Every story needs an antagonist.
Harry’s horcruxing wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting without Voldemort’s noseless threat, and Frodo’s plucky resilience wouldn’t have been as impressive without the Great Eye stalking his every step. Any cursory examination of myth and human storytelling will show that we’re hardwired to need adversity. It’s literature echoing a universal truth of life. Can’t have darkness without light, can’t have good without evil.
The concept transcends literature too, sneaking into other aspects of our lives like a 14 year-old into a R-rated film. We build conflict where there need not be any – rival sports teams, preference for a certain brand of electronics – because having an enemy gives us a cause to unite against. The antagonist exists to be overcome, to give the hero’s struggle and journey meaning and purpose.
The story of “craft” beer is no different.
Joseph Campbell argued that the role of the monomyth was to further the “maturation of the individual.” We’re seeing that unfold live, as Americans undergo a series of gustatory revelations. People are using beer as a cultural vehicle to ween themselves off the dependency of traditions, to strike out into brave new worlds of their own design, to develop unique identities. They are, in a way, trying to mature through beer, an irony not at all lost on me.
But for the mission to succeed, for beer to descend into the underworld and emerge anew, it needs a clear and obvious nemesis.
Want to know why people argue fruitlessly over the definition of the word “craft?”
Hint: it’s not because it defines its fans and gives us societal validation. It’s the exact opposite. “Craft” creates a context of what we are not, and as a result, identifies our story’s main antagonist.
It’s all very archetypal so far: under the freshly drawn line in the sand we see phrases like “independent,” “quality,” and “flavor” – superlatives to keep our hero’s motives pure. On the mirror side of the line, we see phrases like “adjunct,” “mass produced,” and “corporate” – pejoratives we toss around to keep our enemy alien and faceless.
This beerish tale was born from the desire for change, and we built our monsters from those who refused (or, those we convinced ourselves refused). We picked the most obvious target possible, the one who appeared to be counter to all our values and beliefs. It doesn’t help that Budweiser rocks the “King” moniker, further feeding the idea of a repressed citizenry overthrowing a cruel monarchy.
But I have met the enemy, and he is us.
There is a Star Wars fan theory that the Empire was not building a massive fleet of planet-destroying weapons for the purposes of galactic oppression, but instead to defend the entire galaxy from a coming invasion. When you flip perspectives, you see that our protagonist – you know, the one we paint as fair and just and wholesome – is actually a bad guy (or in the case of the Rebel Alliance, a terrorist group). It’s entirely possible smaller breweries used the underlying negativity towards corporations in this country as a tool to further their own agenda. Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada may be moving towards the building of their own economic Death Stars. Without all the cards on the table, that line between good and evil in this story is surprisingly blurry.
I don’t mean to get sympathetic, nor apologetic. A brand that makes $22.3 billion a year doesn’t need defending. But I saw Anheuser-Busch this weekend, for the first time, as people. In my mind they had always been the archetypal shadow-self of good beer, a soulless machine hell bent on money and efficiency. Confirmation bias in the echo-chamber of craft beer kept them monolithic, inhuman.
I drank the craft Kool-aid, and forgot my Joseph Campbell.
My bad. No really, my bad. I aim to remain far more objective than I have been.
Ultimately, the story relies on AB (and MC and the others) to have any credence or purpose. Without “adjunct pale lager” to rail against and hold up as a point of negative comparison, how could we have established baselines for what new, fresh, “good” beer should taste like? From whence would IPA have risen if not from the flavor void of legion similar tasting lagers?
It’s important to stay your knee-jerk bias. As much as we like to take swings at them, without them, our cause would not exist.
I think the key is to keep perspective; the best world of American brewing exists somewhere between macro and micro. The two live a delicate life of culture and conflict, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic, but always reliant upon each other for existential validation.
The beer myth isn’t finished yet, but I do know one thing: while Budweiser may not be the beer craft drinkers want, Anheuser-Busch is the antagonist they need.