(Heads up: #longread incoming!)
Without fail, whenever I pull out all of my homebrewing gear to prepare for a day of beersmithery, someone stops, looks around, scratches their head, and asks questions.
“Are you going to boil crabs?” “What are all these buckets?” “Is it beer yet?”
I laugh and dutifully answer any questions the voyeur might have, trying to think of other situations in contemporary America where a person might suddenly become so enthralled by an activity that they engage in deep conversation with a complete stranger.
Some latent power in brewing radiates, pulses out an aura of homemade creativity that demands attention and explanation.
It could be the novelty of the whole process; despite the American Homebrewers Association estimate that one million people actively homebrew in the US, many have never witnessed the primordial swirl of freshly hopped wort at boil, especially not in their neighbor’s front yard. It could be the spectacle of the water running off in all directions like the spokes of a liquid wheel, the brilliant shine of sanitizing glass carboys as they snatch shards of star, the bags of sweet grain piled on the stairs of the porch lazily awaiting their destiny.
It could just be that I happen to brew on clear, sunny days, when perhaps people’s temperaments more align with curiosity and conviviality, and they would have stopped to talk no matter what I was doing.
But I don’t think so.
Few people seem to ask about the “why” of beer. Discussion rages about the what, and the how, and as of late the who, but the why remains relatively unprodded, unprobed. Some truth hides behind the obvious answers: taste, ethanol alcohol, social and emotional lubricant, a catalyst for an unforgettable but unrememberable Friday night. But these few reasons are prosaic duhs, as boring and generic as claiming the “why” for cooking is caloric survival, and don’t satisfactorily explain the powerful cultural and economic surge that craft beer has seen over the past few years.
There’s a bigger reason craft beer festivals are selling out, small town brewery tap rooms are standing room only on weekends, and major news outlets and publications are scrambling to cover this whole “beer thing.” A bigger reason rooted in the attitudes of people willing – nay, happy! – to spend a significant portion of their income on something that will quite literally be pissed away.
The much decried Millennial generation was raised with the foolish notion that what they do should matter. Many sit disillusioned by desk jobs that their parents would have blissfully embraced, lamenting the slow, corporate death of their dreams to change the world, if only in a small way. The psychological underpinnings of our generation may be misguided, unrealistic, possibly naive, but it’s too late to throw the car in reverse. What has been instilled cannot be uninstilled. The way we were taught to view the world influences every action, every decision, every purchase. Behind every Tweet, every status update, every Instagram shot, the heartbeat of a generation who wants to do thumps unrelenting.
As a result of our inborn desire for meaning, Millennials have helped to rejuvenate the cottage industries through the likes of Pinterest and Etsy; brought homemade and handcrafted out of County Fair obscurity, back into the self-wrought prime time of legitimate goods. Creating things by hand gives purpose, a tangible product that acts as an extension of self-worth, proof of a secular reason for our existence. Our generation naturally gravitates towards artisinal and artesian not because of marketing, or the condescending, popular idea of ironic hipsterism, but because these products – the ones that at the very least have a veneer of being lovingly crafted – resonate deeply in our emotional and psychological core.
Craft beer started gaining widespread popularity around 2008, which coincides roughly with the time most Millennials had settled down into somewhat steady jobs, and had managed to lasso some of those wild dollars into a stream of disposable income. With that money, they could have easily chosen to drink Budweiser, Miller, or Coors, and some did. But a sizable chunk didn’t. They sought out local, smaller breweries, supporting suds that were made by people passionate about their jobs, their processes, their beer.
They went after beer that not only tasted good in their mouths, but felt good in their hearts.
It was a natural reaction for anyone paying attention; Millennials saw mass-produced as oil and gears, not flesh and blood. Budweiser was Kraft Cheese Singles and an afternoon stood in line at Walmart; cheap and accessible, sure, but hollow, tasteless, and sort of sad. Miller Lite, Bud Light, Coors Light, and Natural Light clattered about on their soulless steeds, the four horseman of the anti-Do-It-Yourself apocalypse, unflinching, unforgiving, oddly proud of their stranglehold on mediocrity. Traditional American macro beer stripped away the uniqueness of personal tastes, the artistry and pride that could (arguably should) be associated with brewing, replaced by machines, business plans, and the proverbial bottom line.
Bryan D. Roth provided a brilliant breakdown of the recent comments from Pete Coors (chair of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and Chairman of MillerCoors), and his fundamental misunderstanding of his own market. We all laugh at his enthusiastic get-off-my-lawnmanship, but Pete’s comments echo down the abandoned palace halls of an aging dynasty, the last bemoaning cries of emperors who grow more infirm and less able to rule their kingdoms every day. The old royals are up against a force they’ve never seen before, a hive mind they can’t easily muscle out with lobbying dollars or court room shenanigans, a group who defies “well it has always been this way so it should stay that way” logic. Craft beer supporters aren’t playing by the rules of the big guys, and the big guys have no idea what to do about it. Eventually, if this trend continues, they’ll be left to innovate or fail, the prior seemingly less likely given their current models.
And here is where that hidden “why” steps out of the crowd, fist held high in solidarity. The reason craft beer has done so well is because it is the embodiment of an entire generation’s way of thinking, a gold and amber representation of this nation’s resilience and hope. Every barrel of local IPA pours triumph in 20oz servings, proof that we can change the world, for the better, despite often overwhelming odds. The all-grain beer industry marches forward as the economic vanguard for other industries, to rattle the armor of posturing Goliaths, to prove that ancient weathered monoliths can and maybe should fall, to shine as an example and a beacon for those who think the long night of start-up business is too dark and dangerous to traverse.
We’re ushering in a new era of quality, local goods, one small brewing company at a time. We’re promoting ethical practices in product design, execution, and promotion. We’re encouraging environmental awareness, business transparency, and fiscal responsibility. We’re collaborating, not (always) litigating, reaching out instead of pulling back. We’re taking pride in domestic, dry-hopping the American dream one cask at a time.
And it’s working.
Beer might just save the country; hell, one day, it might just save the world. It doesn’t hurt that it tastes pretty damn good, too.