A WAR IS BREWING
Two forces are tugging the beer category in opposing directions:
- On the one hand beer production and consumption is unifying around central commercial pillars: we’re seeing more global advertising, and with the merging of AbInbev and SABMiller, who now together control almost a third of the total production of beer, there are fewer major players calling the shots.
- And yet at the same time, beer is localizing and multiplying: if you live in a city like London, you’ll have been swept away with the explosion of micro-breweries, craft ale pubs, and beer market stalls. These are so proliferous that today, one of the easiest ways to get to know an area of town is through its beer.
So – a tale of two beer trends, living together in peace? Not so, thinks Greg Koch, of Stone Brewing in the USA. According to him, these two ways of producing are fundamentally in conflict with one another:
Craft beer is more than just awesomely delicious beer. It’s also a revolution against the insult of the industrialized notion of beer that has been preying on the populace for decades.
The idea here is that craft beer is as ideological as much as it is tasty. For a younger generation made existentially angsty about the idea of being just another mindless consumer, craft beer offers an amazingly attractive proposition: drink this beer and you’ll see what choosing for yourself tastes like.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in the UK, brands like Brewdog, with its strong anti-capitalist, individualist messages, such as “equity for punks”, are the ones gaining acclaim and success. And even those offering lighter subversive messages are gaining traction, Brew by numbers being a key example.
However, Koch is quick to highlight the pitfalls of such beer-utopianism:
And yet with the success of the resulting backlash of craft beer which has brought real choice back to the people, the mega-beer-industrial-complex wants to co-opt craft beer now too.
As a Londoner, Koch’s claims once again ring true: With AbInBev taking over Camden Brewery, I’ve heard many a Hoxton hipster turn their beard up in disgust at the idea of drinking something so newly corporatized. Evidently the taste of freedom sours when brewed by a Big dog, not a Brewdog.
In response, breweries and consumers alike are fighting for craft beer as if their freedom depended on it. Here’s Koch again
The big companies wish to obfuscate and confuse. It is to their advantage. The craft brewers wish to be open, honest and straightforward as it is to our advantage. A strong, clear definition allows for actual choice, and not just the illusion of choice. The difference is massive. Freedom!”
So what to make of this tumult? Well, as a reality check: craft beer will of course motivate most consumers for a very classic, non-political reason – it tastes great. But what can’t be denied is that the category is engaged in a kind of civil war, and as this war brews, consumers are having their eyes opened to a new kind of role for beer in their lives: through drinking it, chatting about it, and learning from its makers what it is and why it is, a humble beer can help someone to reconnect with their sense of place, to feel belonging, and even, to live a more meaningful consumptive life.