of course, the same way I don’t expect the pizza shop around the corner to run as a non-profit dedicated to Zika eradication. Aeronaut’s job is to sell beer, and they do that, and I like them.

Then late last night Aeronaut’s Ben Holmes emailed the local beer media with a really heartfelt message about how devastated he and the company are by the massacre in Orlando. Since VinePair is not my personal political blog (YET), I’ll spare you my thoughts on the matter other than to say that I think we can all agree that whatever you blame for the attack—religious intolerance, mental illness, gun laws, the liberal media, marginalization of the LGBT community, Obama, just one bad dude having his worst day—everything about it was tragic.

So yeah, Aeronaut feels the same way the rest of us do: completely crushed. And they’re doing something about it. This summer, they’re hosting a weekly series of pop-up parties a couple miles across the river in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, and they’re donating 100 percent of the proceeds from this Wednesday’s inaugural event to The Center, a community organization in Orlando that will “contribute directly to the relief and healing of affected families.” That’s not going to add up to anything approaching the outlays described above, but it’s an enormously generous act from a tiny brewery that doesn’t have a ton of financial wiggle room.

If you happen to live nearby, here’s the link. I’ll see you there, and we can toast to the fact that there are billions of good people left in the world, and some of them even happen to brew beer for a living.

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