It’s Time to Decide Which Craft Breweries You Support
My recent thoughts on independence in craft breweries received lots of nice feedback. There were also a few comments that show how some people are struggling to decide just how independent some of their favorites are, and if independence is even important. That’s great – that’s what the piece was meant to do — to encourage people to think more about what is important in their beer, and to search out information that will help them make their decisions.
I offered some suggestions in that article which would indicate that a brewery was no longer independent, that another entity was controlling their output or distribution, but I offered few distinct indications of which breweries are and aren’t independent. One commenter had a problem with my inability (or anybody else’s for that matter) to tell him/her if Duvel brands are or aren’t being controlled by the owner. To this person, the article was of no value in the absence of absolute knowledge; all it did was suggest vigilance.
That’s a valid opinion – but in truth, I was hoping people would then become better observers and ask more questions of their breweries, not rely on an article to tell them what to do. I feel this is important because in many instances (including with independence), the absolute knowledge just isn’t there to rely on. No brewery is going to advertise the fact that they are being controlled.
Fortunately or unfortunately, it is my lot in life to extrapolate wildly from small statements to large ideas, and with craft beer it is no different. In this case, my stream of consciousness led me from defining independence, to how much weight I put on independence, to reflecting on why my choices in craft beer are what they are. In essence, what do I deem important in craft beer, and by association, what issues/traits/philosophies of a brewery do brewers/owners do I feel most comfortable with?
As Sir John Gielgud said to Liza Minnelli in the only version of Arthur worth seeing, “This is a tie you can not steal.” If craft beer is important to you, then you need to do the work to decide how you personally approach the subject; what are the issues that drive your choices. Yep, this may be overkill for many people, but really this call for self-reflection doesn’t apply only to craft beer, it is a parallel for life. I bet you didn’t realize that contemplating your favorite breweries was so similar to cogitating on your political leanings, your personal relationships, or your vocation – you know, the more important stuff.
In the quest to develop an individual philosophy of beer drinking or beer making, personal opinion is important, with more informed opinions being better than uninformed ones. This is not to say that only maximally informed opinions are of worth. If everyone waited until they had all the information, very little would ever be decided. Gather what you can, make a determination, and then massage that determination as more information becomes available.
Don’t be afraid to make a choice about which beer brands you will patronize, but also don’t be afraid to change that choice as you search out and find more information – as you ask people questions and listen to what is being said. However, the most important factor in this process is knowing what is important to you as a beer drinker or as a brewer/owner. There are innumerable issues that a person may deem important in deciding their craft beer choice or their tendency to stay away from certain breweries, we each need to identify the subset of those issues that are most essential to us.
As a patron, maybe the beer style is the most important thing for you – you’ll want to find a brewer that makes predominantly those beers. Is it paramount that your brewery be local? Many people think local first, while others may prefer European or other far-flung beers. And so it goes – do you care more about the personal experience with the people of the brewery or is the technical quality of the beers most important? Is social awareness and activism from a brewery a factor? Perhaps being green is of no consequence to you. Independence, size, innovation, ABV, owner, food, branding, beer names, artwork, personal connections, community involvement – they might all play a role.
No one element is more important than any other from a subjective point of view – but you must put them in some order for yourself, or at least into a loose hierarchy. Several characteristics might overpower your top priority, but in general, you have reasons why you like certain breweries and you should be true to your personal decision making process. The key is that it is yours and yours alone. Other people’s hierarchies may look very different.
As with politics, sometimes craft beer can make strange bedfellows; factors that would definitely lead me to avoid a certain brewery matter little or not at all to others. Even groups we might consider enemies can find common ground. St. Louis breweries (at least some of them) have a working relationship with the Research Pilot Brewery (RPB) from Anheuser Busch. At the recent Heritage Brewers Festival in St. Louis, 2nd Shift even had had a collaboration beer with RPB on tap, and Troika Brodsky, the Executive Director of the St. Louis Brewers Guild, told me that, “At the end of the day, those are just guys making beer.” I don’t really agree with their view, but I don’t spend their money, I spend mine.
Likewise, a recent Facebook comment about MadTree Brewing entering the Louisville market stated, “Yeah, they make good beer. Plus, they’re good guys, and that counts for a lot in my book.” This is public decree of what matters to this drinker tells me that he/she has considered the issues involved and is making a conscious decision. The people are just as important to this patron as is the beer.
On the other hand, the opposite can also be true; certain behaviors might really turn off some patrons. There is a brewery in St. Louis that makes very good beer, but gets little play amongst beer geeks due to some things they said about other breweries when they first opened. The community of breweries is apparently a more important factor to this subsection of patrons than the good beer. Even four years after the incident, this brewery is still paying a price.
These examples suggest that patrons do have issues that they care about. Brewers/owners must consider these when deciding how they will proceed. Each individual or individual business must decide their course based on how the patrons might react. The problem is, everyone has a slightly different hierarchy of issues. What might make it easier for them is if we patrons would discuss with them what we feel is important. But to do that, we must spend time in considered self-reflection. Do you know your own mind when it comes to selecting breweries to patronize?
OK, I’ll go first. Of highest priority for me when deciding on which breweries to patronize is that they are Hoosiers or have Indiana ties. I am pure Hoosier, born and inbred. Anything that affects Indiana, puts a good light on Indiana, or bears the seal of Indiana is important to me. I told you, this is my list; I don’t expect many people, or any people for that matter, to have the same priorities as do I.
Secondary to locality, I want a brewery’s mature beer (stuff they made after they were at least eight months into their brew house) to be void of technical flaws. A brewery with customers in mind won’t let a beer they know is wrong get to their patrons and if they do so knowingly, it tells me a lot about them.
Lower on my list, but still important is the relationship the brewery has with their immediate community, the patron across the rail, and the brewing community (this lets out the AB InBev faux brands). Unless a brewery is fairly large, their neighbors are the ones that are going to make or break them. Being involved in the goings on of the neighborhood and helping other brewers are good signs that a brewery has their priorities in line with my own. I want the brewers to recognize me and I want to see them when I walk in – that’s the only way for us to develop a personal relationship.
Next comes the owner’s/brewer’s enthusiasm for what they do. It doesn’t take long in a conversation with an owner or brewer to know whether they love what they do. In other cases, you can see it in their social media, in their interactions with other brewers, in their collaborations, or in their willingness to pour at festivals. But for the most part, knowing their enthusiasm means that I know them – and that harkens to that personal relationship I spoke of above.
I wasn’t a bit surprised to find that the flavors and styles of the beer only entered my hierarchy at this point. Brewing and selling beer is a human endeavor, and how humans behave is more important to me than the product. If they love their beer and their community and you can see that, then you will like it too.
Not surprisingly, Walter has a different list of priorities. Flavor profile ranks high on her list, but not highest. She is most impressed with breweries that can do a variety of styles well, mostly because she and I have such different palates. The kinds of beers I like are not necessarily the kinds of beers she likes; therefore, she has the best time at breweries where both she, I, and our friends can all find a quality beer in the style they most look forward to.
Also important to Walter is the person behind the bar. Remember that Walter and I almost exclusively visit breweries, so our experience is influenced by the people serving us beer. Walter wants someone who is willing to talk and to respond to questions, and someone who knows about the beer as well. Oh, and she cares deeply whether a brewery has hooks for purses under the bar – this tells her that they at least consider their female patrons. To sum up, the location and connection to their location is biggest for me, with beer flavors ranking lower, while Walter is more about the beer, with the people in the taproom being of next importance.
Lest you believe that I am full of sound and fury signifying nothing, I give you the recent example of Blank Slate Brewing in Cincinnati. On August 7, the owner of Blank Slate (Scott LaFollette) took down his Twitter and Facebook pages after posting that due to a lack of working capital, the brewery was ceasing operations immediately and permanently. The beer from Blank Slate was way too good for this sort of an ignominious end. Well regarded around the city and state, Blank Slate canned a few beers that seemed to sell well at the liquor stores. But the accolades, even doing a beer with Danny Gold at Quaff Bros., wasn’t translating into bankable receipts. Everyone acknowledged the beer was great, but not enough people took an active role in supporting the brewery on a regular basis, and this doomed Blank Slate in the end. As Craft Beer Joe wrote just a couple of days ago, ” I’ve tried to make it a point to visit all of the breweries in the Cincinnati area…so I thought I was doing my part to support local craft beer…but in the end, I only visited Blank Slate once.”
Joe described a beer friend who buys a case of Rhinegeist beer every week, and speculated that this does more to support craft beer than his own strategy of visiting everywhere. Paraphrasing Joe, Blank Slate needed him to use his dollars to say that he liked their beer and their philosophy enough to make it something he drank on a regular basis. But he can’t support every brewery. so we all have a decision to make. When we find a brewery with which we agree in most areas, we have to support them…not once in a while, but enough to help make a difference. This is exactly why it is so important that each person reflect on what is important to them as a craft beer drinker, find breweries that match their philosophy, and then patronize them regularly. I know it gives me pause and makes me question whether efforts by Walter and I to visit a huge number of breweries is as noble as I once believed.
Next time, a shorter riff on this idea from the other side of the bar. How do brewer/owners decide what is important to them in terms of making beer, owning a business, finding and holding on to patrons. Are some issues bigger than making sure a guest likes you and will come back?
A special shout out to Jessica Leonard and Chad Childers of Inklin Customs for my new avatar image. See them for all your Magic: The Gathering custom work – some of their acrylic custom cards are made by Anthony Noel of Zwybie’s Custom Works. See this article about his tap handles, flight boards, and other craft beer paraphernalia.