The Session: The Beer-Related Book I'd Write

The Session is a monthly excursion into the world of beer. For more details, see this explanation and roundup of previous sessions. This is my first foray into The Session. (It'll probably also be the one and only.)

Apologies to regular Sessionists. I hope you’ll accept (and forgive) this intrusion into your world. And, apologies, too, for the, um, sketchy nature of my contribution. I’m deep into another project, and what follows here is what my brain snacked on in regular meals of thinking about something entirely different. 

UPDATE: The original version didn't mention a key piece of my thought process: the digital age. So I added a sentence below.

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For this month's Session, Alan asked:

“What beer book which has yet to be written would you like to see published?”

My answer: The one in my head that’s begging to be set free. But which, alas, I probably won’t write. Perhaps one of you will?

Said book would ponder this question:

Does the modern American beer industry (and the culture attached to it) represent the leading edge of a new capitalism? 

Imagine a melding of beer, meditation, yoga, Steward Brand, Steve Jobs, the onset of the "digital age," and capitalism. That’s the book I’d write. 

A bit of personal background: I've been pondering this question, and a book-length response, for several years. Many factors, experiences, and encounters account for my interest in it, but I suspect my foray into began during a brief exchange I had with a brewery owner at the premiere of “Beer Wars” in 2009.)

Now --- 2015 --- my ruminations about said possible book run along the following lines:

The modern beer industry in the U.S. promotes a party line that runs more-or-less like this: 

We’re friends, not competitors. We love fine beer. We care more about beer than profit. We’ll never sell out. We’re buddies and collaborators and artisans and we want you to share in our communal joy. And we’re local and care about not just the environment but the community right here at home. We’re rebuilding broken neighborhoods and fostering community and building a better world. And profit matters less than those goals.

Something like that.

In my opinion, based on research that I conducted for Ambitious Brew, we can trace the origins of that party line to a single person: Charlie Papazian.

 Charlie Papazian. Grand entrance at an early "official" event. Courtesy of Charlie Papazian.

Charlie Papazian. Grand entrance at an early "official" event. Courtesy of Charlie Papazian.

Waaay back in the early 1970s, when he moved to Boulder, a primary motif in his life was community.” Papazian enjoyed beer and home brewing in large part because both fostered community. He taught brewing at a local “free school” (of which, at the time, there were many around the country). Every year, he and his friends enjoyed a home-grown “Beerstock” up in the foothills each year: a weekend of home-brew, revelry, and . . . community. 

The point is that long before he imagined what eventually became the American Homebrewers Association and the Brewers Association, Papazian’s worldview centered not on money, profit, or gain, but: Community. 

 Obligatory photo of Jack McAuliffe

Obligatory photo of Jack McAuliffe

Indeed, the early years of both the AHA and BA centered on fostering community. Not cutthroat competition. Community. The early beer conferences spurred, and aimed at, sharing, information, cohesion. On collegiality and community.

Nor did he relinquish that stance as a formal, for-profit industry emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, Papazian regarded homebrewers as an integral part of that new industry. Even when his original association merged with the Brewers Association of America (an organization that represented “mainstream” brewers), he insisted that home brewers be fully integrated into that new group; that they share the table with the professionals. He insisted that the modern beer industry could and should accommodate and nurture “community.”

Today that ethos remains intact. Surprisingly so. 

And, yes, the cynic in me says “Oh, that’s just the party line.” But . . . even I’m starting to believe that perhaps the modern beer industry is different.

The imagined book’s second major narrative thread would focus on Kim Jordan, co-founder of New Belgium Brewing Company. Not because she’s female, but because she and her co-founder (he’s no longer connected to the company) deliberately, intentionally created a company rooted in . . . you guessed it: Foster community. Or, as it's phrased in the company's "strategy" statement, New Belgium's employees aimed at

 nourishing a strong, involved, loving and excellent community 

The company would “grow” human beings who cared about each other, the product, the company, the environment. Etc.

Yes, Jordan's venture was aimed at profit. But . . . she wanted something more. A for-profit (capitalist) entity that was, well, unconventional. (According to the strategy statment: "The walls of the Mothership have come down . . . .")

 The "Mothership" of another time and place. World Columbian Exposition 1893

The "Mothership" of another time and place. World Columbian Exposition 1893

Yes, I know: Others have tried to build "different" companies; I could cite examples from a century ago. Etc. But building an oddball company is one thing. Building an oddball industry? That’s different. 

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Back to the (possible) book. It’s worth noting the obvious: Colorado. 

As early as the late 1970s, the metro-quadrant anchored by Denver, Boulder, Greeley, and Fort Collins was a busy outpost of Brandian hip capitalism. Both Papazian and Jordan lived in Colorado, he in Boulder; she in Fort Collins. Surely that environment influenced both Papazian and Jordan. 

So if I were researching this book, I’d want to know a LOT about their lives in the 1970s. Questions I’d ask:

Did they read Whole Earth Catalog? Did they ever buy or do anything based on ideas from WEC? Were they interested in, say, Eastern religion? In capitalism as a concept? Were they acquainted with other entrepreneurs aiming at “hip capitalism”? (That phrase, by the way, is not mine. It’s one that academics have taken to using to describe, well, places like Boulder in the 1970s.) 

And of course said book would explore early connections between/among Jordan/Papazian and other beer-centric folk in the 1970s and 1980s. 

It’s worth noting, for example, a point I alluded to above:

The early days of modern beer culture, from which the industry emerged, included a significant network of home brewing organizations and events around the United States. To my knowledge, no one has examined the connections between/among those groups/their members, the AHA, regional connections, etc. Tom Acitelli hints at it in his book, but it’s not his main focus. And I hinted at it in my own; indeed, I wrote a long section about it, but it ended up on the cutting room floor. (aka my desk.)

 Not exactly a random photo. Jack McAuliffe, 2013

Not exactly a random photo. Jack McAuliffe, 2013

But this book would have to explore the notion that the infrastructure of the “organized” modern beer industry/culture was not limited to what came out of Pearl Street (such as the early Great American Beer Festivals). There were other lynchpins to the infrastructure that supported and fed those links. Knowing the who/what/where of that extended infrastructure and its ethos would be useful. 

And here's the spot where I inserted an addition to the original post:

A major part of my thought process has included ruminations about the digital age. Eg: is the digital age something new in human history/evolution? (Or is akin to the arrival of the telephone, telegraph, cinema? And therefore a blip rather than a shift?)

And if it is truly a "new" age, can we use "digital" as a foundation of a new kind of capitalism? Of which, again, the modern beer industry is a harbinger? I think it's impossible to ponder the primary issue without also pondering the digital age. And the digital age, I should add, is very much a product of a particular kind of mindset that emerged back in the 1950s and 1960s, and matured on the west coast in the 1970s. (Why, yes, this would be a complicated book to write.) 

So. There you have it. A blithering mess of messy ideas. Which, at present, boil down to: Is the modern American beer industry a harbinger of a “new” capitalism?

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There’s only one way to find out. Well, okay, yeah, there are two ways. One is to travel to the future and examine the US beer industry in, say, 2075.

Barring that, however, the second route involves an intellectual excursion to the past (aka doing history). The project would naturally rely in part on oral history: What people remember. 

That’s a pitfall. Memory is faulty. Worse, at this point --- 2015 --- the modern industry’s pioneers have told their story over and over and over. And as I learned when I interviewed some of them for the beer book, it’s not easy to nudge people out of their story-telling rut. Their inclination is to tell you what they told the previous 200 interviewers. 

 Warning: Should you decide to write a book, your office will likely look like this. And so will your brain.

Warning: Should you decide to write a book, your office will likely look like this. And so will your brain.

So this book, of necessity, would require examination of insider documents. Which might also be a pitfall: Does the Brewers Association hold an archive of its early records? (In the early 1980s, Papazian and company can be pardoned if they gave into a natural impulse: “We don’t need this, do we? We’ve not got much room for storage. Can I throw this away?” That’s human.) (I do know, however that Papazian has held on to his personal archive. To which, we gotta hope, the imagined author of this imagined book would have access.)

Another example of possible sources: Daniel Bradford, former owner of All About Beer magazine, also owns boxes of files from those early days. (He was Papazian's first hire.) I dug through them briefly one day while I was in Durham. There’s stuff to be had from those boxes. (Alas, when I saw them, they were piled in a non-climate-controlled storage shed and showed sad signs of decay.)

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So: Is modern American brewing a new kind of “industry”? Or is it more of the same and that sameness will become apparent once the first two generations of modern brewers retire and/or sell their operations?

Have at it, someone. (SURELY somewhere out there is a graduate student who’s interested in digging.)