How Beer Became A Moral Issue

Very recently--it might even have been at the beginning of last week--I considered whether we'd come to the end of the first age of brewery consolidation. Well, that was ill-timed. First came news that Wicked Weed, the belle of Asheville's ball, was throwing in with AB InBev. Then Tony Magee made a very strange announcement that he was selling the second half of Lagunitas to Heineken.

While I'm on confessions, let me mention another: I also thought the world of craft beer had adjusted well enough to the age of consolidation that it would be inured to freak-out. Well, not only did the Wicked Weed news cause a freak-out, but it was led by other brewers, not just customers. Jester King kicked things off, followed by the Rare Barrel and Black Project. The announcement came a bit before an annual Wicked-Weed hosted festival of wild ales, which a mass of breweries have decided to skip. (Customers were pretty angry, too.)

The age of consolidation has surfaced one of the more unusual quirks of the American craft beer segment: the strange morality that has come to pervade it. There's really no other word, either. Morality is that agreement among groups about what is acceptable. It is a self-protective urge, a code to minimize harm either through social norms or ones of purity. It enforces loyalty, which further strengthens the group. Although our friends the 18th-century philosophers tried to argue for a natural or universal morality, it's clear that morality is a purely a social construct that varies place to place. And there is a moral code both craft breweries and craft beer drinkers recognize, as this latest blowback demonstrates.

Within societies, moral violations are the most serious. Laws have one kind of power, but people forgive a tax cheat a lot sooner than they do a pedophile. To moral transgression, societies exact the harshest penalties--shunning for infractions or, most seriously, excommunication--expulsion from the group. Craft breweries have several different identities and associate themselves with others according to these (size, location, beer type, etc), but the unifying morality is independence. It is the taproot for all that has grown up around craft beer--the punk rock attitude, notions of "craft," fealty to authenticity, creativity, and a vague sense of wholesomeness.

One could go back the Brewers Association (or its precursor) as the source of this, but I think it was a more organic, spontaneous impulse--one that started just as craft brewing dawned. The little breweries themselves, small and delicate as a water bubbles in a sea of big beer, felt a sense of solidarity as they fought there way into taverns and restaurants. But pretty soon customers had adopted this ethos. I recall when first Redhook and then Widmer Brothers sold minority stakes to Anheuser-Busch in the mid-90s. This was before there was a Brewers Association forced orthodoxy. The blowback that followed those unions was entirely ground-up and seemed obvious and intuitive to beer drinkers across Oregon and Washington. No doubt the Brewers Association codified and attempted to institutionalize this moral code, but I don't think it began with them.

Our own, mostly hidden moral beliefs are exposed by consolidation. You see it in the way your own view of a brewery warps right before your eyes (I speak from experience). You also see it in the way the sellers behave--completely conflicted, like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar. They also feel the warping, but find themselves on the outside, expelled, looking back to the community of which they still very much wish to be a member. Lagunitas' Tony Magee, who built his brewery on the spirit of craft morality, can't let it go, which is what made his letter such a strange document. The whole thing is worth reading, but this passage is particularly resonant:

“Some who don’t fully understand it all may say it is selling out. Truth is that we did then, and are now ‘buying in’… Money has value and equity has value too. I am using Lagunitas’ equity to buy deeper into an organization that will help us go farther more quickly than we could have on our own. You hafta imagine Jonah standing on the gunnel of the storm-tossed ship and intentionally leaping into the mouth of the whale to embrace the transformation and emerge to become his own destiny.”

— TONY MAGEE ON TUMBLR, MAY 4, 2017

In one paragraph we have the tiredest of cliches about selling out (no, buying in!) contrasted with the image of Tony-as-Lagunitas swallowed whole by Heineken the whale. It's an acknowledgement of this craft morality and an attempt to somehow remain contained within the narrative. The whole post is a long justification, the subtext of which focus entirely on this moral question, He's beseeching us not to vote him off the island. "There may be talk about corprocratic this or that and ideas of domination or selling out, but the words above reflect what I am aspiring to and where I hope Lagunitas and beer lovers will take us." He wants both what Heineken offered, but also to remain a part of the tribe. It's not a statement of business calculation, it's a plea.

That same dynamic is at play in all the public pronouncements of divorce given by breweries to Wicked Weed. They identify--accurately and pragmatically--why AB InBev represents a real threat to their business. (Lest you think this is overblown, here's a story from just yesterday about how giants can abuse their power.) But all of these statements end with a nearly identical comment at the end. Here's how they put it at Black Project:

“We wish the best to everyone at Wicked Weed and we are happy for their success. We know they will continue to make great beers and we hope to remain personal friends in the future.”

— JAMES AND SARAH HOWAT, BLACK PROJECT

The excommunicators try to reassure their erstwhile community members that this is only a business expulsion--outside beer they hope to remain friends. It illustrates the conflicted feelings from the other side. (It also, remarkably, comes after this remarkable statement: "the beer we brewed with Wicked Weed here at Black Project will be blended with other existing aged beer we have on hand to make something totally different which we will not consider a Wicked Weed collaboration." Nothing more explicitly illustrates how how morally impure Wicked Weed has become--the beer has to be blended out to avoid polluting the entire brewery.)

If this seems normal, I'd suggest that's because you've internalized the same morality. In other industries, all of these statements would seem bizarre. All of these are at base just basic business decisions. It makes sense for small breweries to work together to counterbalance the might of industry giants; nothing about that suggests those little breweries would become friends or feel the need to emphasize the continued friendship. Would Jack Dorsey (Twitter) and Mark Zuckerberg make a public show of writing BFF after a public dispute?

I'm not even sure this morality is wrong. I can't entirely separate it out in my own mind. But it does exist and it is little discussed. It's also fading, and will continue to do so with every passing sale or acquisition. Something will linger afterward, but it will be a diminished thing--in countries like Britain and Belgium, family breweries have a slightly special status. We are stepping from a kind of naivete into a more mature, but perhaps less fun, more cynical, world. The sale of Wicked Weed shows we still have the capacity for betrayal, but not for many more of these.

UpdateAdweek has a short piece that stands as another perfect example of all this.

It didn’t take long for The Beer Necessities, a handsome new website underwritten by Anheuser-Busch’s division The High End, to upset the hops cart. Via a May 3 Facebook post, Beachwood Brewing, a company headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., admitted that they should have done better research before agreeing to be interviewed by a writer for the site, which was not yet live at the time.

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