Craft Brewing? What's That? Who is "We"?

I’m a historian. My natural perspective is the long view of the big picture, and everything I encounter, no matter how trivial, gets filtered through that lens. So it was during a recent trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. 

 A not-so random photo. GABF bookstore, 2015. Three old farts and one of the young 'uns. Photo courtesy of Kristi Switzer, publisher at Brewers Publications.

A not-so random photo. GABF bookstore, 2015. Three old farts and one of the young 'uns. Photo courtesy of Kristi Switzer, publisher at Brewers Publications.

I spent three days there, signing books, wandering the crowd, and tasting beer. And paying heed as my historian’s lens recorded and interpreted a couple of random moments that signal evidence of a tectonic shift in The Other American Beer Industry (TOABI). (1)

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GABF (now included in spell-check software near you, I’ll have you know) is a three-day extravaganza in downtown Denver. It’s a festival in the best sense of the word: It began life thirty-plus years ago as a small “official” event but has morphed into a beer-stuffed extravaganza that lives mostly in downtown Denver but whose tentacles extend miles in many directions. You can “do” GABF even if you don’t have a ticket to the festival itself.

The “official” GABF, however, open to ticket- or pass-holders only, consists of four beer-tasting sessions at the Colorado Convention Center. (2) Each session attracts some twenty-thousand people and hundreds of brewers. It’s organized chaos, but if you approach the festival floor equipped with a little research (in my case, that means collecting tips and advice from my friends who write about beer for a living), you can drink spectacular beer, often with guidance from the brewer him/herself. 

No surprise, traditions have taken root and flourished during GABF’s thirty-plus years. My favorite is the bagpipers’ long, slow parade through the festival floor as the doors open to the public.

 random photo series 2015

random photo series 2015

Then there’s the dropped glass roar. When someone drops his/her tasting glass (noisier than you might imagine: The Convention Center is essentially a giant concrete box), everyone roars. 

It’s cool: the roar begins somewhere in that concrete cavern  — and instantly ripples and spreads and ripples again into a solid roar. Think aural stadium wave. It only takes a few seconds, but . . . it’s cool, you know? 

But that was then and this is now. This year when someone dropped his/her glass, all I could hear was a dull, muffled roar somewhere off in the distance. Isolated rather than  massive and singular.

Initially I chalked this up to a first-time-ever element of this year’s GABF: The Brewers Association, which hosts the event, had added thousands of square feet. So I thought the drop roar sounded muffled because I was in the new wing rather than the old main hall. But as the evening wore on, I noticed that even in the main hall, the ripples from any one roar were feeble and few.  

At which point my historian’s lens took over. 

“Time moves on, sister. Back in the old days, everyone who came to GABF knew about or instantly caught on to the dropped glass roar. These days? More new-timers; fewer old-timers. Less roar.” (3) 

Time moves on. Traditions, however, need not. 

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The other moment was more poignant and personal and requires a bit of background. 

 Also not-so-random. With Jack McAuliffe at the GABF bookstore in . . . I don't know. 2011? 2009? Beats me.

Also not-so-random. With Jack McAuliffe at the GABF bookstore in . . . I don't know. 2011? 2009? Beats me.

I lost my GABF virginity in the fall of 2006. Ambitious Brew had just been published and I traveled to Denver and the festival to sign copies. (By the way, people: ten-year anniversary coming up!) (4)

Back then the festival’s “bookstore,” located smack in the middle of the hall, consisted of a few folding tables and a handful of books. Several of those books were written by Charlie Papazian, the co-founder of both GABF and its sponsoring organization, the Brewers Association, craft brewing’s trade/information/lobbying entity. He was then (as now) a global presence in “good” beer. Look up “living legend” in the dictionary and there’s Charlie. 

Anyway, that night in 2006, he was also there to sign books. Ten or fifteen minutes before he was to appear, a line had already formed. By the time he arrived, it stretched dozens-long out into the hall. And lengthened as the hour wore on. You get the picture.

 random photo series 2015

random photo series 2015

Fast forward to 2015. The GABF bookstore now has a name, Beer Geek Bookstore; sits front and center by an enormous exit (choice location); and occupies, I’d guess, 1500 square feet. The piles of books are many and varied. 

Once again, I was invited to sign books, so there I was. And here I need to add a bit more digressive background: 

I don’t sign books sitting down. I patrol the entire bookstore, trying to talk people into buying a book or two. Anyone’s book. Mine. Someone else’s. I don’t care. I just want folks to support the spread of information. Earning a living by words is tough; we can all use help. (5) Plus, I’ve been hanging in/around bookstores for decades, and I know that many people who come through any store’s doors aren’t sure what they’re looking for or how to find it. That’s especially true at GABF. Over and over people have told me want to know more about beer, but don’t know where to start.  (6). 

As it happened, this year, Charlie and I signed books during the same session. As always, I wandered the store floor and, as always, alerted folks to the fact that authors were there signing books. Including, this time, Charlie P.  They could meet him; have him sign a book. Do a selfie. 

 random photo series 2015

random photo series 2015

In previous years, the most common response was “Wow! Really? He’s here? Can I talk to him?”

This year? Almost no one even knew who he was. Indeed, after a brief initial flurry of festival-goers seeking signed books, Charlie’s line dwindled to nothing. At one point, he was sitting alone at the table, doing nothing, talking to no one. 

Because thirty years is thirty years and history consists of the passage of time plus the replacement of one generation with another. And one generation’s Big Deal is another generation’s “who’s he?” 

That’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is the flip side of “who’s he?”: When the Big Deal is no longer a big deal, his/her/its values and perspective and goals are no longer a big deal either.

But for the Brewers Association, that in itself may be a Big Deal. 

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Consider Papazian. His interest in beer began in college in the early 1970s when he discovered home brewing. After graduation, he moved to Boulder and began teaching home brewing at a local “free school” (popular venues for learning back then). He enjoyed and thrived on the fellowship and community that beer inspired.

 random photo series 2015

random photo series 2015

But Charlie is first and foremost a brilliant, creative entrepreneur, something that most people either don’t realize or simply forget. Within a couple of years, he’d decided that beer also offered a way to earn a living. In the late 1970s, he rallied his community and, with himself as motive power/organizer/leader/role model, created the American Homebrewers Association. Over the next few years, the Papazian-led community had launched what are now the Brewers Association, the annual Craft Brewers Conference, and the Great American Beer Festival.

Put another way, the early history of craft beer was motivated by profit motive, for the organizers and the home brewers who turned professional under the guidance of Charlie’s groups. Everyone involved wanted to earn a living for themselves and their families. 

But in those early years, the passion for fine beer was as powerful as the passion for profit. For Charlie and the other pioneers, beer wasn’t widgets. Beer had heart, soul, and complex intelligence, and when treated with respect, returned the favor by fostering camaraderie and solidarity.  

 random photo series

random photo series

Those dual cornerstones shaped craft brewing’s history. Craft beer professionals have long prided themselves on collegiality and kindness; on building a brave new world where the good life includes easy access to good beer.There was enough room for everyone; no need to break another guy’s kneecaps to get ahead. 

And for thirty-plus years, the people at the BA have stuck with the original game plan. The BA’s primary focus is sharing knowledge, skill, and advice. It promotes not just fine beer; it also teaches people to make and sell it. Indeed, the BA’s publishing wing and the annual CBC exist to help people launch and maintain a successful business, whether in the brewhouse or accounting office.

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It’s worked. Charlie Papazian’s vision has become reality. And then some. Just over five hundred breweries of various sorts in 1994; 1400 in 2004; 3,418 in 2014. Four thousand as I write this. Craft beer owned a few percent of the beer market in the 1990s. In 2014? eleven percent of the market, with sales rising almost eighteen percent that year.

Consumer demand for “craft” beer chugs steadily uphill, a hill whose peak is nowhere in sight. As important, every year, new and eager entrepreneurs join the fold, gathering unto themselves the BA’s advice, wisdom, and information and filling their own brew vast. The first time I attended CBC, in, if I remember right, 2010, there were a few thousand people in attendance. The keynote took place in two hotel conference rooms, their sliding doors opened to create a single room. When I went again in 2014, there were, I was told, some 11,000 people in attendance. The keynote featured Michael Pollan and was held in a huge auditorium. 

 random photo series

random photo series

So it's not big news that after thirty-plus years, craft brewing’s foundational triumvirate of fine beer, community, and profit is aging and fragile. Craft’s “origin” story is (relatively) ancient history to industry newcomers. “Community” and solidarity has given way to making deals with outside entities that offer easy access to profit, whether those are with larger brewers (read: Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors or SAB Miller) or with the distributors who put the beer on grocery store shelves. (7)

And it’s not clear that the BA or Papazian or anyone else can do anything about it because the craft beer industry is enduring a generational shift of epic proportion and tectonic impact. 

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Craft brewing was founded, for better or for worse, by baby boomers, the 76 million Americans born between 1945 and 1964. For a half century, the boomers constituted the nation’s largest single demographic group. 

But now, and for the first time, they’re outnumbered by 80 million Millennials, the cohort born between 1983 and 2005 (or thereabouts; apparently demographers can’t agree on cut-off dates).

Make no mistake: Millennials have been good for business. They’ve never known a time when “good” beer wasn’t available. As the first of them reached legal drinking age in the early oughts, sales of craft beer soared. And another third or so of Millennials are on their way to legal drinking age. (History repeats itself: Beer sales also surged back in the 1960s when the first wave of boomers turned legal.) 

So where’s the conflict? 

Millennials are also the largest consumers of the BA’s most important product: Access to beer drinkers. 

 random photo image

random photo image

I’ve already noted the obvious examples: Both the CBC and Brewers Publications were founded specifically to educate people who wanted a career in beer. And as soaring CBC attendance indicates, Millennial entrepreneurs want in on the action. The bar to entry is relatively low (not least because the BA itself provides the information that lowers the bar); the industry is “hot” and getting hotter (4,000 breweries in the US today and X percent growth in craft beer in the past two years). Moreover, craft beer is hip and brewing offers an alternative to Silicon Valley, corporate drudgery, and Etsy. The BA, whose staff includes many Millennials,, has embraced all things digital, social, and mobile, which enhances craft brewing’s appeal to a generation that grew up looking at screens. 

The problem is that craft brewing’s “origin” story is (relatively) ancient history to Millenials, ancient to the point of being irrelevant. From a Millennial’s perspective, the beer, the demand, and the “community” are already in place. No need to reinvent the wheel. Skip the passion; go for the profit. The hell with the collegiality and fellowship; where’s the winning team? 

How will craft brewing respond to what is an inevitable, undeniable clash of interests? Who knows? And: time will tell. 

 random photo series

random photo series

But Millennials have sufficient numbers to ignore, overrule, override, and otherwise upend the traditions, perspective, and, yes, sense of community that has guided craft brewing since the late 1970s. Moreover, in 2015, many men and women in the pioneering generation are planning their exit strategies, pondering succession plans, Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), and retirement. (Indeed, this year's GABF included a fascinating panel discussion about the value and virtue of ESOPs.) And for an already-classic case of succession-plan-gone-awry, see this.

 And neither their collective past, or their futures, mean diddly to ambitious thirty-year-olds who want to be on the “winning team.” 

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1. I’ve lost track of which reason now goes for not using the phrase “craft beer.” Which means I have no idea what to call what was once called "microbrewing," which morphed into “craft beer industry."

2: Full disclosure. I’ve never paid to attend GABF. The Brewers Association has always given me a pass. I’ve always signed books when I’m there, typically for two to three hours over the four sessions.

3: “Perhaps, maybe, possible,” my lens later told me, “they’re all too busy staring at screens to notice, let alone participate in, the three-dimensional.” 

4: “Launched” is perhaps more apt than "lost my virginity." My first time at GABF, I hurled myself into the equivalent of a whitewater deep end with zero experience or knowledge about what would happen next. I still remember how much my body hurt after. Every inch of inch and especially my eardrums and larynx. GABF is a physical experience, not least because the Convention Center is a giant concrete box, more than half-million square feet of it. If your brain (like mine) balks at high-level, high-density visual/aural stimuli, you will want to take a pass. Otherwise, take earplugs. And throat lozenges. And water. LOTS of water. Don’t count on finding water there. Used to be those water stations were always full. Now, apparently not so much. Take water. Or, okay, buy some there? Stand in a long line to buy water? Nah. Take a big bottle with you. 

5: I earn zero dollars on sales of my book; if people buy the book, great. If they don't, it's no loss to me.

6. It’s the least I can do. As in noted in note 2, the BA has been incredibly generous to me; I’ve never paid to enter GABF and I’ve been invited to many media events because of the BA. And in my experience, many people are bewildered by bookstores, and people who are there signing books are often mistaken for employees rather than authors. Again, I can help.

7: For the record: I don’t get the grousing, “you’ve sold out” bitchfests. If it’s not your brewery; if you don’t own the joint, ain’t none-a your business.