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Monday, February 18, 2013

Is Craft Beer a Social Movement?

By Weston Eaton

Social movements are collective actions organized by institutional outsiders that challenge existing power structures. The civil rights battles of the 1960s and the ongoing struggles of American Indians or the LGBT community are iconic examples. These groups demand recognition not only from the state for their legitimate rights to be treated as equals under the law; more than this, these groups form new collective identities, or a sense of “we-ness,” to challenge dominant cultural mores. There are transferrable lessens here for the craft beer community. In the world of craft beer, home-, micro-, and craft breweries challenge giants like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors. These challenges are more than battles over market shares. These are challenges over cultural acceptance, distinction, and legitimacy more broadly.

In his 2009 book Market Rebels: How Activists Make or Break Radical Innovations, the young social scientist Hayagreeva Rao uses a social movements lens to understand how it was possible for a craft brewing movement to gain traction in a market so heavily dominated (98% in 2003) by well known brands with well established distribution networks and centralized planning. To understand this question, folks like us who are immersed in beer culture need to take a few steps back. Industrial economics theory points out that, over time, industries concentrate, and in doing so, move from specialists to generalists. This is helpful as it sheds some light on things like the taste of Little Caesars versus the pies at Harmony Brewing, or Coors Light compared to Founders Solid Gold or Bell’s Amber. Furthermore, according to theory, as generalists move more to the center, room opens up at the peripheries. This is the space Rao wants to explore in the world of craft beer.

The craft beer movement is clearly a success, however one might define success. This is important because not all movements, of course, are successful. Understanding how craft beer, as a culture, a market, a lifestyle, became successful sheds light on the way cultures develop and are themselves responded to. Unpacking this requires that we look at the people involved, the contexts they shape and operate within, and the way they work with others to achieve their aims. Rao’s argument is close to arguments I have been making for some time in this column: from home to micro and craft segments, craft beer is by definition less about market share and more an expression of a new identity, one premised on small-scale, authentic, and traditional methods of production. Recently I wrote about the “Local Trap,” the tendency to confuse scale, which is a means, with taste, an end. The point then is that taste, as in both the cultivated tastes of enthusiasts and the way a product tastes, is a significant component of identity.

Now we are nearing the “creation story” of craft beer. WWII vets returned home from Germany, Belgium, and France—where beers were as diverse as dog breeds—only to find what Michael Jackson termed “chicken-feedy” lagers, as in tasting too much like corn. Within this myth, however, is a wedge of pertinence that can give insight into social movements applicability: consumers might be open to alternative tastes. Adding to this was the modern homebrewing movement, championed and popularized by folks like Charlie Papazian who did for home brewing what Carl Sagan did for science. From these ranks were born folks like Sam Calagione, who, like his counterparts, is voracious about creating and defending the standards that separate craft beer from, say, Miller Lite. As Calgione might say, no matter that MillerCoors brands unequivocally outsell 90 Minute IPA, they lack terroir, the sense of place associated with products made within certain locales. In the emerging craft beer identity, generalist victories are not the point.

As I have warned in previous essays, however, this presents a slippery slope. How exclusive ought craft beer culture be? Where do we draw the line, and who draws it? Rao points out that contract breweries like Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) make substantially different claims about what is at the root of craft beer cultural identities. For Boston Beer, fresh ingredients equal craft beer. For others, like those who drafted the American Craft Brewer Definition for the Brewer’s Association, craft brewers must be small (less than 6 million barrels a year), independent (less than 25% of the brewery is owned by non craft breweries), and traditional (meaning adjuncts are used to enhance, not simplify the product).

These tensions demonstrate a few nuances I would like to add to Rao’s argument. While the craft beer movement is a success, by no means is it homogenous. People who identify with this cultural movement harbor a range of perspectives and interests that are not always harmonious. Moreover, although successful, the cultural, market, and identity battles are clearly ongoing. There is no clear distinction between craft and non craft. Instead, differences are socially constructed by interested groups. For example, as brewing consultant John Haggerty pointed out to me years ago, Budweiser, like Boston Beer, and so many others, indeed uses some of the finest malts and hops and well cared for water in the world of beer.

But it is the intangibility of identity that ultimately can help us make sense of such technical incongruences. Overall Rao’s point is that without the network of “evang-ale-ists,” home brewers and enthusiasts, craft beer would hardly be the market and cultural success it is today. Of course successful retailers, breweries, and brewpubs know this well. My argument is that in thinking of craft beer as a social movement, one that so many of us have been affected by, we can see that this is an ongoing movement, whose boundaries are porous, aims are fluid, champions are varied and contested, and that we ourselves, as home- or professional brewers or industry folk, or especially as beer drinkers, can have a hand in steering.

Like other popular movements, such as environmental movements, one could argue that what’s really going on here is the coinciding of several movements. Steve Siciliano of Siciliano’s Market pointed this out when he discussed the symbiotic relationships that emerge between various players in regional markets. I think this is accurate and, in West Michigan, we certainly seem to be situated at the front lines of this convergence.

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