Why craft beer is like indie rock

Good things can happen on the scale between microbrew and InBev. Pitting the sellouts against the purists misses the point

Here’s a horrible confession: The other day I bought a 15-pack of Founders All Day IPA. I drank some. I thought it was pretty good.

I do apologize. Over the time I’ve been drinking Founders, it’s gone from being a hot little craft brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to a somewhat bigger brewery, one third of which is owned by Mahou San Miguel, a 125-year-old brewery that claims to produce 70 percent of the world’s Spanish beer. Founders is now Big Beer. It can’t, I have been repeatedly assured, be any good anymore. Who knows, maybe it isn’t good anymore. I can’t tell. I still like it. I don’t mind sending a reasonable amount of my money to the company that makes it.

Is that OK?

I raise the question having read a rather expansive online exchange on the topic this week in Serious Eats and the blog of Modern Times, an independent craft brewery in San Diego.

Serious Eats opened the proceedings, with a long article by Aaron Goldfarb, in which he asked the owners and employees of craft breweries that had “sold out” to Big Beer how they felt about what they’d done. They mostly had good things to say. They liked having more resources, bigger markets. They were mostly pleased with how well their new owners allowed them to ramp up production while maintaining quality. The folks at Goose Island, which sold out to AB InBev in 2011, seemed pleased with a bunch of new equipment—and especially with the fact that they now have a 1,700-acre hops farm in Idaho for their own use. There were dissidents, of course. (The most striking was former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall, who went out to a Chicago bar after his family completed the sale of the company to AB InBev, got drunk, and urinated into a pair of pint glasses, announcing that he had “fucked up big time.” He’s come around bit since then.) But overall, the tone was pretty upbeat.

Sure, money is a powerful reason to do things, but it’s not the only one.

In his rebuttal, Modern Times owner Jacob McKean disagreed with, well, everything. McKean correctly pointed out that the story leaned excessively on AB InBev’s Felipe Szpigel—the buyer rather than the bought. It’s nice that Szpigel thinks that his acquisitions are all happy, but not entirely relevant. But McKean doesn’t have much patience with the actual sellers cited in the story. If they say they got access to ingredients they didn’t have access to before, he says they could have if they’d arranged things right. If they say they couldn’t afford the equipment they now have, he tells them they’re wrong. If they say their parent company provided access to expertise, they’re ignoring what’s available through the craft brewing community. If they’re happy about having less pressure on margins, it’s a sign that they’re engaged in predatory pricing.

I’m not saying that he’s wrong about the details. McKean seems to know his stuff. It’s the big picture that he doesn’t seem to understand. Toward the end of his article he says, “Here’s the truth: selling to a macro-brewer is the fastest, simplest way to turn equity in a craft brewery into cash. That’s the only reason to sell to them. Anyone who claims otherwise is full of shit.”

He’s sincere and forceful and clear. He’s also wrong. And not particularly fair.

The unfairness comes from the fact that McKean has couched his piece as a piece of media criticism. But it doesn’t really make sense as media criticism. Goldfarb asks the bought-out brewers, “What are you happy about, how did the deal go for you?” McKean replies, “You could have achieved the same results a different way.” Which means, what, that the brewers are wrong to be happy about how things have turned out for them? McKean’s criticism is less that Goldfarb’s story got things wrong, and more that Goldfarb failed to condemn the happy sell-outs. He doesn’t come right out and say so, but it’s clear that McKean’s agenda is that small brewers should only pursue the path that he recommends—stay away from outside finance, be careful abut growth, keep control over your product.

It sounds great. I’d tend to make the same recommendations myself. But I wouldn’t seriously expect to persuade the whole world. Sure, money is a powerful reason to do things, but it’s not the only one. Getting your product on the shelves is fun and satisfying; building something big is satisfying. An attack like McKean’s assumes that there’s some kind of consensus on what a craft brewer’s goal should be, whereas it’s pretty clear that there isn’t. Better beer is a nice goal. But so is “beer that’s better than Bud but not a masterpiece of the brewer’s art.” And so is “my beer, the beer I created, getting really big and pleasing lots of people, even people who wouldn’t recognize a masterpiece of the brewer’s art if you spilled one in their laps.”

It’s fair to ask people to take the purer, more considered approach. But if you want to change the world, even the world of beer, you kind of have to deal with people as they are. Big companies are going to want to recapture some of the market they’ve lost, and they’re going to make offers that in some cases are highly welcome. The products of big brewers and craft brewers already overlap enough that only a true beer geek (a term I use with admiration, not scorn) is going to understand what’s happening on the shelves down at the liquor store. There’s really no turning back, though there are still opportunities to make a future that’s better than the present.

The food movement has certainly benefited from the fact that a lot of mass-market products are crap, but that doesn’t mean that those products aren’t allowed to improve. It’s cool that breweries can get started at really small scale, but you’re wasting your time if you think that people with the ambition and drive to create successful small companies are going to be immune to the pleasure of growing and seeing their stuff on supermarket shelves and selling as much as they possibly can.

There is, as you have no doubt noticed, a fair amount of snobbery in the food movement—cuisine snobbery, political snobbery, authenticity snobbery.

Small food (including small beer) is unlikely to replace Big Food anytime soon. The question is whether we can manage things so that big companies get better (if only somewhat better) and little companies can improve their reach and reach sustainable levels of sales without completely losing what makes them important. It doesn’t help if—on either side—we pretend that it’s all about the beer and what makes it better or worse. It’s about people and their fears and ambitions. And just as there’s no one perfect recipe for beer, there’s no one perfect recipe for how to make the tradeoffs required to build a better brewing company.

I remember talking to a hardcore music fan once. She displayed her iPod, packed solid with bands and songs I’d never heard of in my life. “What’s wrong with people?” she demanded. “Why don’t they listen to this music?” Fair enough. But here’s the thing: If everyone did, she would have dropped those bands like a hotcake. She didn’t just want good music; she wanted good music that uncool people didn’t know about. She was a snob—not a malicious one, and probably a useful one, because she sought out new and excellent work.

There is, as you have no doubt noticed, a fair amount of snobbery in the food movement—cuisine snobbery, political snobbery, authenticity snobbery. I’m mostly in favor of it. Snobs find the best stuff; snobs uphold standards. But most of us live our lives among regular folks, and our loyalty should be to them, and that means being clearheaded and dispassionate enough to make the best tradeoffs we can.

So check out the great beer fight. It’s fascinating. But as you do, ask yourself: Am I with the snobs or the laymen? No wrong answer, of course. But it’s useful to know which side you’re on.

Patrick Clinton is The Counter's contributing editor. He's also a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.